Have we seen the end of the traditional film trilogy?

Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man in Spider-Man 3 (directed by Sam Raimi).
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With so many shared universes, prequels, sequels and spin-offs being made, have we seen the end of the traditional film trilogy?

For a long time, the trilogy format has been considered the epic storytelling structure. The target for any successful film series has often been to create three standalone great films that fit together in a perfect three-part story. We hear the word trilogy and immediately think of The Before Trilogy, The Lord Of The Rings, The Godfather, Back To The Future, Spider-Man, The Dark Knight. I could go on.

However, the way sequels are made is now in a state of flux. The terms ‘shared universe’ and ‘spin-off’ have become common terminology. Film studios will never just be satisfied with three successful films. If they have a hit on their hands, they will keep making them until they aren’t, sometimes even longer.

The theory for blockbuster films used to be, “If it’s a hit, let’s make two more.” Now it’s “If it’s a hit.. let’s make a sequel, a prequel and then a sequel Television series to the prequel.”

The Pirates Of The Caribbean films had the perfect idea, to start with at least. After creating one huge success, two sequels were produced back-to-back on a grander scale, creating a huge story spread out over three films, concluding with an epic finale.

In recent years this feels somewhat softened. This is due to two further sequels that failed to capture the magic of the original trilogy. Films that were made with more passion for their financial reimbursement than the art of storytelling. Now, with constant rumours of a continuation of the series, there’s not nearly the same amount of desire for more from this world as there was nearly two decades ago.

Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

While the behind-the-scenes issues involving the films have been public knowledge – the budget of On Stranger Tides bloating until it became the most expensive film of all time, difficulty to retain key cast members, the legal battles involving Johnny Depp, and the dwindling box office. But are all these issues to blame for the sour taste for the expansion of the series? Or is their mere existence beyond the three-film structure the reason?

Not only does the fifth film, Pirates of The Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (also know as Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) show the series outstayed its welcome, it even goes to great lengths to undermine some of the good of the original trilogy. The fifth film showed Captain Jack encountering the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan, eventually helping cure Turner’s curse and reuniting him with his family.

When Jack sees his old shipmates from afar, he looks disgusted. This undermines the ending of the original trilogy, which took a bold move to leave the romantic story with a bittersweet ending, knowing the two lovers would only be able to see each other every ten years. While it was not the happiest of endings, it was a great ending to a trilogy.

It’s safe to say that the over-extension of the franchise has soured the feeling of the original series. As Jerry Seinfeld jokes to Zack Galifianakis on his chat show Between Two Ferns, “do you think if they made one Hangover, and didn’t make the other two, it would be considered a comedy classic? Do you think you destroyed what would have been a comedy classic by the cash grab of 2 and 3?”

This appears to be very true of the Pirates Of The Caribbean films.

Christian Bale as Batman/Bruce Wayne in the poster for The Dark Knight.

There is very little left to be said about The Dark Knight films that has not already been said. Since the trilogy began it has consistently been the frame of reference for any superhero film. With each passing day, The Dark Knight films cement their position as cinematic classics, one of the greatest modern film trilogies of all time. So much so, it may even be able to claim the title as one of the last great trilogies ever made.

Now, due to the nature of filmmaking, we’re more likely to find characters from popular franchises star in spin-offs and prequels as opposed to sticking to a traditional trilogy as the end goal. Avatar could have easily stuck to the principle of the Pirates Of The Caribbean’s original intentions, a successful first film, followed by back-to-back sequels. However, Avatar has gone straight in with the intention of making four sequels to the original. While this is a source of great joy for Pandora lovers, it’s also a step away from the classic structure.

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films were a self-contained trilogy. Of course, famously Spider-Man was never meant to be just a trilogy, Sam Raimi was due to make at least three more films that were cancelled close to shooting. But time had managed to give fans a degree of closure, and looking back the films fit into a very satisfying trilogy. However, in 2021 Tobey Maguire returned to the role with an appearance in Spider-Man: No Way Home, with future appearances rumoured.

The Lord Of The Rings series has also returned with the release of The Rings Of Power spin-off show, with more spin-offs potentially on the way. While providing great fan service, are these follow-ups – made by a different company in this case – going to affect the long-term reputation and rewatchable nature of the original trilogies?

The Dark Knight trilogy appears to be safe from additional instalments due those involved. Of course, Heath Ledger is iconic in his performance of The Joker, winning a posthumous Academy Award for his work. While the role has been recast in other series, it would be impossible to recast it in this universe. Christopher Nolan has always been a director who likes to move on to different projects as opposed to being tied down. This, along with other iconic performances from ageing cast members, would make it impractical to see them return.

Christian Bale was in fact targeted for a return to the role, with approaches made for him to star in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. This would have changed a lot about the films, with Batman v Superman being a much different tone and visual experience than The Dark Knight Trilogy. If we had a follow-up to The Dark Knight Rises, which saw Bruce Wayne swim back to shore only to screw his nose up at Jim Gordon and go fight a huge CGI monster, it would certainly take something away from the trilogy.

The best way to compare the shift in storytelling is by comparing The Dark Knight with the latest series featuring the caped crusader – The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson. Even before the success of The Batman it was revealed that the film was to be the start of a Batman Shared Universe, with a trilogy of films and several spin-off television series announced.

While this will be great news for fans of the film, we have to wonder, have we seen the end of the traditional trilogy?

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