There's something I've noticed that I want to write and ask the community about, to see whether I'm onto something or well off the mark.
I was watching the original Star Wars trilogy the other day and something struck me. There's a very clear structure to the three individual films. That wasn't all that striking. Much has been written of A New Hope's hero's journey and the checklist that the pre-eminent Star Wars movie adheres to. Protagonist is a nobody, turns out he's important, saves the universe. Rinse and repeat. But Empire is such a good film because it is different, taking the established to interesting and new places. It's much darker, its emotional and it gives the characters room to grow. But with Return of the Jedi the narrative goes back to basic, naturally. They needed to close character arcs, tie the stories together. Thats hard to do while still crafting a compelling and fresh story.
The thing here though, that was striking, is this structure appears everywhere. The Dark Knight trilogy operates exactly the same. The Matrix trilogy and Back to the Future do as well. They run in a trilogy structure that seems to have, if not stemmed from, been largely popularised by Star Wars.
Very simply the structure is:
First instalment - Good guys win.
Second instalment - Good guys lose.
Third instalment - Good guys win, better.
Now that's a simplified version but you'd be surprised how relevant and applicable it becomes to most big-screen trilogies.
I'll run through Dark Knight as an example.
Batman Begins ends with Batman saving the city with an explicit set-up for the sequel when Commissioner Gordon shows him a Joker card. The Dark Knight ends with Rachel and Harvey both dead and Batman taking credit for Harvey's crimes before hanging up the suit. So in The Dark Knight Rises, Batman comes back, saves the city again and ends up getting a happy ending at a cafe in Italy.
In Pirates of the Caribbean the first film ends with the curse lifted and Jack saved from a hanging by Will and Elizabeth, setting the trio up for more adventures down the track. Black Pearl was a pretty good movie that did brilliantly at the box office so sequels were absolutely on the way. Dead Mans Chest ends with both Jack and the Black Pearl eaten by the kraken. So very dead. But the third movie managed to resurrect him and finish with the good pirates coming out on top, plus some magic and voodoo that I didn't understand.
There's more examples. In 'The Matrix' the end sees Neo defeats the evil Agent Smith and leaves him a nice phone call. At the end of the sequel Neo is left in a coma and Zion’s fleet is destroyed. And at the end of Revolutions Neo sacrifices himself and don't you believe it, saves everything. Although it is hard to be sure, that was such a messy film.
The important thing to note here is that these films are all blockbusters, made to sell tickets. Which gives some understanding to why this occurs. In each example the first film was not made as part of a series. The original film had no idea how successful it would be, meaning no guarantee of any follow ups. The joker card at the end of Batman Begins, that doesn’t leave a thread dangling, doesn’t create a plot hole. It just says that there are more stories to be told here. Which thank god they did.
Because with a massively successful first film studios don’t just green light a sequel, they green light another two films. In both Pirates and Matrix parts two and three were filmed concurrently. Because with that security in storytelling comes the opportunity to tell one story over two films.
And that is what, in many, many trilogies, you are actually getting. Two stories in three parts. Part one is a self contained story. Usually quite a good film. Part two is films two and three. Can be of varying quality.
But the latest, strangest trend to fall under this umbrella is the idea of penultimate films. Specifically this 'Part Two' rubbish.
Now Hunger Games, as a trilogy fits the theory, but because they made 3 books into 4 films something oddly similar occurs. End of the second film, and second book, we see Katniss in a hospital bed recovering from her various injuries after blowing up the hunger games. Call that a lose. Similarly at the end of Mockingjay: Part 1 they get Peeta back but he’s brainwashed and trying to assassinate our hero. Still not a win. And while you'd be mad to say the final movie has a happy ending, the good guys do come out on top, with a much bigger victory than the first movie.
Likewise Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, the penultimate book, and Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the penultimate movie, both conclude with a lose. In 'Prince' Dumbledore dies with Hogwarts compromised and 'Hallows: Part 1' ends with Dobby dying and Voldemort getting his hands on the McGuffin wand. Harry Potter is no trilogy but we can at least identify from this that penultimate stories enjoy the luxury of not requiring a happy conclusion. In fact it seems better that they don't.
This open-ended, lack of closure is not something that other mainstream films are permitted. It's like the original Harry Potter finishing at the chess game. Punters are going to leave the cinema feeling cheated and not come back for the sequel. A studio milking a franchise for all it's worth leads to substandard instalments if they have to be in service to whatever comes next.
And that's why films like Empire and The Dark Knight stand tall as beacons of hope. These movies don't have to be bad. They can in fact be fantastic. As long as they are their own story. As long as they're not worried about having to set up what comes next. Sad endings can be far more impactful. Just make sure it is an ending.
I won't write any more on this but I’m certain the theory applies to far more films than I’m aware of. The original X-Men trilogy fits, so does the Hobbit and Back to the Future, not to mention plenty that work in a more flexible manner. Trilogies like Toy Story and Indiana Jones where each are well defined standalone films but the second instalment is notably darker or sadder.
Comment and let me know if you can think of any I haven't mentioned, I'm keen to see how far reaching this is.