How do you define a “trilogy”? Is it a series of three connected stories? One big story told in three parts? What if you have a series with more than three films? Can three of them be plucked out of the sequence and considered a trilogy?
In this case, we’re accepting all of the above in our definition of film trilogy. What we’re not considering are movies that are linked only thematically. Screen Rant loves us some “Cornetto” trilogy, aka the films of Edgar Wright starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, but strictly speaking, Cornetto isn’t a trilogy — it doesn’t share any common characters, settings, or plots.
A genuine trilogy can be constructed in different ways. In its purest form, a trilogy is planned from the outset as a three-part story. It starts with the first movie, which is an introduction to the world and its characters and overall scenario. It continues with numerous plot complications and heavier drama in the second part. The finale wraps up the entire saga with an ending that remembers everything that came before. That said, there are also excellent trilogies where a solo flick was so successful that its filmmakers decided to add two more films to continue and finish the tale.
To create our definitive list of the top 15 trilogies in cinematic history, we carefully considered a variety of factors, such as quality, reception, lasting influence on cinema and/or pop culture, and the actual scores a movie was assigned by both critics and general audiences. With that in mind, here’s Screen Rant’s take on The Best Movies Trilogies Of All Time.
Director Lau Wai-keung & Alan Mak
Starring Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Kelly Chen, Sammi Cheng, Edison Chen, Shawn Yue, Carina Lau, Francis Ng, Leon Lai
The first film has the greatest why-didn’t-I-think-of-that plot ever: a police mole among the Triads and a Triad mole in the police force try to smoke one another out. But what makes it unique is the even-handed way that both characters are portrayed, and the compassion the film shows for the impossible situation in which each finds himself. The follow-ups, one a prequel and one a flashback-filled expansion on the original, expand on that theme but lack the simple elegance of the first film’s structure.
Director David Zucker, David Zucker, Peter Segal
Starring Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy, OJ Simpson, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban, Richard Griffiths, Robert Goulet, Fred Ward, Anna Nicole Smith
Police Squad only ran for six episodes, but they were six episodes of fried gold and eventually, with the as-silly but less funny Police Academy series going strong at the box office, Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin got his shot at the big time. And thank goodness for that. The first film is a treasury of silliness, crammed with one-liners, absurd visual gags and defiantly dead-pan performances. But then, it did still have the full Airplane! team of Abrams, Zucker and Abrams aboard. The two sequels, while not as packed with goodness, still provide at least 5 of your 5 recommended helpless giggles of the day. And in the words of Frank Drebin, “I like my sex the way I play basketball, one on one with as little dribbling as possible.” Well you didn’t expect him to say something relevant, did you?
18. Scream 1-3
Director Wes Craven
Starring Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox-Arquette, David Arquette, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Sarah Michelle-Gellar, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Liev Schreiber, Timothy Olyphant, Jerry O’Connell, Patrick Dempsey, Lance Henriksen, Parker Posey, Patrick Warburton
The slasher film was pretty much dead and buried in 1996. But Wes Craven, who’d spun a post-modern but relatively little-seen twist on it for New Nightmare two years before, managed to single-handedly bring it back to life with this witty deconstruction of the whole genre. So this time our unstoppable killer (who always comes back for one last scare just when you think he – or she – is dead) faces victims who know how to survive a horror movie, who don’t always run upstairs and who frequently fight back. The first sequel riffed on the cliches of Part IIs, while the less-successful but still original third instalment got really meta, visiting a sequel movie within the movie. Oooh, our heads are spinning!
Director John Lasster, John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich
Starring Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris, Blake Clark
The release of the first Toy Story film was anticipated chiefly from a technological point of view, as the first entirely computer-animated film ever made. It was only as word from screenings leaked out that it became clear that this was also a storytelling milestone, a blast of fresh air to a moribund animation industry and one that took the world by storm. Incredibly, the sequel lived up to that standard, with Empire calling it an “upgrade” to the original – and even more improbably, the third instalment, fought over and delayed for years, became another triumph. Flawless characterisation, spot-on voice work and the relentless quest for perfection in both story and look may now just be SOP for Pixar, but it’s worth remembering how special that is.
16. Iron Man Trilogy
What can be said about the first Iron Man that hasn’t already been stated many times over? It launched both Marvel Studios and the connected “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” It jumpstarted Robert Downey Jr.’s career, elevating him to the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. The movie benefited strongly from the catharsis of seeing Downey overcome his own history and settle into a high-profile role that was the perfect showcase for his comedic and dramatic skills. The cast created most of its own dialogue in that first movie, which added to its realism and sharp humor, while director Jon Favreau staged several stand-up-and-cheer action scenes that audiences couldn’t get enough of.
Iron Man 2 stumbled after being rushed into production after the first movie’s box office success, jamming in far too much story for a single film. The over-complicated plot throws a number of obstacles in Tony Stark’s path: an enemy with a personal vendetta against the Stark family, a business rival who wants to take Tony down, the U.S. government wanting to acquire the Iron Man technology for its own uses, and the slow poisoning of Tony’s body by the arc reactor that’s made him a superstar. It also tries hard to work in a romantic subplot with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, even though that bit feels tacked-on. But hey, it also gives us that cool suitcase armor, and introduces Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in a flashy fight scene.
Iron Man 3 picked up the story strands of The Avengers while bringing in director Shane Black to craft a grittier story about yet another figure from Tony’s checkered past who returns to haunt him. The tone and presentation of the film is drastically different than what came before, digging deeper into Tony Stark’s soul and finally letting him find peace in both his personal and superhero lives. It also featured a truckload of thirty-some Iron Man suits, all of which show up for the finale.
Although this trilogy has been overshadowed by other Marvel films, Iron Man’s golden face plate remains the icon that defines the entire enterprise. Robert Downey Jr., meanwhile, continues to change and grow his portrayal of Tony Stark.
15. X-Men 1-3
Director Bryan Singer, Bryan Singer, Brett Ratner
Starring Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Ian McKellen, Ray Park, Rebecca Romjin, Anna Paquin, Alan Cumming, Brian Cox, Shawn Ashmore, Kelsey Grammer, Aaron Standord, Ellen Page
Marvel’s flagship superhero* team struck it lucky when Bryan Singer adopted them and proceeded to cast the perfect people for the roles in a first film that worked as a scene-setter, if rather skimping on the action. The second film, however, delivered both human drama and mutant mayhem in adamantium buckets, showing just what director and cast were capable of, and all looked rosy for the future. But then Singer went AWOL to hang out with Superman, the studio decided to introduce a couple of dozen new characters and it all went a bit wrong in the (still OK) third film. But at least we got to see them in one great film and two OK ones, right?
Director Park Chan-Wook
Starring Song Kang-Ho, Shin Ha-kyun, Bae Doona, Choi Min-Sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-Jeong, Lee Yeong-ae, Oh Kwang-Rok, Kim Byeong-ok
Revenge is a dish best served cold, say the Klingons, but the Koreans might disagree. Park Chan-Wook’s first film in this loose trilogy suggests that vengeance is a dish best not served at all, since it can lead to the death of everyone who gets involved in it. The second sees a rather more elaborate – and much longer-term – plan of revenge similarly backfire, with arguably even ickier consequences than the first. And the third, while boasting a sort-of happy ending, sees an uncomfortable amount of blood spilled along the way and makes it clear that this vengeance lark isn’t easy. Any way you look at it, however, these cleverly plotted and twisty-turny thrillers are a worthy addition here, proving that Korean cinema’s turning up some of the most interesting films in the world right now – and that it features a lot more octopus eating than the Europeans typically employ.
Director Sam Raimi
Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Rosemary Harris, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Thomas Haden-Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, Bruce Campbell
Blade and X-Men had hinted that these superhero movies might be going places, but it was Spider-Man that actually went there. But its huge box-office success was thoroughly earned, director Sam Raimi placing Peter Parker’s character front and centre (and casting indie star Tobey Maguire rather than some he-man), with Spider-antics taking a secondary – but nonetheless effective place. The sequel, pitting Spidey against Alfred Molina’s brilliant Doc Ock, was a further step up, and if the third one tried to cram in too much, at least it gave us Thomas Haden Church’s bittersweet take on the Sandman. Why on Earth anyone thinks this series needs a reboot we’ll never know, but these three are first among superheroes for a reason.
12. Die Hard Trilogy
Director John McTiernan, Renny Harlin, John McTiernan
Starring Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedalia, Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, William Atherton, William Sadler, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Irons
One man. One building. A handful of terrorists. There’s no way Die Hard should be this good. And yet it’s a nearly perfect action movie, combining one of history’s best underdog heroes with a blast of great action and one of the all-time snarkiest villains. The second one ups the stakes, giving us a crowded airport – and the skies above it – packed with hostages and ready for disaster. And the third steps it up again, to an entire city, but adds in the least annoying sidekick in history (well he is Samuel L. Jackson) and plays a nice twist for good measure. Just think: before this movie Bruce Willis was best known as the romantic lead in Moonlighting. What a difference a white vest and no shoes makes, eh?
Weakest link? It’s generally considered to be the second film, set at Washington’s Dulles airport just before Christmas and featuring a slightly weaker villain than the trilogy’s book-ends. This is all, of course, assuming you don’t count Die Hard 4.0 – but we don’t because that sits outside the definition of a trilogy and would just get messy.
Fun fact: Die Hard: With A Vengeance was originally called “Simon Says” and was at one point a possible fourth Lethal Weapon movie.
What to say… “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.”
…and what not to say. “Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…”
11. Evil Dead
When childhood friends Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell decided to make a movie, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. With Raimi writing and directing, Campbell starring, a location shoot at an abandoned cabin in the Tennessee forest, and a meager budget, on came the rise of The Evil Dead. It’s considered among the greatest horror films of all time, because it broke the horror mold by melding it with comedic elements. It had so many horror tropes — a cabin in the woods, an Indian burial ground, incantations from a mystical book, co-stars that turn evil, a hero that barely survives — but it remixed them with witty one-liners and slapstick physical humor. One rave review later (from a certain horror writer in Maine) and there was a phenomenon at the cineplex worth talking about and taking your friends to.
Evil Dead II picks up immediately where the first movie left off, finding Campbell’s Ash Williams unable to escape the cabin where he’s just lost all of his friends. Although the movie retreads much of the same ground as the first, it does so with a larger budget and far more confidence. It’s in this episode that Ash is forced to cut off his own hand (it becomes possessed) — a twist that ultimately leads to his adoption of the iconic “chainsaw hand.”
The final entry abandons the naming convention used thus far, going with Army of Darkness. It picks up Ash’s story after he’s been sucked through a portal and deposited in medieval times, where he leads an entire kingdom against an invasion of the dead. Some of the darker edge is lost in this one, but the snark is dialed up to eleven, as is the scale.
Campbell practically invented the “cocky hero” archetype, swaggering his way through the series and into the heart of pop culture itself. Raimi would find this platform a perfect launchpad into a successful, diverse film career. Campbell would return as Ash Williams 22 years later in the TV show Ash vs. Evil Dead on the Starz network.
Kieslowski followed his 10-part Dekalog sequence in his native Poland with this accomplished trio of French films, somewhat obliquely celebrating liberty, equality and fraternity. The second is a comedy set partly in a morally bankrupt Poland; the first (set in France) and third (in Switzerland) are majestic.
It was either Pirates or Ocean’s, I know a lot of folks thought the two sequels were a big bloated mess and I actually think the second film is extremely flawed and the third one is a bit long. However, on a whole, and having all three on DVD is quite an adventure. These three films are popcorn films at their very best. The Curse of the Black Pearl is one of my favorite blockbusters of all time, I just love that film and think Depp made Captain Jack Sparrow watchable for hours.
The Back to the Future movies are lauded by fellow geeks around the world and some would have no qualms about naming this as their favourite trilogy of all time. I mean, these movies had everything: comedy, action, adventure, science fiction, romance and most of all fun. The movies were a critical success, getting thumbs up from famed movie critic Robert Ebert, The New York Times, Variety and the BBC, with Janet Maslin from the New York Times writing about the original Back to the Future movie: “It’s a cinematic inventing of humor and whimsical tall tales for a long time to come.” The second and third movies were not as critically successful as the original, however, they do maintain pretty high rankings amongst all audience based rating systems like IMDB.com.
This is one of those extremely rare trilogies that bests itself with each successive film. Starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, a man who, waking up with amnesia, discovers he has scary talents – such as knowing where all the exits are in case of emergency, or how to kill an assailant with his bare hands – and people who are trying to kill him. The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), are based on the novels by Robert Ludlum. Subsequent books have been written by Eric Van Lustbader. I would be surprised if a fourth movie was made, but would be thrilled if it does.
I probably have this one ranked a bit higher than the average person would expect to find it, but I’m comfortable with my decision to put it here nonetheless. Though sci-fi abounds on this list, the Matrixtrilogy just might be the nerdiest one on here. Computer hackers, artificial intelligence, cyber-reality – it’s just a really, really geeky-feeling trilogy. But it’s still a must-see for everyone. Hidden beneath all the pseudo-technical mumbo-jumbo is a story rich in philosophy and humanity. It warrants a few re-watches as the plot is pretty convoluted and tough to follow at times, but it’s well worth it in the end.
OK, I’m going to be plain and simple here — there is nothing wrong with this essentially unplanned “Man With No Name” trilogy. Italian director Sergio Leone’s trio of spaghetti Westerns is operatic, elegiac, often silent, brilliantly scored (by the master, Ennio Morricone) and gorgeously filmed. It not only made an international star out of Clint Eastwood, but was a stunning entry into the Western genre that hasn’t been replicated since. With a plot taken from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai tale Yojimbo, the series begins with A Fistful of Dollars (1964) as “The Man with No Name” (Eastwood) rides into a Mexican border town where two outlaw gangs battle for control. Shifting allegiances from one gang to the other, Eastwood eventually double crosses both sides in one of the smartest deceptions in film. Here we see what marks Leone’s films: camera work. Wide screen, wide-angle lenses, bizarre angles and close-ups all belie an anarchy and openness not seen in cinema. His follow-up, For a Few Dollars More, (1965) teamed Eastwood with Lee Van Cleef as a pair of bounty hunters looking to kill the psychopathic Indio (Gian Maria Volonte). Revenge oriented, the film features the memorable touch of having a Morricone tune playing on Cleef’s watch. The final (though a prequel to the previous two), and perhaps most masterful, is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), in which Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Van Cleef pursue a cache of stolen gold. Double and triple crosses ensue, along with a heady take on the pointlessness of war (the Civil War booms around the men). Amazing widescreen shots of Eastwood’s squinting eyes, not to mention Cleef’s unrelenting (and downright sexy, something I’ve talked about many, many disturbing times) badness, appear throughout the film. This trilogy ushered in a new kind of Western: super violent, incredibly cynical, almost hyper-stylized (but with substance) and mythically potent. Perfecto.
This series of films about a scientist who is also an action-hero has inspired many of spinoffs including The Da Vinci Code, National Treasure, Tomb Raider, and many more. However, nobody can beat the original Dr. Jones and his relic-hunting journeys through ancient ruins as he attempts to discover history. These films are one of the best examples of “action comedy” with a great sense of humor combined with some fantastic action sequences. In each successive film the cast changed, but the one constant was Harrison Ford’s Dr. Jones and Steven Spielberg as the director. And that’s all that we fans needed.
George Lucas’ opening space-opera salvo changed the filmmaking landscape, energised a generation and set an impossible standard for any sequel. Irvin Kershner’s sequel, with Lucas overseeing, delivered something even bigger and better, and also gave us perhaps the most famous twist in cinema history. And the third, while it may have cutesy teddy bears taking down an Empire, also has a series of fantastic action scenes, from the fight with the Rancor to the lightsaber battle on the Death Star – itself under attack from outside. It’s a triple-whammy that has spawned imitators, prequels, endless other media permutations and even a religion – and how many trilogies can claim that?
How can this be number two, you say? Because it’s just not perfect enough. Francis Ford Coppola, who, with The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II, (1974) made two of the greatest films ever made, had his trilogy marred by its finale, a film that’s not as bad as originally skewered, but certainly nowhere near the brilliance of its predecessors. Adapted from Mario Puzo’s novel about a Mafia family (though the word “mafia” is never uttered in the first film, thanks suds) led by cotton-mouthed patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the first film sees young, intelligent and levelheaded Michael (Al Pacino) taking control but becoming colder in the process. The second film tells two stories concurrently: a flashback of Vito’s rise in America as a young Sicilian immigrant (Robert De Niro) and Michael’s spiritual fall as head of the family. The second film contains the famous and tragic killing of Fredo (“You broke my heart”) that haunts Michael into the third film. In The Godfather Part III (1990), an aged Michael is so consumed by guilt that he seeks redemption by investing in the Catholic Church. He quickly learns that the Church is also corrupt. Though critics mocked Coppola’s choice of casting his daughter Sofia as Michael’s movie daughter, she was, as looks go, more fitting than his first choice, Winona Ryder. Nevertheless, I’m glad Sofia skipped acting and went into directing, where currently she’s getting more attention than her father. Like the epic scale of the Godfather films, there’s something Shakespearean about that.
Peter Jackson’s stunning trilogy, filmed back-to-back and released in the form of Christmas presents for three consecutive years, just pipped Star Wars to the top of the poll. Why? Well, there’s the painstaking attention to detail (characters even had their coats-of-arms emblazoned on the never-seen linings of their costumes for maximum authenticity), New Zealand scenery so breathtaking you could feel the wind on your face, the pitch-perfect casting and the huge-scale effects. In the end, however, it all comes down to friendship, and fellowship, and a struggle against the odds (or, if you will, orcs). It’s the fact that Peter Jackson was able to keep his eye on the emotion even while the spectacle swirled around him that makes this such a stunner. There really isn’t one weakest link – although a few people gripe about Return of the King’s extended endings. While Return of the King is tied with Titanic and Ben-Hur for the Most Oscars For A Single Film record (that’d be 11), it’s notable for winning all the Academy Awards it was nominated for, which neither of the others managed to do.