Not a lot of superhero franchises make it to a third film, but when they do… Why do they always seem to stumble? It’s happened at least five times by my reckoning, and there are some upcoming thirds that you ought to be quaking in your boots over, too.
Superman III (1983)
A cautionary tale of studio meddling if there ever was one, the legend of Superman III is known far and wide. Let me sum it up: Richard Donner, director of the first two Superman films, was forced out late in the process of Superman II and replaced by Richard Lester who would go on to direct the third installment as well. Though he was acclaimed in his own right, Lester didn’t share Donner’s take on the character, resulting in the campy, cringe-worthy Superman III (followed by the nearly unwatchable Superman IV, directed by Sidney Furie). But the disastrous consequences didn’t end there. Margot Kidder complained to the franchise’s producers about Donner being fired from the second film, and subsequently found herself with little more than a cameo in number three. Bryan Singer chose to stay in continuity with the early films with his Superman Returns, but he snubbed Supermans III and IV entirely because of their lackluster quality and reputation. I think we can all agree that Richard Prior was a very funny comedian — but belong in a Superman movie he did not.
Batman Forever (1995)
Warner Bros. tried its best to convince us that Batman Forever was part of the same continuity as Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. But one sit-through of this candy-colored flick, as directed by Joel Schumacher, proved it was anything but. Gone was the dark pathos of the Burton films, replaced by a cheesy sensibility and a plastic aesthetic. Jim Carrey, at the height of his popularity, as the Riddler with unapologetic, manic glee, came close to saving the day but the whole thing just buckled under the weight of its over-the-top superhero costumes and their infamous nipples. Batman Forever was a box office success, but that came from riding on the coattails of the first two films. It’s become infinitely more kitschy over time (whereas many a moviegoer still thinks fondly of the Burton films). Batman & Robin, the fourth film, magnified the camp factor to unprecedented proportions and killed the franchise outright. But I suppose we can thank Schumacher for making terrible movies so that Warner Bros. would eventually green light Christopher Nolan’s triumphant reboot of the Batman universe.
Blade: Trinity (2004)
Blade’s first movie wasn’t bad. The second one, directed by Guillermo del Toro, was a lot better. But the third movie was just dull. Reportedly, scribe David Goyer, who wrote all three movies and directed the third, had much bigger plans for Blade’s sendoff involving an older Blade attempting to save a world where humans have been enslaved by vampires. But he was forced to make cutbacks, resulting in this bland, styleless third and final film that even star Wesley Snipes disliked. On the other hand, it did introduce Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel as believable big-screen stars (and butt-kickers), so I guess it wasn’t a total waste.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Oy… You already know what happened. Bryan Singer dropped out to take on Superman Returns and Brett Ratner was hired to direct an X-Men three-quel that was rushed through production on an accelerated schedule and an unpolished script. The Last Stand is utterly devoid of the soul and humanity of the first two films — particularly the great storytelling and characterizations of the second. It tries to make up for this with a ginormous visual effects budget that filled the screen with eye candy in practically every shot. But I think even Ratner knew he wasn’t making a very good movie, because his solution was to introduce as many mutants as he possibly could — and radically change them from their comic book origins. X-Men 3 should have been the epic Dark Phoenix Saga; instead it was a shameless riff on Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men “mutant cure” storyline (only not nearly as good), with a black-eyed and conflicted Jean Grey on the sidelines as little more than an afterthought. (They had to give her Multiple Personality Disorder to explain the Phoenix Force? Are you frickin’ kidding me?) Lame!
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
The first two Spider-Man movies were enormous successes, so the third one should have been a sure thing. But it became a case study in “trying to please too many people.” Director Sam Raimi wanted to focus on Sandman as the villain of his third movie, but Sony Pictures pressured him into including the fan-favorite (and considerably more modern) Venom as well. When you add in a homicidal Harry Osborne, you’ve got a top-heavy movie with two too many big baddies. Spider-Man 3 fares better than most other third movies on this list, even as busy as it is. The real problem isn’t the huge budget or all those bad guys. Most viewers just weren’t down with seeing Tobey Maguire turn cruel and Saturday Night Fever his way down city streets, flirting with every woman in sight. Also, the decision to have Peter become a superstar in the eyes of New Yorkers was an interesting one with the potential to take the character in new directions, so I applaud the risk taking. But it proved to be a bad call in the end, because Spider-Man is meant to be an underdog. It’s ingrained into the DNA of the character. When Peter stopped being someone we could root for, audiences simply didn’t understand who he was anymore.
That’s the past. Will the future improve the reputation of the third superhero film? Well…
Men in Black III
Will Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld reportedly clashed on set. Tommy Lee Jones barely appears because Smith’s character travels back in time to meet Jones’ younger self, played by Josh Brolin (who admittedly does look the part). The second movie was underwhelming, and this one has been plagued by rewrites and delays. Textbook case of disaster in the making? We’ll find out in May.
Iron Man 3
A third Iron Man movie — without director Jon Favreau? Okay, so the second movie was a little bloated, but the first one is a modern classic. Shane Black (writer & director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) is taking over, which should make for a grittier tale for what we assume will be Iron Man’s big-screen swan song. Some fans are applauding Black as an inspired choice. But I’m getting a serious deja vu back to X-Men: The Last Stand… New director for the finale of an enormously successful film series? Oh please oh please, Iron Man 3, try really hard not to suck. Currently scheduled for May 2013. [Image source.]
The Dark Knight Rises
If anything can break the Curse of the Third Movie, it’s this. Christopher Nolan is a genius who hasn’t made one bad move yet. The anticipation level is off the charts after the unprecedented success of The Dark Knight, and what little we know about Rises — Batman’s retired some eight years after the events of the last film, but he suits up again to fight a brilliant but ruthless new crime lord called Bane — suggests that Nolan is still willing to take risks if it’s what the story calls for. I have faith in Nolan. The Dark Knight Rises is the one. Releases July 2012.