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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 28
The Rule of Three

Return of the Jedi
Spider-Man 3
Matt Helm
Men in Black III
Matrix: Revolutions
The Dark Knight Rises
Quick: how many movie trilogies or series can you name in which the third was the best? The answer, of course, is "fewer than you think."

People love their series. Fans love them because a new entry allows them to return to beloved characters and further exploration into a created world, whether that world imagines a 1938 with only tangential relation to the real location on the timeline (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) or leaves the comfort of a planet's gravity well altogether in favor of a galaxy far, far away (Return of the Jedi). Film studios bankroll second sequels for their obvious potential monetary rewards; assuming a series makes it to a third movie, producers know they have a guaranteed audience and therefore built-in box office expectations. (One wonders how well that worked out for them with Men in Black III.) Filmmakers, at times against their better judgment, find themselves once again in previously mapped territory because it offers an opportunity for unity and closure. Think about it: we all have at least one favorite cinematic series and series character, be it Star Trek or Transformers (I'll try not to hold it against you), Dean Martin's boozy Matt Helm or Michael Caine's studious Harry Palmer. On some level, we enjoy revisiting these people and places. We greet them like old friends and closely examine their habitats. Even when we seek the novel and unexpected, they provide a sense of comfort.

So it's all the more frustrating when the key items that brought us so much joy fail to provide the same level of entertainment. Walter Hill's pairing of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. proved inspired, the gravelly Jack Cates and slick Reggie Hammond playing well off each other in an otherwise routine action comedy. When Another 48 Hrs. hit multiplexes eight years later, their banter sounded shrill, the action scenes sluggish, and, frankly, the very concept contrived. The French Connection II took Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle from New York to France, with middling results. James Bond started off strong with Dr. No and From Russia With Love, but by Goldfinger some of the suspense dissipated with a flick of one of the switches in the Aston Martin. You can find exceptions -- The Godfather and The Godfather Part II -- but making a sequel worthwhile often is challenging.

A threequel is even more daunting. The sequel just might allow the viewer to sustain the high brought on by the first movie, but by the third outing the ideas lose their freshness, the familiarity bleeds life from the material, thus causing energy to drain. Yes, Toy Story 3 achieved greatness. Yes, The Bourne Ultimatum mastered the lessons of the first two pictures to create a tight, sustained thriller. Yes, Ash wielded his boomstick to great effect for Army of Darkness. Yes, the aforementioned Goldfinger ushered in Bondmania. But for all of these, often movie-goers find themselves rationalizing their disappointment and fending off their own boredom. Raiders of the Lost Ark energized audiences by bringing new filmmaking techniques to the movie serial, creating a movie with such a breathless pace that, when I saw it in the Fox Theater in Austin in June of 1981, I could barely breathe from the roller coaster of action and violence. Eight years later, I put everything I could into being excited about the goings-on of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but none of the boat or airplane chases generated more than a yawn. The Matrix packed theaters because of its mix of Baudrillardian tropes, cyberpunk props, and anime aesthetic. By the time the third threatened revolution, chirping crickets drowned the exploding sentinels snaking through the cityscapes of Zion.

I first became aware of that the third act in a trilogy often turned out to be the weakest when I saw Return of the Jedi on Memorial Day in 1983. I expected it to be a revelation. After reading speculation in science fiction movie magazines of what the third picture of George Lucas's trilogy might contain, from a series of Skywalker clones to epic space- and planet-wide battles that would rival anything in Frank Herbert's Dune or E.E. Smith's Lensman novels, subterfuge involving teams of bounty hunters, a hidden planet of Jedi warriors… though I had been reading science fiction for less than two years, when I sat with a few friends in the crowded theater that morning, my anticipation felt like an electric charge.

And then the lights went down, and the movie started, and the grand epic… felt small. For all of the potential, for all of the promised vistas of empty space and panoramic views of alien worlds, for all of the things I hoped would send me to cinematic nirvana, what I got felt enclosed, slight, and, well, routine. Not that I didn't like it at the time, but I knew something was amiss, especially when I compared it to The Empire Strikes Back.

It's a feeling I got to know quite well, and didn't get any better as I got older. Superman III (also released that summer) bored me to tears. I saw The Terminator the same night a friend of mine raved about it one morning as we sat in the high school band hall; Terminator 2: Judgment Day, despite its incredible effects and relentless pace, felt more like the aftereffects of an amphetamine high than an adrenaline rush. We won't speak of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. And the list kept growing: The Godfather Part III; Alien3; Batman Forever. By the year before my fortieth birthday, I was ready to give up; indeed, the only reason I saw Spider-Man 3 was because it was on the plane taking me from Massachusetts to Austin, and I would have walked out when Tobey Maguire sported those black emo locks had I not been forty thousand feet in the air.

These days, I almost have to expect that the third in a trilogy will disappoint, which means staying out of a theater altogether. I'd rather spare myself the agony and, especially in the case of Spider-Man 3, the heartache. "No more," I tell myself. "That's it for me. I'm done."

And then I see the recent trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final chapter in Christopher Nolan's Batman series. And I find myself in a quandary.

Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight hold a kind of religious awe for me. Perhaps the key superhero of my childhood, the one I always wished could be done properly, suddenly came to life in ways I never thought possible. Not even Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Begins could match the depth and complexity I found in Nolan's vision. Yes, both movies are flawed, but Nolan does so much else right in them that I often dismiss their faults and praise their virtues.

Army of Darkness   Goldfinger
Toy Story 3   Another 48 Hrs.
Star Trek   Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

So when I heard he had signed on for a third time I felt dread rise from my core. I got two Batman movies I love, I thought. I don't want to be greedy and demand a third. It didn't help that Nolan and his team were adding a wealth of villains: Catwoman, Ra's al Ghul, Bane… and perhaps others. The stills leaked onto the Internet didn't inspire me. I was done, I reminded myself. I didn't need them. I didn't want them. I was done.

So I thought.

And then I saw the trailers, especially the most recent one.

And damned if they don't press every one of my buttons, and excite me in ways I thought impossible.

Will I be disappointed again? I'm hoping not. I'd like for the obvious Rule of Three, the given, unspoken assurance, that the third movie in a trilogy will be the weakest of the bunch, to be broken here. Pixar did it. Paul Greengrass did it. Sam Raimi did it (though not for Spider-Man). And even EON has managed it several times beyond their biggest hit. So, against my better judgment, I'm willing to give the third Nolan Batman movie a go.

Maybe this time, as has happened on rare occasion, it will be worth it.

Copyright © 2012 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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