Are We Witnessing The End of the Movie Trilogy?

Fantastic Beasts is now five films. There's a further Planet Of The Apes movie planned. Whatever happened to the traditional movie trilogy?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

(Light) spoilers lie ahead for Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse

Amongst the flood of movie news that arrived last week, two stories in particular caught my eye.

The first was that War For The Planet Of The Apes, the eagerly-awaited continuation – and assumed conclusion – of the story thus far told in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes – would be the conclusion of that particular story. That the new trilogy of films would be complete upon its release.

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Only that’s not the case: director Matt Reeves has now revealed that conversations are taking place regarding a tenth Planet Of The Apes film, and the fourth in this particular narrative line. That suggests that War For The Planet Of The Apes may not be the endpoint that had been assumed.

Then, last Thursday, J K Rowling confirmed at a posh fan event that plans for a trilogy of Harry Potter spin-off movies, starting with Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, had been expanded. Now, we’re getting five films in that particular series.

Three, it seems, is no longer enough.

It’s growing trend, this. Earlier in the year, two ‘trilogies’ were coming to an end, at least in theory. X-Men: Apocalypse was said to bring the curtain down on the events that started in X-Men: First Class, while Chris Evans was all set to hang up his shield come the final credits of Captain America: Civil War. The internet rumor mill was certain the character would be killed off. But, as you more than likely know, Apocalypse left a thread or two dangling, while Chris Evans has a few more Captain America appearances in him left. Captain America 3 evolved into a pseudo-Avengers sequel too. Not that that’s a problem: it was and is a terrific movie.

But it is symptomatic of Hollywood’s growing aversion to an old-fashioned movie trilogy. That’s why it was something of a surprise to see Jurassic World 2 director J A Bayona describe his upcoming feature as the middle part of a trilogy, as I’ve not heard anyone talk like that for a while. That said, it tends to be where trilogies hide now, in the midst of larger collections of films. There’s pretty much a trilogy of Jason Bourne films, for instance, but the boxset stretches to five movies (and counting). Removed from the narrative structure of a trilogy, the generally impressive Jason Bourne was left clutching for any story it could find.

The reasons for stretching film series are obvious, of course. Now, the commercial demands are such that stories are stretched sometimes so thin that it’s like reading a novel typed out in a 48 point font. Just look at the rush to split the final book of trilogies into two films: Lionsgate’s decision to do that with The Hunger Games, for example, was work nearly $1 billion in extra income. That the gamble backfired with the Divergent series may have put this wheeze to bed for the time being.

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It does all seem some way away from 2012, when Christopher Nolan signed off on Batman duties, or even 2014 when Peter Jackson ended The Hobbit trilogy with The Battle Of The Five Armies. With 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan closed off a superhero story that had a definite beginning, middle and end. He is one of the few filmmakers with the genuine clout to do that. James Cameron is another, but right now, he’s breeding Avatar sequels like nobody’s business.  

Still, had The Dark Knight Rises been made this year, then surely there’d be more clamour to get in touch with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s agent on Warner Bros’ behalf than there was back just four years ago. For Nolan, although he says that his sequels weren’t planned when he made 2005’s Batman Begins, there’s a coherence and structure afforded to the Dark Knight films, that a trilogy affords. Including a definite endpoint.

Trilogy cliché runs, of course, that the first film sets things up, the second takes matters darker (not for nothing did J A Bayona cite The Empire Strikes Back), while the finale wraps everything up. It’s a template set down by George Lucas’s first raft of Star Wars movies, and for some time, was fairly closely adhered to by Hollywood. Films were made, box sets were sold, and at the end of the third movie, everyone moved on. Aside from the odd belated sequel.

But then the business model of blockbuster movies changed, of course, fuelled in significant part by the rise of the Marvel cinematic universe. Such is the protective cloak that a larger brand or umbrella of films offers, that whereas once this month’s Doctor Strange would be a risky, standalone blockbuster, it’s got at least $400 million of built-in business in the bank by virtue of it being – effectively – Marvel Cinematic Universe 14. That’s not to say that Marvel hasn’t earned its position, just that it’s fairly quickly managed to change the rules of the game. It means even its bigger risks have a degree of commercial mitigation built in.

And that’s the kind of thinking that’s put studios off pure trilogies. That now, three films simply isn’t enough. When you’ve got golden eggs being laid, go for the goose. Because, y’know, sometimes it really works.

As such, the end of level boss reward that movie studios now seek is the movie universe, or the never-ending franchise. Whereas once a series such as Fast & Furious would have petered out after a few movies, or continued its journey on home formats, Universal is actively planning up to and beyond Fast & Furious 10. Paramount, meanwhile, is using next year’s Transformers 5 to launch an annual programme of robot-bashing movies. Even Star Wars, which is nominally one third of the way through a new trilogy, is coating that with a host of origin and spin-off stories.

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If you want to see the challenges of modern studios in microcosm, then look at Warner Bros. Whatever you think of the films concerned, this was the studio that gambled hard on relatively standalone, big-budget movies. Yet Pan, Jupiter Ascending, even Pacific Rim to an extent, all cost big bucks yet didn’t return the levels wanted to Warner Bros’ bank balance. Furthermore, it got stuck following the end of the Middle Earth, Dark Knight and Harry Potter series of films. It tried things, it gambled, it lost. Now, it’s retreated to a very, very franchise-driven model, based around tentpoles such as LEGO, DC Comics, and Harry Potter. Already, the studio is seeing the upside of that: as critically mauled as Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Suicide Squad were, they both grossed over $700 million apiece. Call them what you like, but you can’t call them flops.

It does seem to mean we’re in the era of franchise stories without a end to go with the start and the middle, and in effect the cinematic universe champions endless long-term mid-story over notable conclusions. When that comes in Captain America: Civil War clothing, that’s hard to grumble with. But if not quite the exception, Captain America doesn’t quite feel like the rule yet, either.

Trilogies aren’t entirely dead, of course, but neither are they seemingly prioritised. It’s a shame: there’s something about a natural three part story. But then therein lies the problem: more than ever, the need for commerce in blockbuster cinema is dominating the right length for a story. It’s a further reason, I’d suggest, to treasure that Back To The Future boxset, and to pretend that those last two John McClane cosplay movies don’t have the words ‘Die Hard’ on the box…