The Best Movie Threequels of All Time

Good things come in threes, or certainly in the case for these franchise entries, from Indiana Jones and Bond to Madagascar and more.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives, Murray Close, and Bettmann for Getty/Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures/20th Century Studios/New Line Cinema

In the modern movie world of “franchise” cinema, there’s one thing more difficult than making a sequel: making a sequel to a sequel.  Most sequels tend to either try to double down on what made the original so great or, alternatively, attempt to take things in a more expansive new direction. The third film or “threequel” poses something of a unique quandary though. The concept of the “threequel” isn’t a new one, in fact it is almost as old as cinema itself. The very first “threequel” arguably arrived all the way back in 1907 with George MélièsThe Haunted Castle, the third in a trilogy of silent films that began with The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903).

However, modern filmmakers face an increasingly tricky task with threequels. Essentially, they either need to find a satisfactory way to wrap up the story or alternatively inject fresh blood into proceedings with a view to making yet even more movies. Doing either in a way that satisfies both fans and critics can be difficult. Finish things off in an unsatisfactory way and you end up undoing much of what was already achieved (The Dark Knight Rises, anyone?). Lean too much toward world-building and you end up setting a course for multiple, money-grabbing, direct-to-video hell (Hellraiser, rather aptly.) 

Thankfully, a handful of films have found a way to navigate this perilous course and, in some cases, even correct mistakes made in previous follow-ups. Here are 16 threequels that, to quote De La Soul, prove three is the magic number.

Iron Man 3

After the decidedly tinpot Iron Man 2, a film that served as much as a glorified trailer for The Avengers as it did an exploration of Mickey Rourke’s intriguing villain Ivan Vanko, Marvel opted to bring in the big guns with Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black enlisted to write and direct the franchise’s third entry.

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It proved a shrewd move with Black effectively balancing witty, irreverent humor with a darker, more serious tone than the previous two entries. While Downey Jr. shone under the tutelage of Black, who he had already worked well with on the criminally underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 benefited from Guy Pearce’s understated turn as villain Aldrich Killian and the fact Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts was finally given something meaningful to do. It all added up to arguably the best of the Iron Man trilogy.


While predecessors Dr. No and From Russia With Love remain iconic James Bond outings, the quintessential 007 movie has to be 1964’s Goldfinger, which pretty much established the blueprint for any good Bond movie and the yardstick by which all subsequent entries were measured.

From the focus on technology and outlandish gadgety to 007’s tongue-in-cheek humor, Goldfinger was a slam dunk in every sense, right down to Shirley Bassey’s barnstorming signature track and an opening credits sequence that would ultimately become an established part of every Bond movie since. Goldfinger really did have everything, whether it be the iconic “Do you expect me to talk?” laser sequence or even Harold Sakata’s terrifying turn as the razor blade hat-wielding villain Oddjob. There’s almost too much to mention. Pure 00-heaven.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Though two belated sequels have followed in the years since, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade still feels like a pitch perfect way to wrap Indy’s story up while also somehow leaving the doorway open for a new set of adventures. Intentional or otherwise, the movie’s opening prologue, featuring the late River Phoenix as a young Indy hinted at the potential for something just as exciting as the original movies.

While Phoenix opted against reprising the role for the TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, hope did remain that he might one day inherit the fedora from Harrison Ford. Though his untimely death put paid to any suggestion of that, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade serves as a testament to his obvious talents. It also helped to steer Indy back on to safer territory after the monkey brain madness of The Temple of Doom. A story pitting Indy against Nazis chasing a mythological mcguffin might have been a bit of a retread, however, had it not been for the inspired decision to bring his father along for the ride and, more importantly, cast Sean Connery in the role. Often overlooked in discussions concerning the best of the Indy movies, The Last Crusade definitely gives Raiders a run for its money.

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

Long before he turned his hand to co-writing this summer’s most watched movie, Barbie, filmmaker Noah Baumbach was busy blending silly family-orientated fun with sly adult laughs as the co-writer of Madagascar 3.

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The animated franchise centered on a posse of pampered zoo animals who end up out in the wild had painted in pretty broad brush strokes up until this point, resulting in big box office returns but little in the way of critical acclaim. That changed with Madagascar 3, with the gang taking a trip across Europe as part of a traveling zoo while being pursued by an animal control officer. Utilizing the voice talents of Ben Stiller, Jada Pinkett Smith and Chris Rock yet again, proceedings were further bolstered by the addition of high calibre stars like Bryan Cranston, Martin Short and Frances McDormand. 

The result was a fast and often frenetic family comedy that retained an adult streak and ended up being the most successful entry from the series so far at the box office.

Die Hard With A Vengeance

Die Hard With A Vengeance didn’t start out as a Die Hard movie. Originally, Jonathan Hensleigh was shopping his script around as Simon Say, a thriller that was set to star the late Brandon Lee and was entirely removed from the world of John McClane. 

Incredibly, Warner Bros initially had the script in mind to serve as the basis for a Lethal Weapon sequel. Though a draft was written, the project ended up in turnaround, which then allowed 20th Century Fox to acquire the script. It proved a shrewd move. Undoubtedly the best of the many Die Hard sequels that have followed the original, Die Hard With A Vengeance borrows elements of that iconic first movie but does so with a sense of panache that comes courtesy of director John McTiernan.

McTiernan helmed the first Die Hard and successfully ties proceeds to the original via main villain Jeremy Irons, yet another Englishman playing a German, as Hans Gruber’s brother Simon. While the bad guys might be similar, Die Hard With A Vengeance’s strength lies in the fact it avoids the contained setting of a high rise, for a sprawling city-wide actioner which is further bolstered by the presence of the always watchable Samuel L. Jackson as Zeus Carver.

A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Horror sequeldom has often proven to be a hotbed for filmmaking talent and that’s best evidenced in the various sequels that have followed A Nightmare On Elm Street. Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger director Renny Harlin famously helmed the fourth film in the franchise while Predator 2’s Stephen Hopkins took on the mantle for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child.

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Undoubtedly the most impressive array of talent on display, however, came with A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which was directed by Chuck Russell, best known for Jim Carrey’s The Mask, based on a script co-written by Frank Darabont, of Shawshank Redemption and The Walking Dead fame, with contributions from original creator Wes Craven.

The fact the cast features rising stars like Patricia Arquette and Laurence Fisburne (credited as Larry) adds to the fun but the film’s strength lies in the fact it’s able to blend the franchise’s increasing need for ever-inventive Freddy Krueger kills alongside a story that is genuinely scary and successfully integrates original stars like Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon in a “requel” style story that was way ahead of its time.

Rocky III

The original Rocky could not be further removed from the rest of the franchise as an emotional, Oscar-winning drama that could easily have stayed as a single movie with no sequels. Unfortunately, the critical acclaim and box office success meant a rematch was always on the cards. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Rocky II but it does feel very much like a box-ticking exercise, designed to right the wrongs of the previous movie.

Rocky III, however, sees the franchise head off on a new course with a gloriously silly, comic-book-esque entry that pits the Italian Stallion against the ever watchable Mr T as Clubber Lang. It’s neither big nor clever yet somehow the movie manages to pack an emotional punch, from the heartbreaking moment beloved trainer Mickey tragically dies ringside to the first of many joyous music-led training montages alongside Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed. It’s a wrecking machine.


Out of all the characters to emerge from the X-Men movie franchise, Wolverine seemed like the one most likely to take center stage in his very own franchise. But, in truth, they kind of fumbled the ball when it came to getting a great Wolverine movie out there.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine was an abomination, whether it be the decision to mute Ryan Reynolds’ now-iconic character Deadpool or the fact was inexplicably cast. It’s a mess that not even Liev Schreiber on scene-stealing form can save. After that, they needed to take Wolverine back to basics, but the decision to take things to Japan in 2013’s The Wolverine was an unusual one that didn’t seem like a great fit even if the action remained on point.

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Thankfully, The Wolverine’s James Mangold stuck around for Logan, which proved to be the dark and brooding Wolverine outing fans had been chomping at the bit for. It’s easily one of the bleakest and most distinctive movies to feature a Marvel character, with Hugh Jackman giving a career-best performance in what had been billed as his last outing as the character. That situation may have changed but Logan remains a tour de force for all involved. 

Mission Impossible 3

There was a time when J.J. Abrams was the go-to guy for any flailing franchise out there. For Tom Cruise and Mission: Impossible that time came with the third entry in the series. It’s fair to say Mission: Impossible 3 went through its fair share of development woes.

At one point, David Fincher was talking about making a brutal, stripped down sequel starring Cruise. Then Joe Carnahan spent a significant amount of time actually working on a planned movie that would have featured Kenneth Branagh as the main antagonist. While we may never know if it might have worked, Cruise was ultimately right to enlist Abrams for this sequel, which helped rejuvenate the franchise following the messy slo-mo gunplay of John Woo’s previous effort.

Though the box office return may have been modest, revisiting Mission: Impossible 3 remains a joy, whether it’s the ingenious plot point involving exploding bombs hidden in their victims heads or the simple presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman at his most sweaty and villainous, there’s so much to like.

The action itself moves at an exciting pace, but arguably the film’s most powerful moments are the quieter ones, as best exemplified by Billy Crudup IMF Assistant Director and traitor John Musgrave, a man who smiles and apologies as he stabs you in the back.

The Exorcist III

The late, great William Friedkin would have many believe there has never been a good sequel to The Exorcist. While Friedkin was right about many things and Exorcist II: The Heretic, remains an unwatchable piece of cinema sacrilege, The Exorcist III represented something of a return to form, even if it failed to hit the heights of the original.

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Much of that is down to the fact that it was written and directed by William Peter Blatty, the author of the novel The Exorcist was based on. Though some last minute changes from studio bosses at Morgan Creek hindered Blatty’s vision for the film, The Exorcist III garnered some critical praise for matching the haunting, restrained feel of the original film, though it lacked some of its predecessor’s punch. 

Led by a towering performance from George C. Scott with Jason Miller also returning briefly, The Exorcist III remains an intense and surprisingly atmospheric watch and features a now-famous jump scare moment that often pops up in online discussions around the film. 

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 

Peter Jackson may have benefitted from the fact he was relying on first-rate source material in the form of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novels, but still deserves immense credit for successfully weaving together the threads of an often whimsical series of books and creating such a vividly realized version of them in the process.

The time and expense that went into The Lord of the Rings films is all up on the screen for everyone to see with every battle and every nook and cranny of Middle Earth brought to life in a way most of us might never have imagined was possible. After two near-faultless entries, the pressure was on for Jackson and Co. to deliver. But the fact the movies were shot back to back, retaining the same tone and structure in the process, meant it was always likely to deliver on expectations, even if a few details were missed along the way.

Few threequels offer as satisfying a conclusion as The Return of the King but then there are few things out there quite like this original trilogy of movies. Amazon can throw all the money in the world at it, but there was undoubtedly an element of lightning in a bottle with Lord of the Rings, whether it be Jackson’s involvement, the cast, or simply the source material itself. Everything worked.

Naked Gun 33 ⅓: The Final Insult

The adventures of Leslie Nielsen’s bumbling cop Frank Drebben headed into uncharted self-referential waters with this brilliant sequel that saw him on the trail of Fred Ward’s Rocco Dillon and a plan that involved bombing the Oscars.

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Leaving aside some of the dated gags around Anna Nicole Smith’s character or the presence of O.J. Simpson, Naked Gun 33 ⅓, stands as arguably the last truly great spoof movie from an era that also brought us Airplane and Hot Shots. Featuring prison breakouts, trips to the sperm bank and all the sight gags fans have come to know and love from the Naked Gun movies and short-lived Police Squad series, the movie culminates with a deranged showdown on stage at the Oscars, where no one is safe.

Though Nielsen would garner laughs with movies like Dracula: Dead and Loving It and underrated The Wrongfully Accused, this remains a high point for both him and spoof movie cinema as we knew it. 

The Bourne Ultimatum

The Bourne Supremacy might have represented a significant step up from the first Bourne outing, which was already pretty good itself, but the franchise really peaked with what, in truth, should have been the final entry in the series. 

The plot itself may be by-the-numbers stuff, with Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne on a quest to find out his true identity, but the combination of Damon and director Paul Greengrass ensured the franchise delivered another frenetic, action led outing that would go on to influence much of what followed over the next decade. 

An intelligent thriller that succeeds in maintaining its breakneck (no pun intended) speed throughout, the shaking camerawork and close hand-to-hand combat gave proceedings an authenticity that had been lacking in other films of its ilk. Supremacy’s greatest achievement, however, was somehow upping the ante after the excitement of Ultimatum.

Toy Story 3

Another threequel that felt like a final goodbye, Toy Story 3 had fans reaching for the Kleenex long before the final credits rolled. Toy Story 2 had been an absolute triumph, so the pressure was on for all involved. Yet somehow they delivered a sequel that hit all the right notes in terms of adventure, comedy and heartfelt emotion as Woody, Buzz and the rest of the toys found themselves contemplating a life without the college-bound Andy before ultimately ending up trapped in the hell of a daycare center, where the kids lay waste to them.

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Joined by Michael Keaton as the voice of Ken the doll and with Ned Beatty as the film’s memorable antagonist Lotso the not so friendly bear, Toy Story 3 was a funny thrillride with genuine heart, which touched upon the very human emotion of learning to let go. The Toy Story movies have always been funny and clever, but this one had another layer of emotional intelligence to it that has helped it emerge as arguably the best loved of the franchise.  

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

Halloween creators John Carpenter and Debra Hill never envisioned Halloween as a franchise, instead believing that the final shot of Donald Pleasance’s Dr Loomis realizing Michael Myers was still on the loose should have concluded things there and then.

They only agreed to work on a sequel when the studio threatened to make it without their involvement and, by the end of the film, had hoped to have laid Myers to rest with an ending that saw him and Loomis exploding in a ball of emolliating flames. Instead, the powers that be came knocking with plans for yet another film. It was then that Carpenter hatched a plan that would have seen each of the subsequent Halloween movies center on a different story set around the spooky season.

The anthology was supposed to begin with Halloween III: Season of the Witch, co-written and directed by long-time Carpenter collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace. It was unconventional to say the least, with the story centered around a boozy, sleazehound doctor investigating a mysterious Irish-American toy factor which, he discovers, is plotting to quite literally melt the brains of young kids across America. Bizarre, inventive and highly intelligent, the film drew criticism on initial release for failing to focus on Myers but has rightfully garnered a cult following in the years since.

Army of Darkness

Evil Dead II always danced the line between out-and-out body horror and absurd comedy in a way none of its sequels have ever managed to capture, aside from Army of Darkness. But to suggest Army of Darkness is a horror film would not be entirely accurate. In fact, it’s much more of a comedy or action adventure, designed for fans of Bruce Campbell’s Ash, than anything else.

The decision to take things in this direction was a shrewd one though, with Sam Raimi opting to mix up genres with a tale that sees Ash travel back in time to find an evil zombiefied version of himself. Full of the same inventiveness that made the original Evil Dead and its sequel such a treat, Army of Darkness feels like the sweet treat dessert at the end of a glutinous two course of gore and scares served up in the first two movies.

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It’s genuinely funny too, with Campbell at his scene-stealing best and the action on par with anything on offer in cinema at the time. Though the film follow-ups may have taken a different course, Campbell did get to ride again in a similar guise with the excellent TV spin-off Ash vs The Evil Dead.