The Top Ten Movies: Three’s a Crowd
In our last Ten’s List, we covered sequels so bad they destroyed the franchise. This week we look at terrible three-quels that marked the decline of a beloved film series. Sure, they may have gone on to make more films, but the spell was broken and the magic gone. Here are a collection of third efforts from famous franchises that capture the exact moment when they jumped the shark. In the case of Jaws, literally. Forget popcorn, for these films it would be more appropriate to nuke an old burrito in the microwave…
10. Return of the Jedi (1983)
The final installment of the original Star Wars trilogy is not a bad movie. It wraps up the father/son dynamic between Luke and Vader, settles the romantic question between Leia and Han, and gives the Rebels a decisive victory over the evil Empire. So why does it make the list? Because it contains the seeds of everything that would go on to suck about Star Wars in the prequels.
The seeds of the franchises destruction are all present in Return of the Jedi. Mawkish and cuddly creatures that are aimed at children (Ewoks open the door for a mop-topped Anakin and the loathsome Jar Jar Binks.) We also see a credulity straining amount of inter-related characters (OK, So Vader is Luke’s dad and Obi-Wan’s student. Makes sense, since these characters are all uniting against him, so they are all related to him. But now Leia is also his daughter and Luke’s sisters. For no reason. Doesn’t advance the plot. Vader could have taunted Luke with just killing his friends and made him Hulk out, no reason a sudden sister angle is more effective. In the prequels, everybody has to be implausibly linked to everyone else. It starts to sound like Rick Moranis’ gag from Spaceballs. Anakin creating C-3PO has to be the worst instance. As Einstein says, everyone in this galaxy is relative. Or somebody’s relative.) The story is also starting to become less and less about the Rebels and more and more about swinging lightsabers around. Its nice Luke gets to hack vacuum face’s hand off, but in the end, he doesn’t accomplish a whole hell of a lot. And speaking of loosing a hand, Lucas must have a stump fetish, because everybody gets a hand knocked off at some point. Fingerprint readers would be quickly obsolete in the Star Wars universe, since nobody is sporting their original digits.
In summary, Return of the Jedi marks the fateful turning point in the series. It shows you how the winds blowing, and that wind blows straight to a trio of crap sequels so bad, they retroactively make Return of the Jedi a liability. Except for the Jabba the Hutt intro, which is all kinds of awesome.
9. Karate Kid Part III (1989)
One of the classic signs of a bad trilogy is that the first movie and third movie are just carbon copies. Studios took a gamble with a second film that departed from the formula, for good or ill, and now they’re hedging their bets by going straight back to what made the first film great. Only we’ve already seen that film, and you can’t catch that lightning in a bottle twice. Because it doesn’t strike the same place twice. Or something. Mixed metaphor error, abandoning ship.
Just like Return of the Jedi goes back to the Death Star as a convenient threat, Karate Kid goes back to the Cobra Kai dojo as the baddies du jour. A convoluted and over-heated scheme is cooked up by the old head of Cobra Kai and a buddy of his who looks like he should be selling work from home schemes on late night infomericals. They intend to force Daniel to enter the tournament he won in Part I, hire a vicious young karate champ to thrash him, and suddenly this will jump start Cobra Kai’s fame. Because they lost all of their students due to abusive practices and cruelty, so hiring a guy to inflict pain on the lovable champ from last year should get students pumped to join. Idiots.
The whole plot exists to get Daniel back into the tournament and Miyagi back as his trainer. But both characters have moved on. And frankly the franchise has moved on. After Daniel wins a game of death in Okinawa, he doesn’t need to beat up some arrogant punk in a mock tournament. He’s better than that. And the trick of learning just one new move a movie, and that move winning the final fight had thoroughly been beat into the ground. By rehashing all of the same old tropes from the first movie, Part III just shows that the film was on autopilot, and that the franchise was pretty much dead.
8. Rocky III (1982)
The flip side of the “same old, same old” franchise death spiral is taking a franchise wildly out of it’s formula. Rocky III shares about one thing in common with it’s first two films: boxing. Everything else is turned upside down. Rocky isn’t the dumb but lovable loser who works hard – he’s now an arrogant, rich champ who slacks off on his training and gets pummeled. Apollo goes from a narcisitic blow-hard into Rocky’s mentor, a veritable sage of boxing techniques. Gone is the pathos about a working class slob taking a big shot at turning his life around. The bad guy (Mr. T) is the little guy in this film, who’s anger at being denied the very chance Rocky was given (a title fight) is totally justified. He is the better boxer, yet Rocky’s team avoids a fight since they think their guy will lose, and instead game the system. Now that’s how boxing actually works, but it’s not exactly a great theme to get pumped up to. In order to get any emotion flowing about Rock, the film resorts to killing an important and beloved character. It feels like a betrayal.
Add in all of the wacky comedic moments, a really awkward run on the beach in short shorts, and a final fight sequence that lasts just a few rounds, and you get the feeling that the series had become like Rocky himself: rich, arrogant, and unable to deliver the goods in an honest manner. And as further installments showed, while the style was there, this franchise had definitely lost the eye of the tiger.
7. Robocop 3 (1993)
Sometimes the only mistake a franchise makes is not calling it a day and getting while the getting is good. Robocop is a pale imitation of himself here. Omnicorp has gone from evil mega-corporation to bumbling fools, more akin to cartoon baddies like Cobra and Skeletor. The dark humor and serious themes of the first two films are glossed over in favor of…Robocop with a jet pack. The “kill a main character for undeserved sympathy” trick is cruelly used here, as Robo’s longtime partner is murdered unceremoniously. The production values have tumbled, and instead of mirroring the theme of a city about to die, make the whole film look like a farce. The villain is a silly mess, a corporate raider from Japan who is actually a mecha-ninja. I think if you have a mecha-ninja anywhere in your product, you can pretty much call it a day for the franchise. Hear me, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot?
6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)
So, speaking of TMNT films that have solidly overstayed their welcome…TMNT III is the reason why we have the Bay mess currently on our hands. The series actually takes a step back from the cartoonish camp of the second film (and ditches Vanilla Ice, though I have to question that move.) The problem with the second film really wasn’t the campy feel, it was the lack of a larger universe. If the turtles are just going to beat up Shredder for two hours, it’s just a clone of the TV show. What they needed to do was expand the universe, bring in some of the better, iconic villains, and give the turtles some room to grow. Introducing Krang would have been a great way to keep the momentum going while adding new angles. Instead Part III ditches the present day altogether in favor of a trip to ancient Japan, via a silly MacGuffin.
Once in Japan, the story is hackneyed and stale. Evil warlord. Evil white guy giving him guns. Rebels. Yada Yada Yada. The turtles thump wave after wave of generic bad guys until telegraphed plot twists force them to thump different waves of bad guys, until eventually a slaptstick fight ends the whole mess. They return home, having killed 2 hours of the audience’s time without actually having furthered their story at all. A wasted adventure for everyone involved.
5. Jaws 3D (1983)
Jaws 3d attempted to change the genre of the series, from a thriller/horror into disaster film. Well…they managed to create a disaster alright. Gone is Roy Schneider, the gritty small-town sheriff who functioned as the mega-shark’s antagonist. In his place, we have…Sea World. The hapless crew of a Sea World must solve a mystery of missing personnel and frightened fish with the help of Brody’s son, played by Dennis Quaid. The whole mess becomes a Scooby Doo mystery instead of a thriller, including a pair of helpful dolphins.
Jaws had certainly become a telegraphed affair, pulling anybody in the water down to a frothy red death. The iconic theme becomes a dog-whistle, letting you know that another by-the-number attack is about to happen. The lack of a visceral enmity between Brody and the shark makes the action even more hollow. It’s just shark attack porn, with a flaccid shark who looks like he needs a fresh coat of paint. Not even 3-D can give the jump scares in this film any life.
4. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
It was the Terminator versus the Herminator, and audiences were the losers for the ill-advised vanity project for an aging Arnold Schwarzenegger. Re-covering ALL of the territory already covered in the first two films, T3 really felt like a shameless stab by Arnold at regaining some box office relevance. The bad guy, er, gal, is both a callous retread of the first two baddies and so mind numbingly over-powered, it becomes literally incredible that our heroes would survive even ten seconds in a fight with her. She can morph like the T1000, is a solid exoskeleton like the T100, and can turn her arm into a laser cannon. Game over. She even has a way better “naked butt from the future” arrival scene. Sorry, Anrie, you lose in every category.
The third go around strains credulity about time travel and Skynet to the breaking point. Why would Skynet waste two attempts with inferior machines? If they can travel through time, why not send the best one first…or send all 3 to the same time? Why not use the new alloy to cover a nuclear warhead through the time gate and just blow the entire city of Los Angeles to rubble? Why not do literally any other thing besides send your forces in dribs and drabs into the past, giving the good guys a heads up of what to expect and time to prepare? Why make this film? All questions that didn’t need an answer.
3. The Godfather Part III (1990)
Death by vanity project continues for the third installment of The Godfather. The story has become Byzantine by this point, and the rise and fall of the Corleone family has had more ups and downs than a ride at Coney Island. Michael, the head of the family (Al Pacino), is nearly 60, and his greatest adversary this time around is diabetes. So he’s about as exciting is Wilford Brimley. The film concerns itself with the settling of Michael’s affairs, including dealing with petulant offspring who want to become opera singers. It is about as exciting as watching a probate hearing for an estate you don’t have any stake in. An inordinate amount of screen time is wasted on Sophia Coppola, who can’t act her way out a paper-bag, but is given a role because of her dad. Ugh, talk about petty family issues.
This film was downgraded by the film company from full sequel to “epilogue”, and it shows. It has none of the grip and swagger of the first two films, and contents itself with wrapping up of loose ends that nobody was properly interested in. A criminally long run time of 170 minutes also means you will exit this film at roughly the same age as Michael Corleone, no matter how young you were when you began it.
2. Alien 3 (1992)
Alien 3 had a ton of potential, but was cut off at the knees by a whole xenomorph swarm of bad luck. The director was thrown into the mix at the last minute and had to work without a finished script, and having to piece together filming around sets that had already been chosen. Several key staff dropped out. Finally, the studio kept meddling in the process, vetoing re-shoots, nixing script changes, and finally re-cutting the film behind the directors back. The end result was a messy and sometimes laughable product. At one point a dog in costume is used as the alien. It was that absurd.
The film starts with the escape ship from Aliens crash landing on a prison planet, thereby resetting the whole franchise. Hicks? Dead. Poor little Newt? Dead. Android Bishop? A couple lines of dialogue, then dead. Any continuity from the first two films? Dead. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is trapped on a planet full of male prisoners (most of whom are sexual offenders) where nobody will believe her story about killer aliens. She is convinced that the menace has followed her, but cannot back up her claim. Even worse, the evil Weyland-Yutani corporation is coming to pick her up. As we finally get around to seeing an alien, we discover there are actually two, and one is hiding inside poor Ripley. Talk about kicking a girl when she is down.
While this film does recapture the claustrophobic charm of the first film, too much is sacrificed to make this picture feel like a worthy successor the franchise. We’ve had to discard too many of the qualities and characters that we have grown to love. Alien 3 feels more like a reboot than a sequel, and the shoddy effects, lack of action before the final sequence, and erratic editing all drag down what could have been the crowning achievement of the series. And it all made Aliens Resurrection possible, which is the greatest sin of all.
1. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
When you’re riding high on two solid hits, have an engaging rogues gallery of villains, and over 50 years of great stories in your characters library to choose from, what could possibly go wrong? Emo Spider-Man, that’s what.
You have to hand Sam Raimi some credit (not for casting Bruce Campbell, that’s obligatory at this point): he managed to sum up all faults in Spider-Man’s 50 plus years of stories in just one short movie. Does he constantly sabotage his own happiness? Check, he torpedoes his relationship with Mary Jane just about every 5 minutes of this flick. Does his angst over his secret identity cause him to make boneheaded decisions all the time? Double check. Is any meaningful interaction with his adversaries drowned out by sheer volume of costumed freaks? Three for three. This film tosses away the genuinely complicated relationships Peter has with his villains (most of whom are either mentors, friends, or at least acquaintances of Parker, yet all hate Spider-Man’s guts) in order to cram as many baddies onto the screen as possible. Even the frenemy angle of Harry Obsorn is thrown under the bus in favor of a shallow Sand Man and a half-hearted Venom. When you screw up Peter’s two best villains (Venom and Green Goblin) in one film, you’re undoubtedly on the wrong track.
And then you completely kill the series with a cringe inducing dance number and an “evil persona” for Peter Parker that looks like KD Lang. Unforgivable. I guess we can all see why Sony rebooted this franchise so fast. I think the studio was talking to James Garfield to take over for Spidey before Tobey Maguire was even finished smirking his way through this ham-bone flick.