Once upon a time, the movie trilogy was the gold standard. While sequels were viewed with suspicion, the potential for greater box office success proved irresistible, and great sequels like The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back gave the hope that quality could be maintained or even surpassed with a follow-up film. There was sort of an unwritten rule that you went out after three—a beginning, middle, and end chapter to complete a series. This didn’t always pan out of course, and more often than not the sequels failed to live up to the quality of the original, but the aim was true and the narrative mirrored a solid three-act structure.
The current Hollywood climate, however, has changed drastically. Studios now have interconnected universe and forever-franchise fever, largely due to the massive box office and critical success of Marvel Studios. Instead of making Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 in quick succession after Iron Man was a hit, Marvel instead chose to continue making standalone stories that took place in the same world as Iron Man. Films like Thor and The Incredible Hulk were technically sequels to Iron Man, making quick references to events or characters from the Jon Favreau film, but they were very much their own stories. They built to the crossover event The Avengers, then splintered again with standalone sequels like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and now this expansion and contraction of storylines—mixing characters, settings, and scenarios—has become the winning formula.
Marvel has been able to do this with varying degrees of success, but rival studios took notice and have begun operating under the assumption that franchises can extend well past three movies, often to the detriment of the storytelling. Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, came to a clear and extremely satisfying conclusion in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. All three films were directed by Gore Verbinski, and they followed a strong narrative arc all the way through. This resulted in a three-movie story that was coherent and characters that followed fulfilling and dynamic throughlines.
However, with dollar signs in their eyes, Disney opted to keep going. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides saw the franchise retooled a bit—many of the main characters from the original trilogy were jettisoned because A) Their stories had come to a satisfying conclusion; and/or B) The actors didn’t want to come back. Instead, Johnny Depp’s standout supporting character became the protagonist, and the resulting film—On Stranger Tides—is a lifeless, meandering film with no stakes. This year’s fifth installment, Dead Men Tell No Tales, went another route—trying to reengineer a backstory for Jack Sparrow while also providing eyeroll-inducing connective tissue to the original trilogy by introducing the offspring of well-known characters. This too proved to be a forgettable and unfulfilling experience, and audiences responded in kind—Dead Men Tell No Tales is the lowest grossing installment in the franchise since the first movie.
At World’s End, while maybe not as tight as Curse of the Black Pearl, provided a fitting and satisfying conclusion to the Pirates of the Caribbean story. This could have ended as a great, thrilling trilogy. But instead the current trend of the “Let’s Beat a Dead Horse” blockbuster led Disney to wear on.
Then there are the Transformers movies, which, granted, weren’t exactly pristine quality to begin with, but just kind of droned on without much of an overarching structure to the narrative. Sure Dark of the Moon served as a trilogy-capper of sorts, but the fourth installment Age of Extinction still sought to continue and expand the story of the indistinguishable chunks of anthropomorphic metal that somehow pass as characters in this franchise.