It used to be the case that the idea of the movie trilogy began, continued, and concluded a story arc in a definitive manner that satisfied both the audience’s expectations of where the story ought to end, while simultaneously concluding the story in a manner that respected the material in question. These movie trilogies were self-contained, often focusing on one plot-line or character, and progressed naturally from a story’s beginning to its inevitable conclusion. Think back to the great movie trilogies of the past, how they all followed these rules with regards to how the trilogy should progress, and ultimately end; look back to the original Star Wars trilogy. In A New Hope we are introduced to a young Luke Skywalker who begins to learn the ways of the force on his hero’s journey; In The Empire Strikes Back Luke continues his journey to become a Jedi knight. Luke’s journey is completed in The Return of the Jedi, in which Luke completes his transformation into Jedi knight, saving the galaxy from the evil Emperor, saving his father from the dark side in the process; his journey is complete.
And yet, despite the fact that Luke’s story was finished in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, we find ourselves in a scenario today where Luke’s story has been reopened in the new series of Star Wars movies. Luke’s appearance, albeit brief, in 2015’s The Force Awakens has reintroduced this character to cinemas, and for what reason? Presumably, Luke’s presence in the new Star Wars movies is crucial to the overall story-arc, and one would assume that Luke’s role in Episode VIII will be substantial enough to warrant the character’s return after all these years, but at what cost? The truly great thing about a trilogy is that is opens and closes a character’s story, and that was something the original Star Wars movies did; Luke’s journey opened and closed before our eyes.
In the current movie climate we’re seeing less and less movie trilogies because of this, “supposed sense”, that the character’s journey is never truly over; a closer translation being that movie studios don’t want their most successful and profitable characters to disappear. The appearance of Luke, as well as Han and Leia, in the new Star Wars movies was not driven by a sense that any of these characters needed further development, but rather a tool of appeasement to fanboys who wanted their new Star Wars movies to be closer connected to the originals, rather than the much maligned prequels. What better way to give the new Star Wars movies a sense of nostalgia then by having the three original protagonists appear in some shape or form.
This phenomena of reviving old characters to reinvigorate a previously dormant franchise is not exclusive to the Star Wars movies at all. One need only look at this summer’s Bourne movie Jason Bourne to witness exactly what I’m talking about. The original three Bourne movies did a perfect job introducing us to the character of Jason Bourne, exploring his flaws, his regrets over his past, and his ultimate goal of regaining his memories, previously lost to him at the beginning of the first movie. The Bourne Ultimatum concluded Bourne’s story by having him come face to face with the people responsible for his condition as a trained assassin, while simultaneously having him regain his memories, closing his journey in a shot of him floating in the water, a shot which mirrors the opening shot of The Bourne Identity, bringing the character’s journey full circle.
And yet, despite this clear, and intentional, ending to Jason Bourne’s story, this summer we were once again greeted with a Bourne movie; a movie which, while perfectly satisfactory, adds absolutely nothing to Bourne’s character that would have warranted his resurrection. It’s ironic that Matt Damon said he would only return to the Bourne franchise if director Paul Greengrass returned, and Paul Greengrass stated that he would return to the Bourne franchise if the story was right. Well, based on the evidence in the movie I saw, there was absolutely no reason to resurrect this character after the original trilogy so perfectly concluded his journey. If anything it made the character of Bourne less interesting by contriving that Bourne was coerced into joining Treadstone. One of the great mysteries of the original Bourne movies was the reason behind David Webb’s (aka Jason Bourne) decision to join this deadly government programme; but this new movie lazily explains that it was all a great conspiracy.
This trend of reviving already concluded franchises will no doubt continue into the future, as Hollywood clings to the safety of the movie sequel as a source of sustainable revenue. Another movie franchise that will be resurrected in the next few years is Toy Story, a franchise that ended beautifully with Toy Story 3 in 2010. Toy Story 3 concluded with off an emotionally satisfying finale for both the characters, who were given a new childhood to inhabit, and the audience, who, like Andy, were forced to say goodbye to this characters; characters who had been such an important part of many people’s childhood. Those final scenes of Andy struggling to say goodbye to Woody are among the most heartbreaking of any animated movie, and capped off a trilogy as close to perfect as possible.
Despite such perfection however, 2019 will see the release of Toy Story 4 which will continue the stories of Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang that we already said goodbye to at the end of the third movie. While there is something truly exciting about being reunited with characters who are so important to so many people after so many years, I would have preferred Pixar to leave this franchise alone, after they did such a great job closing it out; an impressive feat which many trilogies fail at, think Back to the Future III & The Godfather Part III. I am holding out hope for this project though, particularly because the idea for Toy Story 4 came from John Lasseter, and was not a demand from Disney. The idea that the same creative team that worked on the original Toy Story movies were passionate enough about the project that they resurrected the series gives me hope that the story they’re going to tell is worthy enough to succeed Toy Story 3.
In the days since the advent of the Cinematic Universe, it seems highly unlikely that any popular character will be afforded the chance to begin and conclude their journey within the traditional trilogy. I feel that Chistopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is the last example of a major franchise utilising the three movie arc to tell a complete story. Nolan’s trilogy told a complete Batman story, beginning with his ascension to the cowl, his fall from grace, and culminating in his rise from the ashes. No other modern big budget blockbuster, whether superhero or not, will be afforded the opportunity to have a trilogy telling a complete story, and knowing that it will remain untouched.
The success of the Cinematic Universe model, as propagated by the Marvel model, means that the character’s journey is never ending tale destined to go on until either the studio lose faith in the series, or the actor calls it a day; but even an actor’s departure these days might not spell the end of a franchise, because studios can always recast.
Personally, while I love the Cinematic Universe model, particularly the work done by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I do find myself weary that I might not see any of their characters conclude their respective stories in any meaningful way. Thinking back to Iron Man 3, a movie which certainly ended a manner which would lead us to believe that this was the conclusion of Tony Stark’s story; and yet, two years later we were following him kicking ass in The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
I mourn the loss of the movie trilogy, because I like the idea of a series of movies that will be forever unchanging; their world static, despite the events of movies around them. Nolan’s Batman movies will never have to deal with the fallout of Man of Steel, like Batman V Superman did; it will forever remain untouched, and complete.