Curse of the Third

Saturday, February 27, 2010 / Bloggified by Jake /

With RED ALERT, the third book of THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF NATE BANKS, off to copyediting, I am now plagued by an observation by another writer friend, David. In a movie series, he noted, the first film is good, the second is markedly better, and the third and beyond are terrible.

The rule is pretty solid. Spider-Man was fun, Spider-Man 2 was able to do much more, but Spider-Man 3 was unwatchable crap.

Star Wars was great, Empire Strikes Back helped define the lives of a generation of sci-fi nerds, but Return of the Jedi made Han Solo into a sissy and introduced the ewoks... and the less said about the prequels the better.

In the first series of Batman films, Batman and Batman Returns were cool thanks to the direction of Tim Burton, but with the third movie, Joel Schumacher came aboard and we got the travesties of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Now with the first two movies of the relaunched franchise following the same pattern, it remains to be seen what will happen with the third.

Superman, The Godfather, X-Men, Lethal Weapon, Aliens, and Terminator all lend support to the theory.

There are a few exceptions. The Matrix and Beverly Hills Cop both took a nosedive immediately with their second films. The third installment of The Lord of the Rings won a Best Picture Oscar. The best Star Trek movies were the second and fourth. I'd actually argue the Nightmare on Elm Street series fits the bill if you ignore the second film, which really doesn't fit the mythos of the rest of the series (Freddie was supposed to be targeting the children of the parents who burned him to death, not the residents of the house where Heather Langenkamp used to live!).

There's really not enough evidence to call it a rule, but one could certainly get away with "trend." It stands to reason, though, that the third installment of a series is ripe for failure. A idea has to be good to warrant producing a movie or a book in the first place--though I'm sure many film critics and literary agents will take issue with that statement--so the first installment should be good. A sequel is often just more of the same stuff that made the first one work without all the necessary set up. We don't have to spend 30-45 minute learning how Spider-Man got his powers or why a millionaire dresses up like a bat and beats up criminals in dark alleys, so that time can be spent watching cooler fight scenes, bigger explosions, and faster chases.

But the third movie/book is an important turning point for one of two reasons. If the story is being told as a trilogy, the third installment has to wrap everything up. Often this leads to truncated story arcs, forced conclusions, and glitches in continuity because when you wrote the first book three years earlier you had no idea it would really matter whether the best friend had a sister or brother so you just picked one, but now the plot insists it be the opposite of what you chose. If the story is an ongoing series, the third installment has to establish the pathway the series will follow. The first two books could stand on their own, but now everything has to build out of Book 3 going forward. The storytelling style differs from the previous books as is the ending.

I certainly hope RED ALERT proves an exception to this trend, but for the weeks leading up to the conclusion of my rewrites, David's comments stuck with me. All I could see was how much different the final product was that what I'd originally planned it to be. Of course, for it to be what I'd originally planned it to be, it would have to be about 400 pages long, so maybe that's not the best measure for it.

If nothing else, at least I don't have any ewoks.

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