We’re tackling the greatest movies trilogies in the history of cinema today, but before we proceeded to list what we think are the greatest three-peats around, we wanted to tell our esteemed readers just how we chose the trilogies you’ll read about. While we’ve tried our damnedest to make sure the films here exist in trilogy form, in today’s contemporary cultural climate (where sequels and reboots reign supreme), there’s nothing that movie studios love more than bastardizing treasured intellectual property with gibberish sequels produced only as a quick cash grab. While we’ve done our best to hone in on series that work best as trilogies, do remember that we can’t control studio execs and their wanton greed any better than we can convince Nicholas Cage to start taking real movie roles again. With that in mind, we think there are some great trilogies listed here, and if nothing else they will give you some binge watching options for those dire times in life.
So without further ado, here are 15 of the greatest trilogies ever made. Enjoy!
15. Terminator Trilogy
Series contains: The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
One of the greatest sci-fi action series to emerge out of the 1980s, the Terminator franchise has fallen off a cliff in recent years, with both Terminator Salvation (2009) and Terminator Genisys (2015) failing to live up to the pedigree set by James Cameron’s first two installments. Released in 1984, The Terminator was not only an impressive action movie made on a modest budget but also found a way to tell a surprisingly emotional story involving a killer cyborg sent back through time to murder the mother of a human resistance leader from the future. The film can be credited with helping turn former Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger into a legitimate action movie star and for tackling cultural fears about artificial intelligence and the rise of computer technology.
Seven years later, Cameron brought back Schwarzenegger and co-star Lina Hamilton for Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which remains one of the most influential action movies ever made. A sequel that bests its predecessor in nearly every way, T2 expanded the scope of the Terminator universe and lore while taking the risky approach of turning the franchise’s villain into its hero, as Schwarzenegger plays a reprogrammed terminator sent back through time to protect the son of Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. Speaking of Hamilton, she’s almost unrecognizable as the battle-hardened Connor — a far cry from the innocent young waitress we meet in the first film. Sarah Connor has since become one of the most popular action movie heroines of all time and it can all be traced back to Hamilton’s impressive transformation in T2.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is easily the weakest of the first three Terminator films but it still has some redeeming qualities. The film picks up with John Connor (Nick Stahl) about a decade after the events of T2. In a surprising twist, Connor looks and acts nothing like the resistance leader he’ll one day become, as he’s living off the grid and in constant fear of judgment day taking place. Claire Danes came pretty close to stealing the whole movie as John’s future wife Kate Brewster, who unwittingly joins up with John after a new Terminator model, the T-X, begins hunting him down. Arnold Schwarzenegger turns in a reliably competent performance as yet another T-1000 model sent back to protect Connor, even if he’s a bit long in the tooth. It’s a bit derivative but worth it for the ending alone, which takes a seriously shocking twist.
14. Before Trilogy
Series Contains: Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013)
Richard Linklater is a filmmaker preoccupied with time and how it shapes human experience, and no part of his filmography better illustrates this than the Before Trilogy, which is easily his crowning achievement. Each installment checks in with the same two characters at a specific point in their lives, tracking their romance over the span of decades. The first film, Before Sunrise, introduces us to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), two young dreamers who share a chance encounter on a train and decide to spend the day and night together wandering Vienna. Through many different conversations involving topics such as education, past relationships, childhood and pretty much any other topic a pair of twenty-somethings would have, we watch as Jesse and Celine share a brief, intense romance before being forced to part company.
Before Sunset picks up with them nine years later, when Jesse encounters Celine in a Parisian bookstore where he just so happens to be wrapping up a book tour for his own bestseller. Following a similar structure as the previous film, the pair walk the streets of Paris while they discuss the last decade of their lives and what could have been, as it becomes increasingly clear that neither of them ever got over the other. In contrast to the youthful optimism of Sunrise, Before Sunset delves deeper into the sometimes harsh realities of love and relationships but much like its predecessor, the film again concludes on a cliffhanger of sorts, as we are left to wonder whether or not Jesse decides to stay in Paris with Celine.
Before Midnight strikes a considerably different tone than the previous two films in Linklater’s trilogy, exploring the realities of love once the honeymoon phase is over. We learn that Jesse and Celine are now married and are raising twin daughters together, but are now dealing with mundane, day-to-day rather than flights of fancy. Midnight is definitely the most downcast film in the trilogy, with an absolutely brutal third act. However, there is still hope to be found here and when paired with the other films, it’s an essential part of the story Linklater and his stars (who helped write most of their own dialogue for each film) have crafted. While some may scoff at the notion of watching a trilogy of movies about “people walking and talking,” Linklater’s work is arguably one of the finest achievements in modern cinema and deserves to be experienced by anyone with an interest in art that explores love and the human condition.
13. Iron Man
Series Contains: Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Iron Man 3 (2013)
There would be no Marvel Cinematic Universe without Iron Man, so it’s fitting that the core trilogy of Iron Man films are some of the better titles within the larger MCU franchise. Looking back, the original film now looks positively quaint when compared to the gigantic ensemble pictures that would come to define Marvel Studios’ output in later years, but it’s still one of the best standalone movies in the franchise. Anchored by a charismatic performance from Robert Downey Jr., who experienced an outright career revival thanks to his role as Tony Stark, Iron Man is a great origin story and helped set the tone for many future Marvel movies with its winning mix of dramatic and comedic moments. Of course, many subsequent Marvel flicks would also adopt Iron Man’s weak third act and villain template, but the film still stands as a blueprint for how to craft an engaging superhero introduction.
Iron Man 2 is easily the weakest installment in the trilogy, suffering from a rushed production schedule that forced returning director Jon Favreau to stuff a bunch of Avengers set-up material into the film while also trying to continue Tony Stark’s story. The result is a wildly uneven film that stumbles just as often as it succeeds, with another forgettable villain (Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash) and far too many subplots that don’t really go anywhere (we’re still waiting for the return of Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer). Still, Iron Man 2 did introduce us to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who would go on to become one of the MCU’s most prominent female characters, as well as finally allowing Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) to climb into an Iron Man suit of his own and battle alongside his best buddy Tony.
For our money, Iron Man 3 is the best installment in the trilogy, successfully picking up Tony Stark’s story from where it left off in The Avengers and taking a surprisingly insightful look at the effects of PTSD in the process. Writer/director Shane Black takes over for Favreau and the film is arguably better for it, with Black’s script digging deeper into Stark’s psyche while also generating some big laughs in the process. It also finally (mostly) fixes the trilogy’s third act curse, featuring an explosive battle against a halfway decent villain for a change. Overall, the Iron Man trilogy isn’t the best the MCU has to offer but it still offers one of the best three-film arcs for a superhero this side of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
12. Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
Series Contains: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
It’s a fairly commonly accepted fact that the first film in a series is usually the strongest; while that isn’t always the case (as we’ll see on this list), most of the time a trilogy’s sequels fail to top what was produced in the original film. That’s most definitely the case with the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, which began in 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Cure of the Black Pearl. That film, while remaining one of the biggest surprise hits in movie history, also introduced us to Johnny Depp’s career defining Captain Jack Sparrow, a pirate with loose morals who finds his way into a series of shenanigans over the course of this trilogy. Also starring Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightley and Geoffrey Rush, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy gets worse as it progresses, with each film upping spectacle at the expense of plot, but they remain incredibly fun films which feature some of the most impressive visual effects in the history of cinema.
Series Contains: Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy seems to have diminished somewhat in the popular consciousness since the series’ mid-2000s heyday but alongside Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Raimi’s films helped revitalize the stale superhero movie genre after it basically imploded in the 90s. The first installment, 2002’s Spider-Man, remains one of the best superhero origin movies, with Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker transitioning from put-upon high school nerd to overconfident hero at a steady and entertaining pace, all while learning some harsh lessons about responsibility along the way.
Spider-Man 2 remains the trilogy’s high watermark and indeed one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, taking everything that worked in the first film and upping the stakes considerably. For as much fun as Spider-Man 2 is to watch, it’s a surprisingly downbeat film, as we see Maguire’s Parker struggle mightily to have any semblance of a normal life in the face of his overwhelming responsibilities as New York’s favorite web-slinger. Alfred Molina also turns in a fantastic performance as the villainous Doc Ock, making this an easy film to go back and watch to this day.
Spider-Man 3 is the trilogy’s black sheep and while it definitely takes a noticeable step back in quality compared to its predecessors — Raimi famously was forced to bow to studio demands and include fan-favorite villain Venom, much to his own personal displeasure — it’s not as bad as its reputation would suggest. Thomas Haden Church does what he can to make Sandman a visually-stunning, sympathetic villain while James Franco goes “full Franco” in his totally bonkers performance as Harry Osborn/New Goblin. It’s an acquired taste to be sure, but Spider-Man 3 is by no means a train wreck — it simply couldn’t measure up to the ridiculously high standard set by Spider-Man 2.
10. The Bourne Trilogy
Series Contains: The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
There are few movie protagonists capable of kicking as much ass as Jason Bourne, the titular assassin of the Bourne trilogy, as played by Matt Damon. As such, it makes sense that a series of films featuring Bourne might make it on to a list such as this, especially when the films are chock-full of awesome beatings laid out on bad guys, the thwarting of government conspiracies, assassin on assassin violence and more car chases than anyone trilogy rightly needs (not that we’re complaining, mind you). A mature series of action films that refuse to sacrifice character in the name of explosions, the Bourne trilogy remains one of the best edited, tightly crafted and strongly written action trilogies of all time, just beating out the first three Die Hard films for this spot on the list.
9. Captain America
Series Contains: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America: Civil War (2016)
If you had told us originally that Captain America of all characters would have the best self-titled series of movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we probably would have laughed you out of the room. Prior to the release of Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, it was doubtful whether a character as seemingly outdated as a man who dresses up in a star-spangled suit would even work on screen, let alone actually make for a quality movie. Fortunately, The First Avenger proved us wrong, as director Joe Johnston took the right approach in crafting a World War II throwback film featuring a heavy dose of nostalgia. It also helped that Chris Evans was perfectly cast in the lead role, imbuing his Steve Rogers with an implacable sense of moral fiber that felt completely genuine and unpretentious.
Somehow, the next film in the series was even better. The Winter Soldier transplants Captain America to the modern day and charts how the character’s values make him ill-equipped to handle the modern geopolitical landscape, where it’s not always clear who your enemies are. The film works as a political thriller with a superhero veneer but is also a deeply personal story involving Steve’s past, here taking the form of his former best-friend-turned-enemy Bucky Barnes, who is now a brainwashed assassin. The Winter Solider also seriously shakes up the entire MCU, something that its sequel would only double down on.
Captain America: Civil War is the most ambitious movie in the Cap trilogy, roping in a number of characters from the rest of the MCU for a story that sees the Avengers pitted against each other in a war over the role of superheroes in a changing world. While the film is essentially an Avengers film in all but name, it’s still very much Cap’s story and picks up where the previous film left off, with Bucky still on the run and Steve desperate to clear his friend’s name. Taken as a whole, the Captain America movies form arguably the strongest trilogy in superhero filmmaking (Dark Knight notwithstanding). Not bad for a character many thought would turn out to be an on-screen joke.
8. The Dark Knight Trilogy
Series Contains: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Like we said before, most of the time a trilogy’s first film is its best. Of course, in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, it’s 2008’s The Dark Knight which will be remembered as the trilogy’s strongest entry. While 2005’s Batman Begins did an excellent job introducing the new, gritty and realistic world that Bruce Wayne/Batman (played by Christian Bale) would inhabit, it was The Dark Knight that fleshed this world out, gave it character and a flavor all its own, while introducing a brand of villain in Heath Ledger’s Joker that will remain among cinema’s most iconic for as long as movies are being made. The untimely death of Ledger will remain a factor in the trilogy’s legacy, as will the movie’s somewhat anti-climactic closing entry The Dark Knight Rises, but overall this trilogy remains one of the strongest ever produced (and certainly the strongest superhero trilogy ever produced).
7. Indiana Jones Trilogy
Series Contains: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Were this trilogy’s second film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a stronger film, there’s a good chance it’d rank near the very top of this list, and any other lists of this sort. With both Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade remaining some of the best adventure movies ever made, a stronger second entry would have really pushed this trilogy towards the top of the heap. As it stands, the Indiana Jones trilogy is an awful film sandwiched inside two legendary ones, and that’s totally alright given the context here and the understanding that nobody, nobody acknowledges the ill-advised fourth film released by the studio in 2008.
6. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Series Contains: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
The first big shocker on our list sees Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy ranked far lower than it’s normally seen on these lists; what can we say, we just aren’t the biggest fans of the flicks so many seem to go ga-ga over, and despite consistent ridicule from our friends, that’s our opinion and we’re sticking to it. While Jackson no doubt crafted an exquisite fantasy viewing experience and did J.R.R. Tolkien’s original work justice with his dedication to detail and story, The Lord of the Rings trilogy remains a somewhat tedious viewing experience with poor pacing and some ridiculously cheesy dialogue and acting. We understand these are treasured films for some, and we aren’t in any way trying to undo the magic present in the films, there are just other trilogies we feel offer a more succinct and fulfilling viewing experience. That said, if you want to lose yourself in Middle Earth for eleven or twelve hours, there’s no better way to do it than with these flicks.
5. Back to the Future Trilogy
Series Contains: Back to the Future (1985), Back to the Future: Part II (1989), Back to the Future: Part III (1990)
We’re not going to lie to you, we would’ve put the Back to the Future trilogy on here if the sequels to 1987’s Back to the Future had been nothing but Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) time-hopping to various points in history to jam out and influence the trajectory of rock and roll forever; as it stands, we were fortunate enough to get a more complex plot than that in Back to the Future: Part II and Back to the Future: Part III, two solid films that, while never living up to the original, are wildly entertaining and help lock this trilogy, which also features Christopher Lloyd and Crispin Glover, into the number six spot on our list.
4. The Toy Story Trilogy
Series Contains: Toy Story (1995), Toy Story 2 (1999), Toy Story 3 (2010)
It’s strange to think a trilogy of films meant originally for children could become one of the most esteemed and beloved of all time, but that’s the magic of Pixar and their Toy Story trilogy. Proving that there really is a kid in all of us, the Toy Story trilogy played on the unspoken belief of individuals everywhere that their toys could come to life after they’ve left the room, and we like to think we’re better people for having seen these films. A rock solid trilogy that might not feature so much as a poor scene over the course of its three films, the Toy Story movies star the voice talent of Tim Allen and Tom Hanks and remain a perfect mix of childlike wonder and strong, emotive writing that plays for both children and adults.
3. The Dollars Trilogy
Series Contains: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966)
Also known as the Man With No Name Trilogy (speaking to Clint Eastwood’s character in these spectacular Westerns), the Dollars trilogy makes its way into the third spot on our list on the strength of the trilogy’s entertainment factor and its wide reaching influence in the Western and Spaghetti Western genres. Directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, these three films are responsible for the much of the popularization of the Spaghetti Western genre and are commonly cited as some of the greatest films ever produced in the storied Western genre. Also starring Lee van Cleef, the Dollars trilogy is about as pure as trilogies get.
2. The Godfather Trilogy
Series Contains: The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), The Godfather: Part III (1990)
While we’re not going to have the audacity to sit here and tell you The Godfather: Part III is a bad film (especially not in light of what gets passed off for cinema these days), we do think that The Godfather trilogy suffers from something similar to the Indiana Jones trilogy, wherein two incredible films are lumped in with a third, somewhat mediocre film that seems to water down the stupendous elements of the trilogy just enough to add a tiny glimmer of doubt to its legacy. While it’s quite possible that The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II are the best overall films of any two on this list, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to place this trilogy at number one with The Godfather: Part III as the closing chapter in the franchise, especially when the number one trilogy rocks so hard it lands us in a galaxy far, far away…
1. Star Wars Trilogy
Series Contains: Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983)
Could this have been any trilogy but Star Wars? Not including George Lucas’s preposterous prequel trilogy, the original Star Wars films have captivated the hearts and minds of millions of viewers worldwide since their original release, and their dominating cultural presence is felt now more than ever with nerd culture maintaining such an omnipresent role in the filmmaking world. Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford (like you didn’t already know that), the Star Wars films remain the ultimate trilogy viewing experience. And if you’re one of the seventeen people on planet Earth who hasn’t already seen these films, then we’re both happy and sad for you all at once; sad that you’ve lived this much of your life without seeing Star Wars, and happy since you get to sit down and experience the joy of watching them all for the first time. Enjoy, folks. Enjoy.