It’s no secret that I love movies. In fact, the more movies, the merrier.
So for me, a trilogy is something special. It’s a story that is so massive that it can’t be contained in just one movie. A trilogy is an experience.
Now, any movie can become a part of a trilogy. Look at The Hangover. But to really make a trilogy work, I think it needs to be designed that way- or at least to feel like it was designed that way when you look back at the whole. Each movie has to bring something specific to the table; the first movie has to introduce the world, the characters, and the plot, while the second needs to raise the stakes of that plot and enhance the characters. The third movie, arguably, has the hardest task in bringing that plot to a satisfying conclusion and wrapping up the arcs of all (remaining) characters in a way that doesn’t have fans throwing their popcorn at the screen.
There have been many trilogies that have done a good job at some of those parts- looking at you, Dark Knight trilogy- but few, in my mind, have succeeded in making all three parts work together as a cohesive whole, enhancing the enjoyment of their accompanying movies and, at least for me, going down in history as some of the greatest trilogies in history.
So today, I’d like to explore which movie trilogies are my favorites by placing them in an arbitrary “top ten” list. I say it is arbitrary because my movie moods change; what is number one today might be number three tomorrow. But I think it is safe to say, without a doubt, that the following trilogies are my ten favorites… so far.
Now, I’ve laid some ground rules for myself. As mentioned, a trilogy should feel like one cohesive story told in three distinct parts (even if it wasn’t intended to be a trilogy from the start, it should feel like one at the end). There can absolutely be more than three films in the franchise, but the three films I’m singling out must be recognizable as a “trilogy” within that franchise (so that means I can’t just pick my three favorite Harry Potter movies and call that a “trilogy”… damn). And the trilogy must be completed as of the time of me writing this story, so trilogies-in-progress, like Guardians of the Galaxy, won’t make the cut.
So, now that we all know what the hell I’m talking about, let’s dive in.
№10: Back to the Future
Back to the Future is one of the first trilogies I saw, and one of the first film franchises that brought to me the idea of “to be continued”. I mean, I had never seen a movie that ended by telling me that the story would be picked up in a sequel.
And damn, did that sequel pay off. Back to the Future: Part II is, hands down, my favorite in the franchise (I tend to like middle movies). It successfully upped the game from the first one by introducing the future and time paradoxes, and I loved the scenes revisiting the first movie from a different perspective. It is because of this movie that I love things like Doctor Who.
While the third movie isn’t held in as high a regard as the first two, I still love it, and it is a satisfying conclusion to the series, giving us one more showdown with the Tannen clan, and culminating in the Doc realizing he needs to destroy the time machine before it can cause any more damage (though he does eventually return to the idea with that train). It’s not the most bombastic conclusion (and that may be why it isn’t higher on this list), but Back to the Future is hands down one of my absolute favorite trilogies.
№9: Star Wars (originals)
Now, you might be surprised to find that the original Star Wars trilogy is not higher on this list. And you know what? There’s a reason for that.
I absolutely love the galaxy far, far away. And I recognize that the original trilogy is the defining movie trilogy for a lot of people. For me, it wasn’t.
Ok, it was. At least, I always thought it was. It was the first trilogy I recall watching. It was one of the first movies I remember having toys for (and lots of them). But because I was born in 1988, I never got to experience the movies in theaters, not like the generation before me who had to wait for the next installments to come out. When I watched them, it was on television, and Empire came on right after A New Hope. By the time I saw A New Hope in theaters, George Lucas had modified it and I had memorized the story.
In recent years, I’ve also lost a bit of love for that first movie; it has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but more to do with all of the movies that have come after it- if I’m asked which Star Wars I want to watch, I’ll usually pick one of the sequels over the original. In fact, Empire Strikes Back (that middle child again) is my preferred film out of this trilogy.
But again, these movies fill my criteria of a good trilogy; A New Hope does a perfect job setting up the conflict and the universe, Empire raises the stakes tremendously, and Return of the Jedi brings it to a satisfying conclusion. Nuff said.
Star Wars will always be something extremely special and important in my life (hell, The Mandalorian is one of my absolute favorite tv shows ever), and it is a damn near-perfect trilogy. But it wasn’t my defining trilogy, which is why it didn’t make it higher on this list.
№8: Toy Story
Of course, we can’t talk about animated movies without bringing up Toy Story. And yes, I know there are four of them. And yes, the fourth might actually be my favorite. But the first three really make up a trilogy, with the fourth being an added bonus.
The reason I see the first three movies as a trilogy is very simple: they all deal with Woody being Andy’s toy. The first movie sees Woody dealing with being replaced as Andy’s favorite toy, and the second sees him further question his place in Andy’s room and what else might be out there for him. The third, and definitely the most emotional, sees Woody accepting that Andy had grown up and lets Andy go, just as Andy gives Woody to Bonnie. Seriously, I’m tearing up just thinking about that scene. And I know you are, too.
On a technical level, these movies showcase how far Pixar came in those first years, with the animation getting better and better in each one. Behind the scenes, they showcase the level of perfection Pixar strides for, with stories like how they held back Toy Story 2 from Disney for months while they improved it to be the best sequel it could be. Those movies are Pixar’s earliest examples of how well the studio can get the right emotional response from animated characters, from toys, or fish, or literal emotions.
But Toy Story is special to me in many ways. The first movie is one of the first movies I ever remember seeing in theaters. I played with those toys as I grew up. I was about Andy’s age in each of the films, and so each one felt like they were speaking to me. Especially the third. This is one of the greatest trilogies of all time.
№7: The Chronicles of Narnia
Ok, I wanted to give this spot to the Dark Knight trilogy. I really did. Because The Dark Knight redefined superhero movies for me and for everyone. But The Dark Knight Rises really dropped the ball in bringing that trilogy to a full conclusion, so I’m not giving it this (or any) spot.
I honestly did struggle with filling this place, however. I considered giving it to the Three Flavours of Cornetto trilogy, but even though that is a trilogy, none of those movies are actually connected in any other way besides the cast, director, and type of humor.
But then I remembered The Chronicles of Narnia. Now, it bends my own rules to put this “trilogy” on the list, because it was never meant to be a trilogy. The only reason that it is a trilogy is that the studio never made The Silver Chair. Also, I think it is interesting that this is the only trilogy on my list that was made by two separate studios; Disney made the first two, and 20th Century Fox made the third.
You could also argue that the third movie wasn’t meant to be a conclusion to the franchise, and you’d be right. However, even though it wasn’t meant to conclude the story, it does conclude the adventures of the Pevensie children, who were the protagonists in all three movies (even if Silver Chair had been produced, the Pevensie children would not have been in it, as in the books the story transferred to their cousin, Eustace, the other protagonist introduced in Voyage of the Dawn Treader; had the full series been filmed- and I hope it does get filmed one day- the Pevensies would not have returned until the final story, The Last Battle).
While the final movie doesn’t necessarily conclude the overall story, it serves as a book-end for the spiritual journey that Lucy and Edmond are on throughout the movies. And the spiritual side of these movies is something that really gets to me each time I revisit them I find a new message in them (I even wrote at length about Peter’s struggle in Prince Caspian and how it related to our lives, which you can read here). As a Christian, these movies find a way to speak to me, especially whenever I’m feeling distant from God. They remind me- especially Prince Caspian- that I need to look for Him, just as Peter needed to look for Aslan. They remind me that it isn’t enough to believe in Jesus, I need to know him, as the Pevensies knew Aslan.
And let me tell you what, outside of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe was perhaps one of the most accurate book adaptations I’ve ever seen (which was no small feat, as it came out around the time of some very poor adaptations like Lemony Snicket and Eragon). It successfully transported me to a world in which I’d read about many times as a kid as if I had stepped through the wardrobe myself.
And Prince Caspian holds a particularly special place in my heart. Not only for the aforementioned story I wrote about it a few years ago and the message found within that, but for the timing of the movie. It came out just a couple of months before my family lost my cousin to a car accident. And through that grief-stricken time, the music of Prince Caspian- specifically the song “This Is Home” by Switchfoot, gave me some comfort. It helped me see that even though my cousin was gone, he was waiting for us all in a better place. We played that song at his funeral, and it will forever be ingrained in my soul and irrevocably tied to the memory of him. Even hearing it now, more than a decade later, brings back all of that emotion, both the pain and the hope.
Narnia is very special to me. It is, and always shall be, one of my very favorite fantasy series.
№6: Star Wars (the sequels)
I almost didn’t put the sequel trilogy on this list. After all, Force Awakens was too much like A New Hope. And while I enjoyed Rise of Skywalker, it paled in comparison to what could have been, according to the leaked script for Duel of the Fates.
But then I realized that The Last Jedi is my absolute favorite Star Wars movie, and it only became that because of the foundation Force Awakens built for it, and though I might have wanted differently for Rise of Skywalker, that movie was, in fact, one of the most exciting movies to watch in theaters.
I love the characters and the visuals and the new music John Williams wrote for it. I loved Ben’s redemption arc, I loved Palpatine’s continued plotting to take over the galaxy (even if he didn’t show up until the end), etc., and so forth. But most of all, I loved the arc that the movies gave to Luke, that he wasn’t a legend, just a broken man hiding from his mistakes. It was relatable in a way that I didn’t expect from Star Wars, and I’m sorry if you didn’t like it, but this is my list and not yours. It was good storytelling, and that’s all I want from these movies. Plus, Luke’s showdown with Kylo Ren and the Holdo Maneuver are two of my favorite cinematic moments.
So, yeah, the sequel trilogy is one of my top trilogies. And yeah, I place it higher than the originals. And you know what I say to that? “We are what they grow beyond.” Or, you know, to quote the dark side, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” The originals created an awesome galaxy. And I think the sequels improved upon it.
№5: Star Trek
So, you might be wondering which movies in the Star Trek franchise make up a trilogy. One would be tempted to say that the J.J. Abrams movies make a trilogy since there are three of them, but there are only three of them because Paramount didn’t make the planned 4th movie (which I was looking forward to since it was to bring back Chris Hemsworth’s deceased George Kirk). And honestly, those three movies don’t really tell a cohesive story, not like other movies in the franchise.
The movies I’m singling out are Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Now, since those movies are labeled as 2, 3, and 4, it may not be apparent to most that they do, in fact, make up a trilogy within the larger franchise. The cohesive narrative thread here is Spock, namely his death, resurrection, and rehabilitation.
Wrath of Khan sets up the plot with the return of Khan Noonien Singh, one of the tv show’s best villains, and his mission to take out his revenge against Kirk, who marooned him and his crew on a planet. This quest for vengeance culminates in the death of Spock, who sacrifices himself to save the ship. In Search for Spock, we find the crew dealing with the death of Spock until they discover that his body landed on the Genesis planet and, through that planet’s unique properties, may have come back to life. Kirk and crew steal the Enterprise to go rescue him, getting involved with the Klingons along the way, and ultimately have to sacrifice the Enterprise to save Spock and defeat the Klingons. Finally, in Voyage Home, we find Kirk and crew traveling back to Earth after visiting Vulcan to restore Spock’s memories, when Earth is attacked by an alien probe. To save Earth, the crew travel back in time to the 1980s to collect a humpback whale, the only creature that can communicate with that probe, which was extinct in their time period.
While each deal with a separate antagonist and story, all three of these films are uniquely driven by Spock’s death and resurrection, and how the crew handles these events. On the face of it, they may not appear to be a trilogy, but in fact, they are the only direct trilogy within the Star Trek franchise to date. For a time, you could even buy them together in a “trilogy” box set. While Search for Spock isn’t one of my favorite Trek movies, it is a crucial part of this storyline, which is one of my favorites. And as absurd as it sounded when I explained it above, Voyage Home is one of the best- and funniest- Trek movies ever made.
№4: The Hobbit (the Extended Editions)
The Hobbit is a trilogy that may not be as epic as others on this list. It wasn’t as polished as its predecessor, The Lord of the Rings. But I still love it. I absolutely love it.
For me, more than anything, it is the characters. Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo is one of my all-time favorite on-screen characters. And I really loved all of the dwarves.
I have to say, however, that the only way to watch these films is with the extended cuts; as with its predecessor, the extended cuts bring a lot of extra depth to the films. But in particular, the extended editions help with The Battle of the Five Armies; I honestly didn’t like the third movie when I saw it in theaters, as I felt that it sidelined most of the dwarf characters and focused too heavily on the titular battle, but the extended cut seemed to find all of the character moments that the theatrical cut missed.
And if I’m being honestly honest… Unexpected Journey might just be my favorite of all six films. The return to the Shire, the characters, Gollum, everything just worked for me in that movie.
These movies may not quite be The Lord of the Rings, but they are one of my favorite movie trilogies.
№3: Captain America
This was a tough one, and ultimately the main reason why I set forth the rule that a trilogy can exist within a larger franchise. I wanted to put Avengers here (actually, that would have been number one if I had), but alas, there are four of those movies and only the last two really form one cohesive story.
One could argue that Cap’s story isn’t concluded in his trilogy, either- that conclusion comes in Avengers: Endgame- but within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Cap’s three movies form the most cohesive story, starting with Steve Rodger’s in the 1940s as he gets his powers and goes to war, then following him as he is displaced in the 2010s and is tested with the return of Bucky as a villain, culminating in his fight with his allies in Civil War as he struggles to clear Bucky’s name and prevent a bigger conflict from breaking out.
It isn’t the most clearly defined trilogy on this list, but Chris Evans’ portrayal of Captain America and his friendship with Bucky is really what binds these stories together, and that character portrayal alone- and watching him evolve over the course of these three movies- is really what placed the Captain America movies so high on this list. I love a lot of the characters in the MCU, but Cap is, perhaps, my favorite.
Another way to look at a trilogy of Captain America stories, though, would be what I’m officially dubbing the “Russo Trilogy”; this would be starting with Winter Soldier with Civil War in the middle and Avengers: Endgame at the end, which doesn’t make sense because it omits Infinity War (but one could argue that Cap is more of a secondary character in that movie), but I can’t help shaking the idea that those three are the Russo brothers’ trilogy of Cap-focused movies. Hey, this is my list and I made the rules, so I can do what I want. I’d honestly swap the “Russo Trilogy” for my number two spot (mainly because Endgame is one of my all-time favorite movies), but since that isn’t technically a real thing, Captain America will remain at number three.
The MCU in general probably gave me the hardest time, however. I chose the Captain America movies, but I could have easily picked the Iron Man movies instead; after all, those movies started the whole thing, and I do love Iron Man 3 more than most people. The MCU also frustrated me, however, because I realized that a lot of my favorites- some of which I would hold above Cap’s movies- simply haven’t gotten to three movies yet. Rest assured, by the time either Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 or Spider-Man Homecoming 3 come out, either of those trilogies stands a good chance of usurping Cap’s seat at this table.
№2: Pirates of the Caribbean
The moment Captain Jack Sparrow floated in on a sinking ship, these movies had me. And to think, I was reluctantly dragged into theaters to see the first one.
And yeah, there are five of these flicks, but only the first three consist of a trilogy (and only the first three are excellent). Though I’ll watch any number of bad movies featuring Captain Jack, the first three movies weren’t his story. He was a prominently-featured character, but the narrative arc of all three films followed Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, starting with them falling in love and overcoming their stations in life to fighting for their wedding and delving into piracy to save one another, and finally culminating in their marriage and physical separation because of their embracing of piracy (if you don’t remember, Elizabeth became the King of the Pirate Council, and Will was murdered by Davy Jones, only to be saved/cursed by Jack to take Jones’ place on the Flying Dutchman).
Of course, Jack’s arc comes full circle in this trilogy as well, starting with him searching for his old ship- the Black Pearl- and ending with him losing it again, but overall, Jack’s real quest in these films is seeking some version of immortality (a quest which does continue in the fourth movie).
Moreover, these three films served up some excellent action and comedy, intriguing characters, and rip-roaring adventure. The franchise as a whole might have been slightly diminished by the less-stellar fourth and fifth films, but the original trilogy of Pirates of the Caribbean will forever be my absolutely favorite trilogy. Well… close second… savvy?
Ok, so I may have left a few out.
As I mentioned, I really wanted to give a spot to The Dark Knight Trilogy and had I opted for an 11-movie list, it might have ended up there. But ultimately, I just didn’t feel that the third movie was enough of a conclusion nor cohesive enough to really make that a trilogy by my terms, even if the box set calls it that. Similarly, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy missed this list for the faults of the third movie.
In other trilogies that I thought to include- like Kung-Fu Panda- I realized I never actually saw the third movie, so that would hardly be fair.
I also heavily considered Indiana Jones, and I absolutely do love those movies, but they aren’t really a connected and cohesive story; they’re just singular adventures starring Indy. And I considered The Matrix, but as much as I loved those movies when I was younger, they’ve fallen way down on my list since (though I’m very excited to see what the fourth movie brings to the table).
Finally, I very nearly published this article with How to Train Your Dragon in the number eight spot. And honestly, I’m still second-guessing that decision. What made this trilogy stand out on my list is that we watched the characters grow. We watched Hiccup grow from an awkward kid to the leader of his people. We watched him experience loss and find love. We watched his people go from killing dragons to embracing them and bringing them into their culture and defend them against their enemies. It was just a thoroughly satisfying story, start to finish. Like the best Pixar movies, these films didn’t shy away from getting emotional or downright heartbreaking, up to and including the bittersweet ending. Unlike a lot of animated movies, they didn’t dumb down for kids and instead told a story that both kids and adults could relate to. And they featured some of the best animation of any computer-animated flicks. But ultimately, I left it off the list because unlike literally all of the other movies in the featured trilogies, I’ve only watched the third movie once, and as much as I loved these movies, I haven’t found the desire to revisit them in a while.
№1: The Lord of the Rings
It could never be anything else.
Lord of the Rings was the first movie trilogy that I saw- in its entirety- in theaters. I had never read the books, so it was the first one that I entered into it with absolutely no knowledge of what was to come, and I allowed it to fully wrap me up in the story.
I remember that I almost didn’t see the first movie in theaters. Someone told me that it was just one long battle and very boring, so I skipped it until it was at a dollar theater near my grandparent’s house. My mom, my cousins, and I decided to go see it since nothing else was playing. One of my cousins fell asleep during the movie, and my mom realized too late into it that the movie wasn’t going to end because it was based on a trilogy of books, and I fell in absolute love.
I also remember that back then, Blockbuster had a deal where you prepaid for a movie and got free rentals every week until that movie came out, and it just so happened that my dad had bought that deal for Fellowship of the Ring the same day my mom and cousins and I went to see it, so when we got back he told me that he bought that movie and I was so excited.
I remember standing in line to see Return of the King on opening night; it was one of the first movies I ever remember standing in line for, and I remember having to be there a couple of hours before it started just to get good seats. I remember getting each one on DVD, and getting each extended edition, and getting each soundtrack (and each extended soundtrack), watching the many hours of behind the scenes. Those movies were my firsts for a lot of things.
For me, The Lord of the Rings was my defining movie trilogy.