To qualify for this list, each of the entries in a given trilogy had to be a top-notch film in its own right. Many franchise have yielded a fantastic first film, only to be followed by so-so sequels (Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, and The Pirates of the Caribbean, just to name a few). Some have even spawned a sequel just as fantastic, only to fall utterly flat in the third film (Alien, The Godfather, X-Men, etc.). But a few rare franchises manage to get all the way to the magic number. Here, then, are the best and most consistent of movie trilogies in history:
#1. Original Star Wars trilogy
Star Wars (1977)
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)
There's really no debate here. Others may try to argue, but for pure entertainment value and excellence, the original blockbuster movie trilogy has yet to be beat. Sure, the third installment wasn't nearly as good as the first two, but it was still first-class. All three of these could be watched ad infinitum without any sign of fatigue.
#2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy
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: The Return of the King (2003)
If any trilogy has come close to Star Wars, it is Lord of the Rings. Damn close - in fact, it is arguably better on artistic value alone, and just as strong in terms of the overall story arc. But where the Star Wars trilogy soars into pure joyful escapism, at times Lord of the Rings gets bogged down under the sheer weight of its own story. Completing the cycle on this trilogy is a commitment of patience! Still, that is only to say that it falls slightly short of Star Wars and far ahead of everything else.
#3. Original Indiana Jones trilogy
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
The second installment is a prequel, and it is not quite up to the other two, although it is still fun. That being said, this trilogy is what movies are all about.
#4. Trilogy of the Dead
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Day of the Dead (1985)
The original zombie apocalypse film was followed by two sequels more than a decade later. Each installment was different than the one before - darker, more cynical - and that turned off some people. Even ones who liked the first movie, or the second, may not have liked the entire trilogy. They're even a little tame compared to today's zombie movies, but don't let that fool you. They certainly aren't for everyone, but they are brilliant: claustrophobic, increasingly nihilistic, smart and stimulating.
#5. Iron Man trilogy
Iron Man (2008)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Iron Man 3 (2013)
The placement of this trilogy on this list will probably be the most controversial, as the Iron Man movies have divided fans. Everyone loved the first movie universally - it's without a doubt one of the best superhero movies ever made. However, more than a few people were disappointed with the second and third installments, even though commercially they were even greater successes. While the latter two movies may have had their flaws, however, the main problem they had was that they couldn't live up to the shadow cast by the first movie. Taken on their own, they were still incredibly entertaining. They still had Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, which may be the best casting ever for a superhero. And they still had cool Iron Man armor and gadgets, special effects and action sequences, memorable (although not always likable) supporting characters, and solid stories. Again, in terms of pure entertainment, this series is hard to beat and deserves every dollar it made at the box office.
#6. Original three James Bond films
Dr. No (1962)
From Russia with Love (1963)
Nobody did Bond better than Sean Connery, and the first three films were nearly flawless. Released in three successive years, they can be considered a trilogy, even though there have been 20+ Bond films since then.
#7. Original Bourne trilogy
The Bourne Identity (2002)
The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
And just when Bond seemed to be getting stale, the spy-thriller genre was reinvented by the Jason Bourne series. The three films to star Matt Damon as Jason Bourne were a thrill a minute and never let up.
#8. Evil Dead trilogy
The Evil Dead (1981)
Evil Dead II (1987)
Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness (1992)
This is a weird trilogy: supernatural horror action with amazing practical effects and tongue-in-cheek twists and turns. The second movie was actually a bigger-budget remake of the shoestring first film - but you need to see them both regardless, because the low-budget effects are just as impressive. The weakest link is the third film, but it makes up for it by being off-the-wall enough to work.
#9. Dark Knight trilogy
Batman Begins (2005)
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
This wasn't the perfect Batman trilogy: too much of the mythology was changed to fit director Christopher Nolan's vision. However, it may have been the perfect Christopher Nolan trilogy. The second film was especially good, and Heath Ledger's portrayal of the psychopathic Joker was haunting. The third film had too many plot holes, but was still great. And the cinematography was some of the best I've ever seen.
#10. Dollars trilogy
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
This trilogy jump-started Clint Eastwood's career and made it OK for western films to be "gritty." Eastwood's "Man with No Name" (he actually goes by a different name in each film) is the ultimate Wild West badass, and the archetype for many "loner" characters who've followed.
Honorable mention: original Die Hard trilogy
Die Hard (1988)
Die Hard 2 (1990)
Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
This is the poor-man's action trilogy, and Bruce Willis pulls it off wonderfully. The second film doesn't quite hit the heights of the first and last, but all three are pure entertainment.
Honorable mention: Back to the Future trilogy
Back to the Future (1985)
Back to the Future II (1989)
Back to the Future III (1990)
The second film is a little too dark, and the third is a little too light, but the first is flawless and overall this is a great series. It's not easy to do time travel right, but the Back to the Future trilogy makes it look easy.