With more than a half-dozen films based on Marvel and DC Comics characters alone, 2016 may prove to be the biggest year to date for superhero cinema. In particular, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse appear poised to round out their respective trilogies in top form, as both chronicle game-changing events that will shake our heroes to their core. Although superhero franchises are often designed to be infinitely open-ended, a few film trilogies have managed to center on a certain character or group of characters. Here are the five most successful (albeit imperfect) examples, listed here by release date.
Blade Trilogy (1998-2004)
When Wesley Snipes burst onto the scene for his first of three turns as the day-walking vampire hunter, films based on comic books were anything but a sure thing. After all, Stephen Norrington’s Blade hit theaters just one year after Batman and Robin left the industry questioning if superheroes were a viable long-term investment. Right from the blood-soaked rave that opens the trilogy, the Blade films raised the bar for what comic book movies could be, ushering in the modern era that would explode in years to come. Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II - while a bit lighter on plot - added the director’s stylistic edge and expanded the series’ mythology. As for the messy Blade: Trinity, at least the film paved the way for Ryan Reynolds to star in a Deadpool solo film.
X-Men Trilogy (2000-2006)
Bryan Singer was still best known for his Oscar-winning crime drama The Usual Suspects when he came onboard the first-ever live-action adventure for the Marvel mutants. With a then-unknown Hugh Jackman in the pivotal role of the mysterious Wolverine, the film introduced audiences to an impressive ensemble cast — most notably, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen — and a world wherein human evolution has led to the rise of another species entirely. Singer stayed on for the even better sequel, X2: X-Men United, a title which remains one of the best superhero sequels ever made. Even Brett Ratner’s much-derided X-Men: The Last Stand brings some fun action sequences and memorable performances (such as Kelsey Grammer’s Beast), though the film itself is such a missed opportunity. The fact that Fox’s X-Men franchise is still running strong 16 years after its debut is a testament to the original trilogy’s success.
Spider-Man Trilogy (2002-2007)
Everyone’s favorite neighborhood webslinger leapt to vibrant life in the form of Tobey Maguire in this Sam Raimi-directed trilogy. The first film still stands as the best version of Spider-Man’s origin story to date (even in the face of The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012), and its sequel deepened the personal story of Peter Parker’s struggle between power and responsibility. Spider-Man 3, as infamously over-stuffed as it is, does deliver on a pure spectacle level. Moreover, its conclusion ties up the ongoing storyline that has developed among the characters played by Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and James Franco. We’re still waiting for a better big-screen of Venom, but with Tom Holland playing Spidey in Captain America: Civil War, things are looking up for the webhead.
The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)
It took a filmmaker of Christopher Nolan’s caliber to reinvent Batman’s film career. Thankfully, Batman Begins was exactly the grounded approach the character needed after the candy-colored Batman and Robin left audiences cold. With a supporting cast that included Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, the star-studded affair introduced Christian Bale’s indelible interpretation of Bruce Wayne, but even despite that film’s critical and financial success, no one expected The Dark Knight to be the masterwork that it is. Heath Ledger landed a posthumous Academy Award for his chilling turn as the Joker, with its thrilling story and resonant themes elevating the series. Four years later, The Dark Knight Rises failed to match its predecessor’s quality but still brought the trilogy to a mostly satisfying close, thanks to Tom Hardy’s Bane, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman and an emotionally charged finale.
Iron Man Trilogy (2008-2013)
Iron Man may have marked the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the film — which singlehandedly put Robert Downey Jr. back on the A-list — also started a trilogy of solo films for Tony Stark himself. Though Iron Man 2 remains the undisputed weak link of the bunch, it does bring Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow into the mix and effectively sets the stage for The Avengers. As for the first and third Iron Man films, directors Jon Favreau and Shane Black make the most of Stark’s complex psychology by nicely balancing the ego, humor and sense of responsibility that lead him to become a hero. All together, the trilogy covers his evolution from a selfish arrogant billionaire to a heroic arrogant billionaire, never losing its spirit of adventure along the way.
What’s your favorite superhero movie trilogy? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.