The Middle Child

The Empire Strikes Back. The Dark Knight. Spiderman 2. Mass Effect 2.
The commonality between them; middle children in families of three that garner the most praise, adulation and support from their parents and friends while their younger and elder siblings just don’t quite hit the mark the way they do.
Why is that?
I’ve been thinking about this for a while – the second installment of a trilogy is, more often than not, the most well-remembered and beloved of all the installments (besides sagas like The Matrix and Lord of the Rings, I mean). It seems that with many of these examples the developers of the respective franchises appear to put the majority of time, effort and willpower into making the second installment the standout piece of the series.
Look at my first example – The Empire Strikes Back. Great character development and interpersonal drama dispersed throughout the grand, galactic warfare plot with a genuinely scary villain (who manages, in effect, to win by the end of the film), some amazing acting even by today’s standards and some epic, well-remembered fight scenes throughout. Personally, it’s my favourite film of the ‘Wars.
Then comes Return of the Jedi – still good, but with an admittedly decayed villain (who gets usurped by the end by his boss), removal of a lot of the character development which is then replaced by goddamn Ewoks, and the defeat of the big bad through truly ridiculous methods – I mean, come on, a bunch of two-foot tall koalas manage to take down roughly the entire main force of the Empire? (Disregarding the novels for now)
Or, look at the Spiderman films – same premise as the above example, except in the third they replaced the koalas with angst, the character development with emo fringes, and the ridiculous villain’s defeat with a kinda cool final battle that ultimately leads to an even bigger ridiculous villain’s defeat. Thank God Marc Webb saw fit to reboot that tangled nonsense, although let’s pray Amazing Spider-Man 3 doesn’t have Andrew Garfield dressing up like a Placebo band member.
These days, I’m often given to wonder why it is we prefer the second installment of a trilogy, or why it seems developers and directors just don’t seem to put as much elbow grease into the conclusion. I’ve spoken before about endings not living up to expectations, but there’s got to be more to it than that. In most cases, surely the developers are as much fans of their property as the general public is, aren’t they? I mean, unless you work for companies like EA or Twentieth Century Fox, you’d really care that you’re giving a satisfying ending to a great story, wouldn’t you?
Maybe I’m just being romantic; these days, too much art is driven by consumerist fanbases and money-hungry executives, and as such the third installments of trilogies tend to be neglected somewhat in the pursuit of hastily whipping out a movie or game for a quick buck. That would probably explain by The Matrix Revolutions was A. shot back to back with Reloaded and B. given a hasty ending that wasn’t helped by the subsequent MMO zombie released in its wake. I’m guessing Reloaded got the lion’s share of budget, time and loving attention in that little conjoined-twin birth.
This is not to say I don’t enjoy these third installments in some capacity – Return of the Jedi was a seminal film of my childhood, The Dark Knight Rises is probably tied with Avengers as my favourite film of this year, and Mass Effect 3 was a mind-blowing gaming experience severely let down by its DLC-trimmed lack of an original ending which, despite being subsequently re-attached by the Extended Cut, still leaves a bad taste in my mouth to think about. They’re still good in their own ways; it’s just when you pit them against their middle siblings, they don’t quite measure up.
Maybe that’s why Matt Smith, third doctor of the 2000’s revival and follower of David Tennant’s epic ending footsteps, will probably just be given an off-screen regeneration after a quickie with Amy Pond when his time comes. Actually, that doesn’t sound like a bad ending at all.
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