There’s a prophetic scene in X-Men: Apocalypse wherein several characters leave a showing of Return of the Jedi in 1983. Jubilee says Empire is the best film in the (original) Star Wars trilogy because it’s dark and complex. Cyclops argues the first Star Wars is best because it started it all. Jean Grey caps off the short scene by saying “Well, least we can all agree the third one’s always the worst.” This line and scene operate on a few interesting levels.
On one level, it’s a comment on the X-Men film franchise itself. In an interview with Creative Screenwriting, Apocalypse producer-screenwriter Simon Kinberg says the “always the worst” line was meant to “poke fun at X3,” but it also posed a danger of putting “Apocalypse [the third movie in the X-Men reboot series] in the crosshairs as well.” Indeed, Apocalypse was a commercial disappointment and is considered among the worst X-Men films, scoring only 48% on Rotten Tomatoes.
On another level, the scene provides an opportunity to consider some fundamental aspects of Hollywood filmmaking and the commercial film market. Sequels and franchises have taken over blockbuster cinema, and for good reason; they make money and can appeal to international (especially Chinese) audiences. In fact, four of the top ten grossing films of all time are sequels released in 2015. Thus far in 2016, sequels make up half of the top ten grossing films in the US. Of course, sequels and franchises are nothing new, as Amanda Ann Klein and R. Barton Palmer aptly describe in the introduction to the book Cycles, Sequels, Spin-offs, Remakes, and Reboots. Cinema, Klein and Palmer write, “has always been rooted in the idea of multiplicities – that is, in texts that consciously repeat and exploit images, narratives, or characters found in previous texts” (pp. 8-9). Ultimately, this is rooted in a capitalist model of production and reproduction.
If we take the “third [movie’s] always the worst” concept a little more broadly, it can be read as an ironic comment on sequel quality, fan expectations, and hype. Hollywood has a very spotty record on delivering great sequels. Fans are no strangers to being let down. In a system based on creating hype to drive ticket sales, can we really blame fans when the product disappoints? After all, for every Dark Knight, there’s a Spider-Man 3 and an X-Men: Apocalypse.