Face it, we live in an age of film trilogies. As sequels become more profitable, the chance of seeing tri-sectioned movie arcs increases. This summer is the true barometer, given that we have four trilogies coming to a head; starting with Spider Man, we are soon to see the third iterations of Shrek, Bourne and Pirates of the Caribbean. Audiences know and adore the characters in these films so much that they increase exponentially with each outing. So, there must be something super appealing about trilogies, right?
Kevin Smith, in his sequel to Clerks, argues that there is only one trilogy, the Star Wars trilogy; all others, we gather, can kiss his kiester. Which begs the question: what other trilogies are there? Let's see, we have Lord of the Rings, Spider Man, The Godfather, The Matrix, Shrek... any others? For argument's sake, we'll leave out Kieslowski's Three Colours, since it so far above and beyond anything else that it is de facto greatest of them all. Out of the trilogies listed, which one succeeds in being the one that stands above the rest?
I believe Sam Raimi, with his Spidey movies, has created the best.
If you're still reading, let's look at the points of variance first (to be followed by points of congruence):
Unlike Return of the Jedi, Matrix Revolutions or Godfather 3, Spider Man 3 doesn't totally suck air through the open wound of its own epic inadequacies;
Unlike Return of the King, Raimi has not betrayed his source material and bent the film into a shape that only somewhat resembles its origins.
(Since I have seen neither Shrek the Third, Bourne Ultimatum or At World's End, I cannot say how Spidey departs from these three, other than to speculate that it is probably a more mature work than Shrek, less needlessly violent than Bourne, and less bloated and exhausting than Pirates.)
As for points of congruence, we can safely say that, like Star Wars, the shining moment of the Spidey trilogy is the second film, and;
like Return of the King, Shrek, Bourne and Caribbean, character and dramatic tones are beautifully consistent, creating the sense the all three movies flow together seamlessly.
Okay, so what makes Spidey the best? I would argue that it's all in how it ends. (Beware! If you haven't seen it yet, I'm about to spoil a plot point at the end of Spider Man 3.)
First, let's look at how the other trilogies end:
In Return of the Jedi, Luke has taken up his father's mantle as a jedi. Unfortunately, as we see in the first three episodes, this victory is spoiled by the fact that Anakin doesn't turn out to have been such a great jedi after all, and the jedi order is so incompetent that maybe the universe is a better place without it: Luke's ascendance is pyrhhic at best;
In Matrix Revolutions, we learn that Neo will probably return in the future. Sadly, this goes contrary to the stated goal of the trilogy, which is to upend all our conceptions of a messiah. Whoops, turns out Neo exactly fulfills our conceptions of a messiah! Profound failure on the part of the Wachowski's;
In Return of the King, the great threat to Middle Earth turns out to be a big eye that can't stop itself from falling down! Peter Jackson renders Sauron into such a silly and anti-climactic villain, I found myself giggling when I should have been cheering. If only he had stuck with Eomer's grandslam takedown of the Witch King; now, that was climactic. Also, Tolkien explicitly painted Frodo's decision at Mount Doom as a hero's failure; Jackson manages to undermine this essential part of the story as well, turning the final moment between Frodo and Gollum into a wrestling match;
Godfather 3 fails on so many levels, I won't insult one of our finest directors by trotting out his greatest failure. Suffice to say, the third part sucks in every conceivable way.
How do Bourne, Shrek and Pirates end? We will see, and perhaps I will eat my words, but I don't think so. Because the end of Spidey gives us a totally unexpected resolution.
What stands out for me as being so great about the end of Spidey is the fact that he forgives the villain, the man, in fact, who murdered his uncle. This kind of maturity (brought by Raimi, incidentally, rather than taken from the source material) is so absent from popular entertainment, the decision to go this way is nothing short of subversive. It is also truly heroic.
Out of all the trilogies, I found Peter Parker's decision totally satisfying. It comes at such great cost, too, part of what makes it so consistent with the series. At the end of the first movie, he rejects Mary Jane because of his responsibility to the greater good; here, again, he sacrifices his own deep desire for vengeance for the sake of greater good. This decision, having been reached at the end of a long night of the soul, may ultimately undo his romance with the girl of his dreams. When they are dancing together at the end of the film, there is a sense of tragedy; we do not know if MJ can take the same step and forgive Peter for the grievous wrongs he has committed against her (culminating when he physically strikes her down out of pique). What's more, we don't know if they are really meant to be together. When MJ is coerced into breaking up with Peter, her supposedly concocted reasons are actually quite valid, and I found myself wishing that they wouldn't get back together, for the sake of their separate happiness.
Nevertheless, Peter Parker is a hero at the end, because of his sacrifice. Perhaps for no better reason than that -the outstanding uniqueness of Sam Raimi's vision- I believe Spidey's is the best trilogy.