The 15 Greatest Film Trilogies Of All Time Ranked

In an industry that is increasingly dominated by never-ending franchises and building connected universes, the notion of the great film trilogy has been disappearing. However, many of the greatest film franchises of all time have a proper beginning, middle, and end. One of the most challenging things about ranking cinematic trilogies is that so many that would have been ranked on this list are not included because of new installments removing their eligibility. Trilogies like the original "Indiana Jones," "Bourne," "Mad Max," "Toy Story," "Die Hard," and "Pirates of the Caribbean" are certainly worthy of recognition, but those franchises now have additional entries.

The process of ranking trilogies is difficult because the merit of all three films within the series must be considered. Some trilogies have two strong installments, but one other film that sticks out like a sore thumb. Perhaps the "X-Men" series could have been considered on the strength of "X-Men" and "X2," but the failure of "X-Men: The Last Stand" ended the trilogy on a sour note. Here are the 15 greatest film trilogies of all time, ranked.

15. Captain America Trilogy

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a lot of success but has struggled to feature any one individual series with no bad entries. "Iron Man 2" and "Thor: The Dark World" prevented those trilogies from being complete successes, and hopefully the "Guardians of the Galaxy" series will end on a high note when the third film debuts. The only franchise within the MCU that has routinely delivered excellence is "Captain America." Each film continues the overall Marvel universe but tells a character-centric story centering around how Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) responds to a changing environment.

The 2011 origin story "Captain America: The First Avenger" was an old-fashioned World War II adventure with its 1940s setting and complete sincerity. Then 2014's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" took inspiration from espionage thrillers as Steve combats government surveillance. Finally, 2016's "Captain America: Civil War" divided the Avengers when Steve comes into conflict with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.).

14. Austin Powers Trilogy

While some may scoff at the inclusion of parody films on the list, crafting a great comedy sequel is no easy task. It's very hard to craft a follow-up that has the same sense of humor without simply repeating all the jokes. Good comedy sequels are rare, and a trilogy of enjoyable comedies is a miracle. It's something that Mike Myers managed to pull off with the "Austin Powers" trilogy.

The first film, 1997's "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," was a hilarious parody of the espionage genre in which Myers' titular hero is frozen in time in the 1960s, but wakes up in the modern world to deal with the eccentric villain Dr. Evil (also Myers). Two years later in 1999, "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" featured more cameos as Dr. Evil gathers an alliance of bad guys, and 2001's "Austin Powers in Goldmember" introduced Austin's famous spy father (Michael Caine).

13. Star Trek Trilogy: The Kelvin Timeline

The future of the entire "Star Trek" franchise was in question in the early 21st century, as there were no television shows currently airing for the first time since the late 1980s. While the original six films featuring William Shatner's Captain Kirk and Leonard Nimoy's Spock were largely successful, the films inspired by the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" series had spiraled downward and landed with the box office disaster of 2002's "Star Trek: Nemesis."

The inspired reboot trilogy managed to make "Star Trek" feel fresh again and introduced an alternate version of history set within the "Kelvin" timeline so that the new versions of the character could have their own journey. J.J. Abrams' 2009 film simply titled "Star Trek" was an origin story that showed the first meeting between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) as they train at Starfleet Academy. Abrams followed up with 2013's "Star Trek Into Darkness," which reintroduced the villain Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), and 2016's "Star Trek Beyond" explored Kirk's anxieties about living up to his father's legacy.

12. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man Trilogy

Spider-Man has been rebooted a few times, but the first theatrical trilogy by Sam Raimi remains the best depiction of the character. Above all else, Raimi understood that Peter Parker was a relatable character who had to tackle growing up and falling in love amidst his responsibilities as a costumed hero. Tobey Maguire captured Peter's innocence and geeky charisma, and Raimi's blend of practical and digital effects still holds up today.

The first "Spider-Man" in 2002 was a wonderful origin story that spent time developing the relationships in Peter's life, including his romance with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and rivalry with Harry Osborn (James Franco). Harry's father Norman (Willem Dafoe) served as a great first threat. Then 2004's "Spider-Man 2" was a more emotional journey, as Peter broke up with Mary Jane while battling the villain Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). While 2007's "Spider-Man 3" was convoluted and dipped in quality significantly, it's still a fascinating entry that showed a darker side to Peter.

11. Bill & Ted Trilogy

The "Bill & Ted" trilogy is a surprising addition because for many years fans thought it would never receive its proper conclusion. Development of a third film following 1989's "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and 1991's "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey" had stalled for almost three decades before 2019's "Bill & Ted Face The Music" finally ended the journey of time traveling musicians Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Logan (Keanu Reeves).

In the first film, high schoolers Bill and Ted are working to craft music for their garage band Wyld Stallyns when they're approached by the time-traveling Rufus (George Carlin), who tells them that their music is the basis for a utopian future society based on optimism and goodwill. Unfortunately, this paradise will never begin if Bill and Ted fail their history exam, so they travel back in time to collect the greatest heroes and leaders of all time. Each installment incorporated eccentric versions of iconic historical figures.

10. Ocean's Trilogy

Ironically, the 1960 heist film "Ocean's 11" is no classic. It's actually one of the laziest films the Rat Pack ever put together. Steven Soderbergh's 2001 remake "Ocean's Eleven" was that rare case that surpassed the original, taking the basic concept and making a slick, fun caper out of it. The Danny Ocean played by George Clooney (replacing Frank Sinatra) puts together a heist team to rob a series of casinos in Las Vegas while also trying to win back his ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) from the shrewd businessman Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia).

Soderbergh reunited the cast for two sequels that each had slightly different tones. The 2004 Euro-romp "Ocean's Twelve" was a subversive, experimental film that acknowledged sequel clichés and made Tess a member of the heist crew. Finally, 2007's "Ocean's Thirteen" took a more broadly comedic direction, particularly when Benedict is forced to become the newest member of Danny's crew. Each film has creative, elaborate heist sequences and great chemistry between the cast.

9. Planet of the Apes Prequel Trilogy

The original 1968 "Planet of the Apes" spawned four sequels and Tim Burton's disappointing remake, each of which explored a future version of Earth in which intelligent apes had taken over and struggled to coexist with mankind. It's a brilliant concept with interesting themes about culture, conflict, and the cyclical nature of violence. A trilogy of prequel films was able to explore the saga's origins when apes first gain intelligence. It features stunning motion capture technology that shows the development of Caesar (Andy Serkis).

The first in the new trilogy, 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," explored how the outbreak begins as Caesar is raised by Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) and rebels against cruel humans. This was followed by 2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," which explores Caesar's leadership in a post-apocalyptic world as he deals with villainous ape Koba (Toby Kebbell). The last installment, 2017's "War for the Planet of the Apes," picks up as Caesar desperately tries to save his allies from persecution by the ruthless military man Colonel J. Wesley McCullough (Woody Harrelson).

8. The Man With No Name Trilogy

Clint Eastwood's iconic western antihero is most famous for his iconic duel in Sergio Leone's 1966 classic "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," one of the greatest westerns of all time. This brilliant film can be viewed as a standalone adventure, but many forget that it's actually the third part in Leone's trilogy centered around the adventures of "The Man With No Name." Leone crafted the films so they can be enjoyed in any order.

Inspired by Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo," 1964's "A Fistful of Dollars" follows Eastwood as he arrives at a border town between the United States and Mexico where he helps protect innocent villagers from the violence of a gang war. The next one, 1965's "For A Few Dollars More," introduced actor Lee Van Cleef into the fray as Colonel Douglas Mortimer, an unexpected ally to Eastwood when the two are forced to work together. Van Cleef switched gears to play the titular "Bad" mercenary nicknamed Angel Eyes in "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly."

7. Evil Dead Trilogy

Many horror film franchises have simply dragged on too long, losing that initial sense of fear and diluting the saga's reputation. The seemingly never-ending sequels to "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Friday the 13th," and "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" have rarely produced follow-ups on the level of the original. Sam Raimi managed to subvert those errors by crafting a great trilogy with the "Evil Dead" series. Each installment had a slightly different tone while continuing the character arc of Ash (Bruce Campbell).

The original "The Evil Dead" from 1981 was a micro-budget debut where Raimi used the best of practical effects to create one of the goriest movies ever made. For 1987's "Evil Dead II" he essentially told the same story as the first film about a group of people hunted by demons in a cabin in the woods, but incorporated more humor and scares. Finally 1992's "Army of Darkness" transported the series to the middle ages for a mythic comic romp.

6. Back to the Future Trilogy

Time travel is an extremely challenging thing to depict onscreen. Having an internal logic that is easily conveyed is no easy feat, but Robert Zemeckis' 1985 masterpiece "Back to the Future" shattered all preconceived notions about the genre. It was an exciting science fiction adventure wrapped in a nostalgic romantic comedy and featured one of the greatest screen heroes ever in Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly. Marty's best friend, nuclear physicist Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), develops a time machine within a DeLorean that allows him to travel back in time 30 years to interact with younger versions of his parents.

If some trilogies feel rushed or not thoroughly planned, "Back to the Future" prepared for a completed arc by teasing the next installment during the film's conclusion. The 1989 sequel "Back to the Future: Part II" took a darker approach, and explored a dystopian alternate timeline in which the bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) weds Marty's mother and creates a disastrous series of events. Doc Brown's disappearance at the end of the film set the story up for an exciting third installment in 1990's "Back to the Future: Part III." Marty travels back to the American West of 1885 in order to save Doc, and the film has a blast exploring the western genre. Marty even takes on the name of "Clint Eastwood," inspired by his appearance in the Dollars Trilogy

5. Before Trilogy

While recurring franchises tend to be big-budget Hollywood spectacles within the action/adventure genre, there's also room for independent films that develop slower-paced stories over time. Writer and director Richard Linklater has shown throughout his career that he can develop naturalistic stories that feel completely authentic to the ways in which people actually interact. Linklater's work is often a perfect mix of comedy and drama, as real life does not follow just one tone. His 1995 romantic dramedy "Before Sunrise" is one of his best works, following the American writer Jesse (Ethan Hawke) as he takes a trip to Paris and falls in love with the French woman Celeste (Julie Delpy).

Just as Jesse and Celeste promise each other that they will reunite in nine years, Linklater waited nine years to develop his sequel "Before Sunset." This excellent follow-up looks at how the pair's lives have changed in each other's absence and having the actors naturally age into their roles made it feel more authentic. It ended in an ambiguous yet lovely moment between the two. Linklater waited another nine years to make the conclusion "Before Midnight." It picks up as Jesse and Celeste have been married for a while and struggle to rekindle their youthful passions as they deal with the realities of parenthood.

4. The Dark Knight Trilogy

While it's exciting to see sequels that build towards connected universes and crossover events, there's something satisfying about a standalone story that tells a completed arc with a definitive ending. How Christopher Nolan achieved this with "The Dark Knight Trilogy" was extraordinary. While the "dark and gritty" approach has become a cliché, Nolan understood that the world of Bruce Wayne benefited from a serious interpretation that felt realistic. Christian Bale captured the human struggles that Bruce goes through in his role as Gotham City's protector, which evolves over three installments.

Launching with 2005's "Batman Begins," Nolan created that rare origin story that manages to not just feel like a setup. The film uses nonlinear storytelling to show Bruce's childhood and adult trauma, as well as his training under the League of Shadows. The character's transition into a caped crusader felt earned. Released in 2008, "The Dark Knight" was an examination of modern terrorism and escalation, featuring one of the greatest screen villains of all time with Heath Ledger's Academy Award-winning take on The Joker. Finally, 2012's "The Dark Knight Rises" was a satisfying conclusion to the story that saw Bruce setting up a future hero to take his place in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's John Blake.

3. The Godfather Trilogy

"The Godfather" is one of the most difficult film trilogies to rank. Unquestionably, 1972's original "The Godfather" is a major achievement, and is rarely absent on any list collecting the best all-time classics. The elevated story of the American mafia changed the course of the genre, taking the inspiration of Mario Puzo's novel and using it to develop themes of family, loyalty, cyclical violence, and human nature.

While the legacy of the first film cannot be understated, 1974's "The Godfather: Part II" saw Francis Ford Coppola return to create what is arguably the greatest sequel of all time. Fans will forever debate which of the two films is stronger. "The Godfather: Part II" serves as both a prequel and a sequel to the original, intertwining a continuation of the story of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) following the death of his father Vito (Marlon Brando), while also exploring a young Vito (Robert De Niro) as he builds his criminal empire. Released in 1990, "The Godfather: Part III" was a significant step-down, though not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. The story of an older Michael dealing with complex papal politics and struggling to atone for his sins was a fascinating direction to take the narrative, but it's a more emotionally manipulative and simplistic story.

2. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novel trilogy "The Lord of the Rings" was a landmark of fantasy literature, and contributed one of the most well fleshed out fictional universes ever conceived. Tolkien had created the story of Middle Earth and the War for the One Ring as one massive saga, released over three installments. There were significant expectations among loyal Tolkien fans, and "The Lord of the Rings" seemed like an adaptation that would be impossible given the level of detail required to bring the story to life.

Director Peter Jackson succeeded by approaching the material in a very similar way to Tolkien. He shot the three adaptations simultaneously as one massive tale, and released them as the three films "The Fellowship of the Ring" in 2001, "The Two Towers" in 2002, and "Return of the King" in 2003. As a result, there's a consistency between each film. Just as Tolkien's novels can be read as one big epic, the films can be viewed back-to-back for a complete experience. It's hard to decide which film of the three is best. "The Fellowship of the Ring" is a meticulous introduction to Middle Earth, "The Two Towers" is a dark war film, and "Return of the King" is a colossal end to the journey.

1. Star Wars Original Trilogy

The original "Star Wars" trilogy remains the perfect example of how to properly plan, orchestrate, and execute a three-film arc in which all of the characters receive a satisfactory conclusion. The genius of 1977's original "Star Wars" was how its creator George Lucas crafted the designs of his imagination so that the film looked and felt exactly as he envisioned. Lucas's game-changing blend of genre influences (philosophy, westerns, historical epics, World War II films) would become one of the most important developments in pop culture. The relatable story of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his desire for adventure would inspire and connect with audiences around the world.

When Irvin Kershner took over the reins for 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back," he made integral tonal shifts that created a darker, richer, and more dramatically satisfying follow-up. It retained character humor and still had the same imagination, but "The Empire Strikes Back" put the characters in real danger and ended with a jaw-dropping plot twist. With 1983's "Return of the Jedi," director Richard Marquand successfully merged these two tones for a dramatic yet joyous conclusion.