10 Best Movie Trilogies of the 21st Century
Best Movie Trilogies
These are the best 21st century movie trilogies based on box office, popularity, and critical acclaim.
While a few of these films extended beyond the typical "trilogy", this list only focuses on the first three movies of the set.
Will these franchises stand the test of time, and which trilogy is truly the best of the new century?
10. Captain America
Captain America in Marvel's Cinematic Universe
Captain America is a Marvel superhero recently popularized by three movies including:
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
- Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The box office numbers for all three combined were over $800 million domestically and over two billion worldwide, which meant the series was a huge hit.
The third movie was more successful than its predecessors though its marketing as an Avengers film greatly aided profits.
The critical success of this trilogy was overall positive with the last film garnering the highest score on rotten tomatoes by a slim margin.
The success of this franchise was the result of closely catering to the character of Captain America and slowly intertwining him within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
These films did not follow trilogy rules as the last film performed better both critically and financially. Some of the highlights were the action sequences, the fun yet gritty tone compared to other Marvel movies, and the movies handled each character.
There were a few weaknesses such as the antagonists' character portrayals, and the shaky structure of the first film, but overall these are some of the best film Marvel has to offer.
9. Transformers Franchise
Although not technically a trilogy, there's no question that the first three movies set an insane precedent for the financial success of future action-oriented franchises.
The first three movies include:
- Transformers (2007)
- Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
- Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
The combined box office of those movies is over a billion dollars domestically and well over two and half billion worldwide. If you count the fourth film, then worldwide totals are well over three and half billion.
It's by far the profitable franchise on this list.
On the other hand, the critical success is nearly opposite of its financial fame. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the first movie did fairly well critically garnering anywhere from mixed to positive ratings, but the others movies tanked critically.
For example, the second film fell below 20 percent (0-100) which is considered very poor, and the third film ranged from the 20's to 30's rating wise which is still considered to be poor.
Many fans acknowledge the poor script and the confusing plot, but they enjoy the action scenes and special effects.
Director Michael Bay is notoriously known for huge action sequences and visually stunning explosions with less emphasis on character development, dialogue, or plot.
The consensus is that this series generates profit despite being critically panned by critics.
- Transformers - Rotten Tomatoes
Critics Consensus: While believable characters are hard to come by in Transformers, the effects are staggering and the action is exhilarating.
8. Pirates of the Caribbean
Pirates of the Caribbean
This is another successful money maker that started strong critically but faded over time.
The first film was very successful in both facets, but like most films in a series, its quality decreased with each film.
The focus is on the first three films which include:
- Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)
- Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)
The box office numbers were almost on par with the Transformers franchise and scored well over a billion domestically and over two and a half billion worldwide.
You can add another billion to that if you include the fourth film. The second film was the most successful financially both domestically and globally.
Critically the first film was a huge hit scoring nearly 80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with fans giving it a perfect A score, but each succeeding film saw a critical decline with the second and third garnering a 54 and 45 percent score representing mixed to negative reviews.
Personally I was never a fan of the franchise, but there was no denying the charm of its star actor Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow.
He was finally able to transcend his quirky, dark appeal to a broader audience and was the main reason why this franchise has been successful.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End - Rotten Tomatoes
Critics Consensus: POTC: AWE provides the thrilling action scenes, but mixes in too many characters with too many incomprehensible plot threads.
- Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise Box Office History - The Numbers
Pirates of the Caribbean franchise box office earnings
7. Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy
Three Flavours Cornetto
Director Edgar Wright's trilogy consists of:
- Shaun of the Dead (2004)
- Hot Fuzz (2007)
- The World's End (2013)
The success of this British comedy genre isn't because of the box office but rather the clever dialogue and sharp-witted comedic moments used in each film.
Indeed the critical success of all three combined averaged over 90 percent according to Rotten Tomatoes, which makes this trilogy one of the best reviewed of all time.
The box office numbers are far less impressive, but they make up for it due to relatively lower production values compared to the other trilogies on this list.
The actual domestic values are under 65 million and under 160 million worldwide. The have more success in DVD/Blu-Ray sales than the box office.
Critical success is due to the chemistry of the two actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost of which Pegg is also a co-writer of the scripts.
Each movie takes on some kind of disaster or major problem with humor and parody, which is far more subtle than some of the in your face humor of American films.
It also features plenty of action sequences and great interplay between the characters. Though it's a non-canon trilogy, each film brings the same style without skimping on the comedy.
- Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy Franchise Box Office History - The Numbers
Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy franchise box office earnings
- Shaun of the Dead - Rotten Tomatoes
Critics Consensus: Shaun of the Dead cleverly balances scares and witty satire, making for a bloody good zombie movie with loads of wit.
X-Men was one of the first comic book related franchises that hit it big.
The three movies were:
- X-Men (2000)
- X2- X-Men United (2003)
- X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
In a way it was responsible for ushering a new wave of comic book movies like Spider-Man, Iron Man, and The Avengers while generating a massive amount of money both domestically and internationally.
The original trilogy made around $600 million domestically and about a billion worldwide, which at the time was considered to be a huge victory. It also helped that these movies had critical acclaim, particularly the second with very positive ratings.
The movies were memorable for its characters through the portrayals of Charles Xavier and Wolverine as well as plenty of memorable action sequences and effects.
They were fairly loyal to the comic series but offered a lot of new characters and elements that reflected a human nature to everyone's favorite mutants.
Comic book movies are most successful when the action, plot, and characters are engaging to the audience.
Unfortunately the third film was a gross departure from the other two most notably in direction, but we've seen a resurgence of X-Men films with First Class (2011), Days of Future Past (2014), and Apocalypse (2016) that managed to breath new life into the franchise.
- X-Men Franchise Box Office History - The Numbers
X-Men franchise box office earnings
- X2: X-Men United - Rotten Tomatoes
Critics Consensus: Tightly scripted, solidly acted, and impressively ambitious, X2: X-Men United is bigger and better than its predecessor -- and a benchmark for comic sequels in general.
5. New James Bond
Daniel Craig's James Bond
Who ever thought the new James Bond movies would actually be almost as good as the original, and it's all thanks to new Bond actor Daniel Craig.
The three movies include:
- Casino Royale (2006)
- Quantum of Solace (2008)
- Skyfall (2012)
These three films grossed well over $650 million domestically and well over two billion worldwide with Skyfall generating the largest numbers.
It seems like these cool and sophisticated James Bond flicks will never die at the box office, and now we have the technology to make them look even more stylish. Of course it's not quite as iconic as the original but nothing ever is.
Critically these movies have been brilliant with the first and third film earning very high praise, and a fresh rating for the second movie on Rotten Tomatoes.
Past movies of this genre were getting more playful with too much focus on the sex appeal rather than the plot itself. This genre completely redefined the iconic series by introducing grit, a deeper unveiling of the main character, and a franchise that's as seductive as it is thrilling.
With post trilogy films like 2015's Spectre, there's no doubt we'll see a continuation of these flicks as long as there's innovation to be found.
- James Bond Franchise Box Office History - The Numbers
James Bond franchise box office earnings
- Casino Royale - Rotten Tomatoes
Critics Consensus: Casino Royale disposes of the silliness and gadgetry that plagued recent James Bond outings, and Daniel Craig delivers what fans and critics have been waiting for: a caustic, haunted, intense reinvention of 007.
4. Jason Bourne
A franchise that's arguably one of the best action series of the decade delivered a clever plot, great casting, smart dialogue, and plenty of unexpected twists and tricks along an explosive background.
The three films include:
- The Bourne Identity (2002)
- The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
- The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
The original trilogy grossed half a billion at the domestic box office and nearly a billion globally. It was also a huge critical success with all three collectively gathering a fresh rating well over 80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
It was also a rare trilogy in that the third movie became the highest rated film of the franchise along with the most financially successful of the trilogy.
A lot of the success could be attributed to Matt Damon's portrayal of Jason Bourne as well as the edited and performed action sequences.
The fast paced scenes were well directed, perfectly stylized, and delivered an intense, gripping feeling for those watching. The best action movies are the ones that are clever enough to get away from the standard cliché formula by creating their own genre.
It does well as a spy thriller and has done brilliantly overall despite suffering from newer installments like 2012's Bourne Legacy or 2016's Jason Bourne.
Hopefully we see a resurgence of this franchise in future films.
3. Original Spider-Man Trilogy
Sam Raimi's Spider Man
This is the original spider man series that starred Tobey Maguire in the role, and it still holds up very strongly among its comic book movie rivals.
This series along with X-Men have cultivated the new comic movie market that reached its peak with The Avengers.
The numbers at the box office have been impressive and often Spider-Man movies were in the top five in terms of numbers. The first three scored well over a billion in the U.S and nearly two and half billion worldwide.
However It wasn't just about the numbers; critics were intrigued by the character development, the side humor, and of course the villains that made this series.
It became a rare series where the sequel outperformed the original in almost every way, but unfortunately the third fell flat. The rebooted series didn't work either with the Amazing Spider-Man and especially the Amazing Spider-Man 2 getting mixed reviews.
Despite Spider-Man 3 (2007) being not so great, the overall trilogy gave us something more than a comic book movie.
These movies weren't just for the fanboys, they became fantastic movies for anyone to enjoy. They also were deeply rooted in the characters real feelings and emotions, which connected well with the audience.
Spider-Man himself remains a hugely popular character showcased in Captain America: Civil War, and we're likely to see more iterations of everyone's favorite, friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
- Spider-Man Franchise Box Office History - The Numbers
Spider-Man franchise box office earnings
- Spider-Man 2 - Rotten Tomatoes
Critics Consensus: Boasting an entertaining villain and deeper emotional focus, this is a nimble sequel that improves upon the original.
2. The Dark Knight Franchise
Christopher Nolan's Batman
This trilogy is one of the only ones where the second film is so powerful that it completely overrides the first and third of the series, however, all three were financial successes.
The three films include:
- Batman Begins (2005)
- The Dark Knight (2008)
- The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The numbers were over a billion domestically and over two billion worldwide. The second film, The Dark Knight (2008), was at the time record breaking in terms of numbers with midnight showings shattering records.
The actors made this franchise successful due to their portrayal of darker, more realistic characters. Christian Bale was a solid Batman and was a huge improvement over his predecessor.
In fact the entire series completely improved upon Batman & Robin, which was a franchise killer that turned the entire series into a joke.
However under Christopher Nolan's direction, the series became darker, edgier, and far more serious than before.
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises were both critically successful with ratings well into the 80's on Rotten Tomatoes, but The Dark Knight was the star comic-book movie because it revamped the villainous Joker to levels we've never dreamed of.
Indeed the Joker's portrayal was so powerful that it earned the late Heath Ledger whom played the character a posthumous Oscar for his complete transformation.
1. The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings
This now legendary series adapted from the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien is considered to be the most popular and financially successful film trilogy of the 21st century.
The three movies included are:
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Financial numbers for these three were in excess of a billion in the U.S, and over two and half billion worldwide, which at the time was record breaking. The ratings were solid A's across the board, and there was very little to criticize.
I will say that it's not for everyone despite the high praise as these movies are very long, and some might find them difficult to process.
However even those who aren't fans love the music, sounds, the cinematography, the visual and special effects, and so much more.
These films are stunning to look at with landscapes that stretch hundreds of miles with a feeling that you're getting entranced by Middle Earth, but it's more than just the visual.
Each character has its own quirks and traits, the plot is fresh and wonderful, and Return of the King is one of the only fantasy films to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
In fact, the last film essentially swept the Oscars by winning all of its nominations, and it tied Titanic and Ben-Hur with 11 wins.
There has yet to be a trilogy so superior on almost every single level that this was. Only the Lord of the Rings was able to achieve this level of greatness, and it'll be cemented for years to come.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Rotten Tomatoes
Critics Consensus: Visually breathtaking and emotionally powerful, The Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King is a moving and satisfying conclusion to a great trilogy.