Edgar Wright was supposedly joking when he first started talking about a Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, after an interviewer noticed that Shaun of the Dead featured a red (strawberry) Cornetto ice cream cone and Hot Fuzz featured the character eating blue cones. Wright joked that it was a riff on Kristof Kieslowski's arty Three Colors Trilogy, and then-- in the way that fans can do-- people repeated the joke to Wright until he and his collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost decided to just make the trilogy official. They already had an idea for their third film together, The World's End, when they made Hot Fuzz in 2006, but the inclusion of a green mint Cornetto cone-- in a spot in the movie I won't spoil-- makes the trilogy official. Three movies, made by the same people, featuring the same brand of cheap British ice cream-- and, OK, enough thematic similarities for it to all make sense as a unit.
2013 has been crammed, like most years, with big-budget sequels, and two of them threequels-- The Hangover Part III, which probably really will be the end of a trilogy, and Iron Man 3, which only counts as a trilogy if you discount the huge importance of The Avengers and the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron. But there are also two, honest-to-God threequels that, at least for now, are wrapping up true trilogies. Both of them involved directors working with stars who were also co-writers, and who had been working together for years. Both of them wrapped up stories that began in the 90s. Both of them were made for a fraction of what it cost to make Iron Man 3. And, crucially, both of them are pretty damn great.
The first is Before Midnight, the third film between Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke that follows lovers Celine and Jesse in a European city (this time in Greece) and essentially watches them talk. Before Midnight followed the pattern of the second film, Before Sunset, in that it seemed totally impossible until it suddenly existed-- unlike Wright, when pestered about wrapping up his trilogy, Linklater never dropped a single hint that he might actually do it. Linklater, Delpy and Hawke filmed Before Midnight last summer, premiered it at Sundance in January, and raked in raves from people who not only couldn't believe a threequel could be so good, but who were instantly hungry for a fourth film. Currently there's no plans to make one… but in nine years, it's very, very possible one will suddenly emerge again.
The second, of course, is The World's End, which is very definitively the final installment of a very definitive trilogy, one so dead-set on being a conclusion that its very title promises the end of all existence. What actually happens in the movie, for the most part, isn't so dramatic, and is much more like Wright's previous films. Once again Simon Pegg stars as a man who's fetishistically attached to a single way of life that's not exactly healthy. Once again a large number of scenes take place in bars. And once again, Pegg's character-- along with a pal played by Nick Frost-- learns in some way to grow up. In Shaun it was all about giving up childish things and committing to a relationship. In Hot Fuzz it's about giving up on macho cop violence and opening up to friendship and compromise. In The World's End it's about tackling a much darker issue-- alcoholism-- and letting go of a crippling nostalgia for the past.
Those three themes are relatively different, but like the Before trilogy, they fall roughly in step with the experience of these characters as they age. Celine and Jesse have an incredible romantic night in Before Sunrise when they're 24, reunite and face disappointing truths about growing up in Before Sunset when they're 33, and struggle with marriage and kids and other, deeper disappointments as 42-year-olds in Before Midnight. Pegg and Frost don't play the same characters in the Cornetto films, but the parallels are there throughout-- white, pop-culture-minded English men who aren't necessarily dealing well with the challenges the world throws at them. Roughly the three films can be seen as three different phases of life-- committing to a girl in your 20s, committing to a line of work in your 30s, then allowing yourself to let go of your youth as 40 looms. The Before and Cornetto trilogies express this ambivalence about aging in completely different ways-- Before through constant chatter, Cornetto through genre mash-ups and kinetic action-- but generally reach the same conclusions. You've got to grow up at some point. But you've got to value who you love while you do it.
For a while a trilogy was the ultimate in crowd-pleasing, money-grubbing excess, a way to extend a hit film into a franchise it didn't necessarily need-- three Ocean's Eleven movies, three Matrix movies, three Blade and Butterfly Effect movies, whether we needed them or not. But these days franchises extend to five movies-- Pirates of the Caribbean, Twilight-- or eight-- Harry Potter-- if they can get away with it. The trilogy is starting to feel old-fashioned, and downright modest. And it might be the perfect time for people like Edgar Wright and Richard Linklater to reclaim it, with chatty, frustrating and endlessly watchable characters who are actually worth the three films we spend with them.