On the face of it, Men in Black 3 really had no business being as good as it is. This is a sci-fi comedy franchise date that dates back to the days when Bill Clinton was in office and the Spice Girls were new on the scene. Its critically reviled previous installment hit theaters 10 long years ago, years in which almost no one, with the possible exception of Will Smith’s accountant, was pining for another Men in Black movie. Its production was widely known to have been plagued with major headaches and delays as the script went through endless rewrites. And then, of course, there’s just the whole 3-ness of it all.

When it comes to movie franchises, three has almost never been a magic number. The history of threequels is largely a chronicle of disappointment, pointlessness, and overstayed pop-culture welcome. For every Toy Story 3, Return of the King, or Return of the Jedi, there have been a whole lot of Superman 3s, Matrix Revolutions, Spider-man 3s, The Godfather: Part IIIs, Jaws 3-Ds, Star Trek III: The Search for Spocks, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s Ends. For a threequel to succeed, it needs to pass a pretty tough smell test, justifying its existence to the audience as something other than a cynical cash grab. It needs to find depths we didn’t know existed in characters who have grown familiar over the years. It needs to enliven the series with fresh elements without those elements seeming forced or contrived. And it needs to bring about a satisfying feeling of resolution, a sense of a grander plan than we ever realized was there being brought to fruition.

Reasonable people can disagree about how successfully Men in Black 3 pulled all of that off. Though it didn’t blow away the box-office competition, my wife and daughter both said they liked it as much or more than the first one, an opinion Roger Ebert also holds. Personally, I’m not sure I’d go that far — it seemed to me there were a couple of logic holes in there big enough to drive a Boglodite star cruiser through. Still, there’s a case to be made that the movie deserves at least a moderately high spot in the rankings of the best threequels of all time. And while that may sound like damning it with tallest-midget praise, as we head into yet another summer movie season that’s fully stocked with sequels and threequels, it definitely means something. If nothing else, Men in Black 3 sets the threequel bar for July’s The Dark Knight Rises, as highly anticipated a third installment (starting with Batman Begins, of course) as we’ve seen in years.

Where would you put Men in Black 3 in your own pantheon of threequels? What, in your mind, is the best threequel ever? What is the worst?

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