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Marvel’s Movie Trilogies Are Better (& More Connected) Than You Realize

The Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to delight in using trilogies - but do these really work, or should Marvel drop them completely?

Iron Man Captain America and Thor in MCU

Marvel's trilogies are a lot more closely connected than most people think. Hollywood has long been attracted to the idea of a film trilogy, influenced by popular trilogies such as Back to the Future and Star Wars. It became something of a template, an easy format to follow with potential franchises that worked in terms of marketing and allowed talent to be signed up contractually for a set number of films.

Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has always tended to assume that each solo franchise would become a trilogy, with talent initially contracted for six or seven films (three solo movies, plus three-to-four Avengers crossover films). Just as Marvel planned, viewers have been treated to three Iron Man, Captain America, and three Thor movies. It's believed the Marvel/Sony deal requires Marvel to produce three Spider-Man films as well. Of course, the irony in this case is that the MCU doesn't necessarily require trilogies at all; Marvel's shared cinematic universe model is far more radical, and characters could potentially turn up anywhere. The trilogy mindset may have actually prevented more cameos and team-ups, of the kind audiences saw with the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok.

Related: Avengers: Endgame Would've Been Different With Marvel’s 2014 Phase 3

But, on a critical level, it's interesting to ask whether or not these trilogies work in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Is it possible that Marvel needs to be a little bit more radical? Or do the trilogies have innate value in and of themselves?

The Alleged Problem With Marvel Trilogies

Hollywood's trilogies have traditionally been self-contained; the idea is that, if you're a fan of Christopher Nolan's interpretation of Batman, you know exactly which three films you need to watch in order to appreciate the stories. But the shared universe model sits uncomfortably with that, because the characters all pop up in the tentpole Avengers movies as well. What's more, because these are major events, they tend reshape the status quo for the follow-up installments.

Take the Iron Man trilogy, for instance. The first and second films are stand-alone, but to appreciate Iron Man 3, audiences really need to have watched The Avengers. A major subplot is the fact that Tony Stark is struggling with PTSD in the aftermath of the Battle of New York, and there's frequent discussion of wormholes and alien invasions. Even the film's most amusing narrative conceit - that Stark is recounting the tale of his battle with Killian to Bruce Banner - doesn't work if you don't know who Bruce Banner is. The Captain America trilogy is even more problematic; again, the first and second films are relatively self-contained, but Captain America: Civil War suddenly tosses in a bevy of other superheroes. Thor follows the same pattern, with Thor: Ragnarok requiring viewers to know all about the relationship between Thor and the Hulk. As separate movies in the shared universe, every one of these films work well. As chapters in a trilogy, they feel more than a little disjointed.

Related: Disney's Iron Man 3 Decision Completely Changed Tony Stark's MCU Story

Even the Avengers movies suffer from the same problem. Joss Whedon's masterful storytelling means it's possible to watch The Avengers without checking out the whole of the MCU's Phase 1 beforehand (although you'll miss a lot of nuance). But Avengers: Age of Ultron makes absolutely no sense; where has S.H.I.E.L.D. gone, and why is Nick Fury on the run? That's never properly explained in the film itself. As for Avengers: Infinity War, that's the culmination of a decade's worth of storytelling, with so many new characters and concepts tossed in that the script just has to assume viewers know who most of them are.

Page 2 of 3: What The Iron Man, Thor & Captain America Trilogies Get Right

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