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

Iron Man Is About Tony's Past Sins

Marvel's trilogies are a lot more cohesive than is commonly assumed. Their focus isn't on the flow of narrative events; rather, it's upon recurring themes. The Iron Man trilogy, for example, is all about Tony's attempt to redeem himself, and to absolve himself for both his own past sins, and the sins of his father. That theme is pretty explicit in Iron Man, where Stark's experience in Afghanistan leads him to reassess his life, create the Iron Man armor, and start taking down terrorists who are using Stark weapons across the globe. No longer is he willing to be the "Merchant of Death," profiting from war and bloodshed. He messed up the world, and he realizes that he has both the power and the responsibility to put it right. Obadiah Stane, as a father-figure, represents everything Tony Stark was groomed to be; when Stane dies, it's symbolically the death of Stark's past.

This theme is subtly reframed and expanded in Iron Man 2, as Tony is forced to confront the legacy of his father, Howard Stark - the good and the bad. Whiplash represents the way his father took advantage of others, with the sins of the father visited upon the next generation. Meanwhile, the cure for Tony's Palladium poisoning comes from learning the truth about his father, with Tony coming to understand Howard in a way he never had before. Even the fact that Tony is holding a Stark Expo is intended to signpost the "legacy" theme; the Stark Expos were famously associated with Howard. And then Iron Man 3 goes back to exploring the consequences of Tony's past; his actions back at the turn of the Millennium set in motion the whole chain of events, inspiring Killian and Hansen to develop Extremis and ultimately become villains. Tony Stark is a hero who is haunted by the legacy of the Stark name, and his story is one of reconciling himself with who he was, and striving to somehow put it right.

Related: MCU Phase 1 Moments That Disney Wouldn't Allow Today

Captain America Is About Bucky

Chris Evans as Captain America Steve Rogers and Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes Winter Soldier in Civil War

The Captain America trilogy is the most cohesive in terms of overarching narrative, and that's quite impressive given it changes genres after Captain America: The First Avenger. The first film is a period piece set during the Second World War, and it establishes everything viewers need to know about Steve Rogers and his friendship with Bucky Barnes. Bucky's return is one of the driving plot points in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Captain America: Civil War continues that narrative, with Steve dividing from the rest of the Avengers because he refuses to abandon Bucky. This is a straightforward narrative arc, of the kind not seen in any of the other Marvel trilogies.

But the same thematic patterns are there as well. One of the most prominent themes is that of sacrifice, with Steve Rogers defined as a hero who will always choose to sacrifice himself for others. At the end of The First Avenger, he loses everything when he crashes in the ice, and awakens in a strange new world. In The Winter Soldier, he is beginning to build a new life for himself in S.H.I.E.L.D., but ultimately chooses to bring it all down in order to destroy Hydra. And in Civil War, Captain America's innate sense of right and wrong means his new "family," the Avengers, is torn apart. Steve is locked in a cycle, in which his entire life is torn down and built back up again.

Another notable theme is that of truth, with Captain America continually unmasking the secrets of others. The First Avenger reveals the truth of who Steve Rogers really is; in The Winter Soldier, he unmasks the truth behind S.H.I.E.L.D. and reveals it to the world, and in Civil War he can't just stand by while an innocent man is blamed for a crime he didn't commit.

Thor Is About Earning The Throne

At heart, the Thor franchise is about the throne of Asgard. In the first Thor film, Odin is about to step down as King of Asgard when the Frost Giants attack; Odin is furious to realize how petty and vain his son truly is, and banishes him to Midgard. There, Thor begins the quest to become worthy, to earn the throne that was previously just his by right. That theme continues on into Thor: The Dark World, which Thor choosing a path of self-sacrifice rather than keeping the Aether on Asgard and inviting the Dark Elves to meet Asgard's armies in battle. All the Nine Realms see him fight for them, and he earns their respect. And finally, in Thor: Ragnarok, Thor comes to understand that Asgard is a people, not a place, and makes the most terrible decision of all - to destroy his home. The film ends with Thor seated on a very different throne to the one he envisioned.

Related: How The Thor Movies Secretly Introduced The Multiverse To The MCU

For Loki, of course, the throne is an obsession, something he desires as a way to prove himself to his father. He conspires with the Frost Giants in a misguided attempt to earn the throne, even attempting genocide; when he claims the throne in Thor: The Dark World it's through treachery, and he spends his time indulging himself, rewriting his own personal history in dramatic fashion. While Thor has proven himself worthy, Loki has consistently done the opposite; his story is one in which he continually falls short.

Page 3 of 3: Why Marvel Trilogies Secretly Work

Key Release Dates
  • Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
  • The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
  • Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019
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