In the realm of movies, the trilogy reigns supreme over lesser kinds of series. Thanks to the popularity of Star Wars, The Lord Of The Rings, Back To The Future, The Godfather, and The Dark Knight, making a self-contained trilogy indicates a sense of vague importance. The trilogy is a craft beer in a sea of Hollywood Busch Lights, and it once stood strong against the storms of cash-grab sequels and spinoffs. A trilogy told a complete story in three movies and left on a high note, before producers could convince the creative types to castrate themselves on the altar of Foreign Box Office Gross and Tie-In Merchandising Opportunities.
The trilogy is such an ever-present concept that even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which every film is connected to every other film, tends to make its “single hero” installments in series of threes. There are three Iron Man movies and three Captain America movies, and in the near future, there will be a third Thor movie, a third Guardians Of The Galaxy, and two sequels to Spider-Man: Homecoming, because ambition is truly blind. And most pop culture sites deem these trilogies, because hey, three movies makes a trilogy, right?
The world begged for another third Spider-Man film, and Marvel listened.
Look, fighting for the integrity of the word “trilogy” is like fighting for the integrity of the phrase “dick salad.” “Dick salad” doesn’t need me to start a war to defend the honor of “dick salad,” because the meaning of “dick salad” just isn’t that important to most people. My quest to apply the word “trilogy” correctly is a lonely howl into the aisles of your local Best Buy. If the word “trilogy” continues to be slapped onto the cover of any three disc set that focuses on one character, but tells a ridiculously incomplete story, my name will not go down in any history books as the one man that planted his flag when all others retreated into the hills of lazy movie marketing.
But if you go into the Captain America films or the Iron Man films, or even the latest batch of X-Men films, expecting a trilogy that you can watch in the same manner as Lord Of The Rings, you’re going to be disappointed at best. At worst, you’ll be monstrously confused. For instance, if you decide to start your venture into X-Men with First Class, not even an hour will go by before parts of the movie refuse to make sense. Wolverine makes a cameo wherein he tells Magneto and Professor X to “Fuck off,” and ha ha that’s funny because he was in that other X-Men non-trilogy, where he most decidedly didn’t tell Magneto and Professor X to fuck off.
That said, when you haven’t been repeatedly alerted to the significance of Wolverine, it’s just a short scene where a random man at a bar tells the two main characters to fuck off and is never referenced or mentioned again. If you don’t want to watch most of the Avengers movies but still want to dive into the Captain America section of things, you’ll be treated to a movie that makes sense, a movie that sort of makes sense, and a movie in which famed hero Iron Man shows up with a few other guys, but they all just fucking hate Captain America. And if your sole pleasure in life is Robert Downey Jr., you’ll get a solid origin story with Iron Man, a movie that’s basically about Nick Fury trying to convince Iron Man to be in other movies with Iron Man 2, and a movie about the repercussions of a movie that you didn’t see with Iron Man 3.
In the grand scheme of things, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is all about building the next Avengers film. So rather than get the most important moments in these characters’ lives, you’re basically getting Iron Man side quests. And that’s not bad, but it’s not a trilogy. In a trilogy, the growth of the narrative and the characters is (hopefully) steady, because you’re seeing the whole story. You don’t have to worry about filling in the blanks with other movies that weren’t in the Blu-ray collection. You get the whole puzzle, and none of the other puzzle enthusiasts have to tell you “Oh, you had some missing pieces? Well, if you put together a few other puzzles, I bet you could find them in those boxes that you have to buy separately.”
And I don’t want to pretend that Marvel has invented some kind of labyrinth that drowns you in continuity if you decided to skip out on Doctor Strange or Ant-Man. The movies do a pretty good job of explaining what went on in the other movies, because they know that not every first-time MCU theatergoer got the chance to obsess over 40 hours of superhero movies before they walked into Infinity War.
No better time to see a superhero movie than when you haven’t slept for two days.
This also isn’t some kind of weird demand for Marvel to go back to the days when Daredevil and Spider-Man had no idea about each other. Marvel doesn’t seem to take a lot of risks, but it does have a cool thing going. And one day, I will invent time travel in order to tell middle-school Daniel to just stick to the Blade franchise, because eventually he’ll have a Hulk movie that’s worth the ticket price.
However, Marvel did invent a movie universe where if you stick to the “story” of one hero, you lose out on countless major character moments. Their progression becomes a jagged chart of emotional highs, and the movies go from being building blocks in a larger structure to “that one where Captain America was happy” or “that one where Iron Man was paranoid.”
“That’s my secret, Cap — I’m always paranoid.”
The art of the trilogy isn’t dead. John Wick is getting a third and final installment, and I’m sure that there will be copious future series that tap out after three rounds. But the emphasis on shared universes and having every film be one big Justice League mixer makes it a little harder to get real trilogies. But that’s about it. If you need me, I’ll be screaming at the day manager of a Target for having the gall to wrap all three Iron Man movies together without a warning label.
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