How the MCU Challenged the Threequel Curse (plus how others fared)
By Kevin Rusley
When Nick Fury first stepped out of the shadows to greet Tony Stark in the after-credits stinger of Iron Man ten years ago, it not only signaled the dawn of a new era of blockbusters, but the next logical step in offering up a faithful adaptation of many long running comic-book properties.
Back in 2012, I looked over the ups and downs of the handful of superhero film franchises that had made it all the way to Chapter 3 before going downhill.
With big screen superheroes assuming command of the box office and Avengers: Infinity War on the horizon, now’s a good time as any for a quick retrospective at the trilogies that have formed in the meantime, and how they’ve managed to circumvent the problems that doomed many of their predecessors.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Christopher Nolan’s ambitious follow-up to the uber-successful and genre-defining The Dark Knight marks the first time Batman has retained the same director for three consecutive outings.
While it sticks the landing better than most, it still suffers from the usual bouts of capping off the trilogy by cramming way too much into a single production. Even with its nearly 3-hour runtime, much of the narrative finds Bruce Wayne trying to re-become Batman again twice in the same film before the bad guys unleash their apocalyptic designs on Gotham City.
Nolan & co. wanted to do their renditions of The Dark Knight Returns (Batman called from retirement) AND Knightfall (Bane breaks the Bat) AND No Man’s Land (Gotham cut off from the outside world) all at the same time. And since it’s the end of the series, they have to introduce Catwoman AND some kind of flying vehicle AND some version of Robin before it’s all over, ALL while closing the book on the various themes and subplots from the first two films.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
For the first post-Avengers MCU film to hit cinemas, Marvel called forth Shane Black to apply his signature style to another zippy techno-thriller that finds Tony Stark staving off anxiety attacks and lava men. The film is most remembered for its controversial portrayal of Iron Man’s arch-nemesis, the classic though culturally problematic villain the Mandarin.
Black proves a great fit for Iron Man’s action-comedy snark, even if there’s a fair amount of narrative gymnastics in order to show Tony both stripped of all his wonderful toys for the middle act AND summoning all his armors for a spectacular lightshow of a climax.
The Iron Man films ended up being far more character-focused than a lot of fans were probably expecting, thanks in no small part to Robert Downey Jr.’s consistent portrayal throughout the franchise. While IM3 does end with a sense of finality (Tony gets the shrapnel removed from his heart, and the chest piece with it) it was clear that ol’ Shellhead would be suiting up for further adventures.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
It’s amazing. You want more? Okay...
Of the big three Avengers, Captain America is arguably the one whose story is most inseparable from the story of the larger team, so it seems natural that the third film with Cap’s name in the title would also serve as “Avengers 2.5.” The Russo Brothers return to build on the storylines from Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron (surpassing the latter in quality) and crank the action up to 11 as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes must confront the fallout of their good intentions.
By all rights it should collapse under the weight of its many spinning plates, with new franchise-starters Spider-Man and Black Panther joining the fray. But by making time for quieter moments of humanity for its powered people in between the explosive big-screen spectacle, it’s a middle chapter that simultaneously feels like a proper culmination, the kind of story that justifies bringing the shared universe together in the first place.
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
If I was 12 and this was the 2nd or 3rd X-Men movie, I might’ve gone nuts over it. But after 16 years, Fox’s flagship Marvel franchise shows its cracks more than ever. Following the stellar outings of First Class and Days of Future Past, the loaded comic-ready cast and better-than-ever special effects can’t overcome predictable, patchwork plotting and Simon Kinberg’s bland dialogue. Returning characters have grown stale (with Jennifer Lawrence practically sleepwalking thru every scene) while the newer cast gets little-to-no development.
While it’s far from unwatchable with a few impressive setpieces, the script must blaze thru the origin of Apocalypse and gathering his henchmen, all while introducing the new class of familiar mutant mainstays, well before the plot can actually get going. And even then they still make time for a Wolverine cameo. The visually nifty Horsemen stand around with nothing to do for long stretches, and we don’t get a proper team-vs-team bout until the finale. With all the sound and fury signifying nothing, one could easily forget that under all that gak and voice distortion is Oscar Isaac playing the title villain.
The three Wolverine films mark one of the few occasions where each installment was unanimously superior to its predecessor.
For Hugh Jackman’s final performance in the role that rocketed him to stardom, James Mangold returns do direct a more character-focused, dystopian western road trip that finds an aging and near-suicidal Logan contemplating his inevitable, violent end as he cares for the ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart in a heartbreaking turn) until the quiet young mutant Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen) offers a last shot at redemption, along with a world of trouble.
While the R-rating opens up for plenty of the berzerker slashing that fans have craved since the beginning, the story finds its strength by effectively blowing up the X-Men mythos and going all-in with a soulful, intimate, and relentlessly bleak drama with Jackman, Stewart, and Keen all delivering Oscar-worthy turns.
Thor Ragnorok (2017)
After the shaky reception to the more straight-faced Thor: The Dark World, the filmmakers (Chris Hemsworth especially) recognized what a boring and one-note character Thor was turning into and opted for a new direction for the last chance to make use of the Asgardian toybox before Infinity War.
Director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) was brought on board for a bombastic planet-hopping adventure that trades the serious-minded Arthurian vibe for a Jack Kirby-inspired 70s and 80s hard rock sensibility. Hemsworth finally gets to put his comedic chops on full display, embracing the lunkheaded jock side of the thunder god as he teams up with Loki, an exiled Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and even the Hulk to stop his rampaging sister, the goddess of death Hela (Cate Blanchett, going full death metal queen), in between punching demons, zombies, and spaceships.
The most acclaimed of all the Thor films (92% on Rotten Tomatoes) pulls off the precarious balance of going full-blown action fantasy comedy in the same story where Asgard and many of its familiar faces are wiped out, even making time for off-beat character actors like Jeff Goldblum, Rachel House, Karl Urban, and Waititi himself as a CGI gladiator made of rocks. The necessary themes and character beats are present to pay off the previous films while celebrating (rather than simply mocking) the inherent dopiness of the comics.