Raise your hand if you've ever been a regular fan of a TV series and, after watching an episode, thought to yourself, Well, that was a lot of nothing that happened. Okay, good. Now raise your other hand if you've lost count of the number of times that you've watched a comic book, sci-fi, or fantasy-based movie trilogy and by the time it gets to the third movie, it's a smoking trainwreck. Sometimes, it doesn't even require three movies to run it into the ground, but jumps the shark with the second installment.
In fact, you probably already had a few in mind before you even finished reading the last sentence. Can we ever forget Emo Peter Parker? Or X-Men: The Last Stand? Or Blade: Trinity? Or — you know what, let's just go ahead and assume we can toss every third movie of pre-MCU comic book movie trilogies onto the pile. Same goes for The Matrix movies, a franchise that went from "This is f'ing BRILLIANT!" to "What did I even just WATCH?" in three jumps.
And it's not limited to film, either: Even good TV shows fall prey to the filler episode (or its closely-related cousin, the bottle episode), a byproduct of the need to make a storyline last for an entire full-length season. Fans of [The Walking Dead](series:201193), for example, can point to the second season as a whole lot of the survivors hanging out on the farm and not a lot of plot development (and we won't talk about how off the rails it went in season 3). In any marathon, face-plants are inevitable.
But I'd mentioned Marvel in the title, and that was for a reason. And that reason is that Marvel Studios may be breaking even that pattern. Not accidentally, either. It's not simply that they've had a good run (though they clearly have) or infinite luck. It's by design.
That seems an odd thing to say, doesn't it? Surely, if any movie studio has earned enough goodwill for fans to forgive them a misstep, it's Marvel. Surely, if any movie studio has the bank to mitigate a flop at the box office, it's Marvel. But the very structure of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ensured that there is no place for filler episodes or movie misfires.
So far, each sequel in Marvel's franchises have been stronger than each of their predecessors. While the Iron Man franchise is the only Marvel Studios franchise to have three movies under its belt so far, there was no drop-off in quality by the third film. In fact, the franchise only got stronger with each offering, despite what some fans had to say about how the character of Mandarin was portrayed. From a pure storytelling perspective, the second movie was better than the first, and the third was stronger than the second. The box office numbers support this trend, as well, with worldwide box office totals having increased with each film: Iron Man at $582,443,126, Iron Man 2 making $623,561,331, and Iron Man 3 generating an eye-popping $1,172,805,920 worldwide (The-Numbers.com).
The Thor and Captain America franchises have followed suit. [Captain America: The Winter Soldier](movie:254973) was one of the best superhero movies of the decade, both critically and commercially, not just within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As for [Thor: The Dark World](movie:206462), while it still had major flaws in a cardboard cutout villain, most fans would agree that it was a definite step up from the first Thor movie. And while the third movie of each franchise has not yet been released, from what we already know of [Captain America: Civil War](movie:994409) and [Thor: Ragnarok](movie:956858), it's a fairly safe bet that those two films will greatly improve upon the already solid sequels. Again, box office numbers support this.
Nor will you find filler in Marvel's small screen offerings. Even the most die-hard fans can agree that Marvel's [Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.](series:722469) took a while to find its footing, which can be a challenge for any TV series let alone one that had to weave together and support storylines from the various films. But the show evened out after the first half dozen episodes, and really picked up in the post-Winter Soldier back nine of season 1. Thus far, the first half of the second season has been a fast-paced, tightly-knit story that hasn't used any filler to stretch out the plot.
Its midseason complement, [Marvel's Agent Carter](series:1119765), has been even stronger. It hit the ground running and hasn't looked back, with each episode building swiftly upon the last.
One could argue that the reason for fan reception growing ever more positive is increased brand awareness, and it's true, this does play a vital part in the growing popularity. But many other franchises and studios have stumbled and fallen in the eyes of their audience, and with far less time to shoot themselves in the foot. Marvel, meanwhile, appears to only be getting warmed up. So while savviness in building a brand identity does account for some of their success, that identity wouldn't continue to increase in strength if the product Marvel offered didn't also increase in quality. The quality offered is that filler and backward momentum largely fail to exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When Marvel Studios started building their expanded movie universe, we thought it was ambitious, maybe even crazy, mostly because it was the first time anyone had ever tried it. The idea of a studio not only launching multiple franchises within a few years of one another, but then tying them all together with an overarching storyline seemed impossible.
But if Marvel building an entirely new canon for its cinematic universe presented a wholly new set of challenges no studio had ever had to face before, it also laid the groundwork for quality. There is simply no time to backslide.
Consider the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be one giant, interwoven rope. The solo franchises and TV series are the individual strands braided together to form the rope. What most people don't realize is that rope braiding is largely structural, not decorative. Individual strands woven together make the entire thing stronger, because each strand evenly redistributes the strain so that woven together, they can hold far more weight than before. It becomes more than the sum of its parts.
But the thing about a rope is, if one of those strands snaps, the entire thing unravels.
So you damn well better make sure those strands are made of tough stuff, unfrayed, because they each need to hold a lot of weight.
Every individual strand that comes from Marvel Studios has a three-part job: 1.) Telling the self-contained story of that single movie or episode, 2.) Telling the larger story of that series' season or of that franchise, and 3.) Advancing the story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. And these pieces must balance all three of these parts every time.
Still with me? Allow Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to illustrate - I'll use the midseason finale "What They Become" as an example. In that episode, all three checkboxes were ticked off. There was the episode's self-contained story with S.H.I.E.L.D. attempting to reach the secret city before Hydra did. The season-long cat-and-mouse game between Skye and Cal progressed, with Skye meeting her lunatic father for the first time and learning more about herself. Lastly, the episode ushered in the existence of Inhumans into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a bang, something long-hinted at but not confirmed until the moment Skye got blasted with Terrigen mist and Quaked out to become Daisy Johnson, Inhuman.
If any one episode were to be filler, or any single movie to be a flop, it wouldn't be self-contained misfire. There would be a ripple effect. Imagine how far back it would have set the entire MCU had Captain America: The Winter Soldier bombed or completely missed the mark. It wouldn't have just lost Marvel a bit of money. It would have set back the entire Captain America franchise, which would mean we probably wouldn't see Civil War, which would branch off from the events of [The Avengers: Age Of Ultron](movie:293035) (in which Cap would be directly influenced by what he experienced during Winter Soldier) and would have led into [The Avengers: Infinity War](movie:738027). And while this is a bit more of a logical leap, it's not unreasonable to think we would have kissed the recent, glorious reunion between Spider-Man and Marvel goodbye. A misfire in the MCU doesn't just set a movie back; it sets everything back.
So the pressure is great for each new director that joins the Marvel family. It's a good sort of pressure, like being handed the keys to a fully loaded Lamborghini and told to floor it. But you don't want to be the one to crash it into a wall.
Likewise, every writer working within Team Marvel has to be aware of the stories that have come before and at least have a vague idea of the ones that will follow, otherwise, their script will not be able to serve its purpose of acting as a stepping stone from the previous movie to the next. This requires multiple rewrites and lots of compromise. Sometimes, as in the case of Edgar Wright departing [Ant-Man](movie:9048), a writer or director can't make his or her vision fit into the grander scheme, and so goodbyes happen.
It's harsh - but it's necessary. All movies and TV episodes matter, but in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they matter threefold. Each strand depends upon the strength of every other strand in a way that nothing else in Hollywood ever has before. It's not necessarily the easiest formula upon which to build an empire.
But it sure is a smart one.