Did Marvel Beat The "Third Movie" Syndrome?

Last week's Cracked podcast was all about pop culture disappointments, and one of the issues they raised was the dreaded "third movie" syndrome that seems to afflict genre movies, particularly superhero films. Their observation is that since the Superman movies in the '70s, most superhero series tend to follow a fairly reliable paradigm:

  1. Origin Story — Hero and supporting cast are introduced, including possibly the arch-villain, hero discovers powers and learns, after a series of trials, how to use them for the good of society and his/her friends
  2. "Crisis" Story — Hero encounters a new and powerful enemy that tests him/her physically, emotionally, and psychologically, begins to have doubts about role as protector, ultimately overcomes villain but at a great and terrible price
  3. The "It All Goes To Crap" Story — With the big dramatic beats mostly resolved from the first two movies, the filmmakers try to pull out all the stops with a story that's supposed to sum up everything the franchise is about and redefine the character, but it ends up being totally excessive and incoherent, with too many new characters, subplots, retcons/flashbacks to the original movie, even as things are supposed to be drawing to a close

Clearly not all superhero franchises fit this model. Richard Donner's Superman movies fit the first two parts of the pattern, with an origin and a crisis in the first and second movies, respectively, but that's about it. After Donner was fired from Superman II, his replacement Richard Lester tried to take the series in a more comedic, slapstick direction with Superman III, costarring Richard Pryor and ignoring most of the established characters and plot elements from the first two films. Likewise, when Tim Burton quit the Batman series in the '90s, Joel Schumacher went for a more stylized, "comic book-y" approach in his two sequels, which seemed utterly disconnected from the Burton movies.

But as superhero franchises gained traction in the '00s, thanks to X-Men and Spider-Man, studios began to see the movies less as standalone affairs than as parts of larger stories. X-Men didn't have a proper origin story (at least not until over a decade later with First Class), but it did have a sequel with a nastier villain, and it had an incoherent, overstuffed third movie. The Raimi Spider-Man series had a full-on origin movie, plus a "crisis" story (Peter loses his powers and ditches his costume), and a bloated finale that made a feeble attempt to call back to Spidey's origins while looking ahead to a nonexistent fourth film. The purest example is Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy: Batman Begins is a textbook origin story, with the hero not even appearing in costume until the second act, following the pattern established by the 1978 Superman. Dark Knight is a full-blown "crisis" story that ends with the hero disgraced and in hiding following a showdown with his arch-nemesis. Dark Knight Rises suggests at first that Bruce Wayne might not even be Batman anymore, thanks to his physical and psychic injuries, though most of those handicaps disappear when he puts the suit back on, and we're left with a spectacle about more Waynetech gizmos plus the astonishing healing power of prison chiropractics. You can even see this trend with movies that failed to become franchises. Green Lantern's ending sets up a showdown between Hal and his former good guy mentor Sinestro (all the more shocking because clearly, no one named "Sinestro" could ever possibly be evil). In such movies you can sense the unmade sequels flailing in the void like phantom limbs.

But when you get to the Marvel movies, something interesting happens. They don't fit this pattern. Yes, there are origin movies, except apart from Cap, they aren't, really. Thor is, well, Thor. Tony Stark is Iron Man — unlike in the comics, he doesn't even bother with a secret identity. They might learn a lesson about pride or arrogance or greed, but they pretty much are the title character from the get-go. And there are crisis movie sequels in which the stakes are lifted, but they don't fit the same plan. Captain America actually becomes even more of his old self at the end of Winter Soldier, ditching his SHIELD-issued uniform for his original costume. Tony Stark doesn't stop being Iron Man in the second movie. (He does in the third movie, but that doesn't fit the traditional "crisis" model, and you know he's coming back anyway.) And Thor is, well, he's just Thor. (I'm sure many fans will argue that the more pertinent character arc in those movies is Loki's.)

Why is this? Part of it is simply that Marvel's core characters tend to be less mythic than DC's — they're defined not so much by what they are, but what they do. But even a simple, straightforward character like Spidey can get caught up in bad storytelling and half-assed mythology. Marvel's strategy against "third movie syndrome" is that it has a universe that throws the notion of "third movies" out of whack altogether. Its secret weapon is The Avengers.

The Avengers complicates the whole idea of crisis movies. It fits a classic second-movie model, but it involves multiple characters whose storylines were previously separate. And make no mistake, it is a second movie. Apart from Iron Man, Fury, and Coulson, it's the second time that most of the core characters appear, and therefore it fulfills the "crisis" part of their story arcs — Cap's struggle to fit in the modern world, Thor's tumultuous relationship with his brother, Banner's attempts to control his rage, Tony's struggle not to act like a selfish dick all the time. Even the supporting Avengers have proper second-movie crises — Hawkeye has to demonstrate he's not a mindless stooge, while Widow suffers guilt over her days as an assassin.

By addressing these crisis movie themes, The Avengers effectively frees the characters from having to deal with the same patterns you find in non-Marvel superhero movies. Instead of getting traditional "third" movies in which everything from the first two is repeated ad nauseam, we get variety. Iron Man becomes an '80s buddy cop franchise, though in its own way, it's also a crisis story, with Tony suffering PTSD as a result of the end of The Avengers (and technically this is his fourth movie — or fifth, counting Incredible Hulk). Captain America goes from a Raiders-style WWII adventure to a chilly '70s style conspiracy thriller (at least until the explosions start). Thor, well, becomes more Thor-ish, which is to say that stuff looks even more like an Asia LP cover. But in every case, the "crappy third movie" bullet is dodged. The open-endedness of the shared world, the fact that things aren't limited by a license that traps the characters in a single series fishbowl, allows for real growth and evolution.

This is something that Warner and Sony obstinately do not understand. By stuffing the followups to Amazing Spider-Man and Man of Steel with more characters and "mythology," by trying to jumpstart a cinematic universe out of just a couple of movies and a relative handful of characters (most of whom will probably have minimal screen time anyway), they're setting themselves up for a third movie fiasco without even bothering with the second movie (which tends, on the whole to be the only good one anyway). Now granted, even crummy third movies like X-Men: Last Stand and Spider-Man 3 did well at the box office, even if nobody remembers them fondly. And the sheer novelty of having Batman and Superman together in a film that will probably incur Coupon: The Movie-level expenses might be enough to attract a big enough audience. But it's no way to build a universe, and it's likely that it won't launch a new multiplatform series, so much as one more apocalyptic stinkburger of a third movie before the inevitable Batman reboot.

Of course, Marvel could screw the pooch, too. Age of Ultron might end up being their own classic third movie meltdown, especially with the established actors starting to look forward to the ends of their contractual obligations. Those forthcoming third movies might turn out to really be actual third movies. But hopefully, new series like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man will prove that the MCU isn't a closed system. At the very least, it's demonstrated that you can create fictional realities without having to rely on the same old notions of trilogies, series, or reboots that have defined most superhero movies, and clearly it's a model that will be applied to other movie franchises with big, wide open settings, like Star Wars.