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Where Marvel is concerned, we’ve almost stopped thinking of new projects specifically as sequels. Instead, they seem more like new additions to a massive, ever-expanding whole, which we now call the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU for short).
But if we look at some of the Marvel films as specific sequels to predecessors on their own branches of the MCU, we can see that the studio has actually had a pretty wide range of successes in terms of making these projects strong and memorable.
Really, there are six MCU films that can be categorised as sequels in their own lines.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
There’s actually some debate over whether The Incredible Hulk is a sequel or a reboot, and even people involved with the project have indicated they’re not entirely sure.
It’s the first Hulk-based film to be part of the MCU, but it still feels in ways like a sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk. Either way, this film is mostly a demonstration of how forgetful a Marvel film can be when its approach is too conservative.
The Incredible Hulk just didn’t have the scope it needed to set up a meaningful follow-up or expand on an existing narrative. As a result, it stands as one of the more forgotten projects in the MCU.
Oddly, the film has lingered more in gaming than in cinema. A title based on the film is still featured among Gala Casino’s mobile selection, where superhero-themed slot machine arcades often appear, and Radical Entertainment’s Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, despite coming out before the film, is sometimes counted among the most underrated Marvel video games.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Iron Man 2 isn’t usually given a whole lot of respect in relation to the MCU as a whole. In fact, it was even listed in an IGN ranking of all MCU films as the worst of the bunch – criticised as too much of a setup for other films and not enough of a project of its own.
That’s a fair criticism, but I’d actually argue it could be thought of as a form of praise as well. Iron Man 2 may have been a little light on plot, but it did a great deal to establish important characters and relationships for the MCU and in doing so elevated the Iron Man series.
This film gave us War Machine, Black Widow, and a deeper understanding of S.H.I.E.L.D. And who can argue that Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash, while underutilised, wasn’t one of the more memorable MCU villains?
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Where Iron Man 2 was slammed by a lot of fans and critics, Iron Man 3 earned some of the strongest reviews among MCU films, even including original projects. It was viewed as a more complete project, praised for an intelligent plot, a genuine progression of Iron Man characters, and fine acting across the board (with Gwyneth Paltrow in particular earning raves for her largest role yet as Pepper Potts).
But just as I believe Iron Man 2 has been unfairly interpreted by critics, I’d argue that acting aside, the strengths of Iron Man 3 are outweighed by the film’s near irrelevance in the greater saga. A delightful Mandarin is ultimately a useless joke, the primary threat is essentially a zombie gene, and there’s very little that makes the film essential to the MCU.
All in all, it’s a curious demonstration of the tricky nature of the MCU concept: a pleasing film on its own but almost a frustrating one in broader context.
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
There’s an argument to be made that the Thor series has a little bit more leeway than the other branches of the MCU. We accept these as silly, goofy films, and Thor and co. are so detached from the rest of the Avengers’ activity that it’s almost as if anything goes.
Director Alan Taylor seemed to embrace this luxury wholeheartedly in crafting Thor: The Dark World given that the film was by most accounts something of a beautiful mess. It was undeniably entertaining, and at times quite clever. But it was also disjointed, bigger than it needed to be and ultimately pretty forgettable.
As with The Incredible Hulk, the best lingering entertainment from this film might actually be its game, an app by Gameloft. It’s a simple mobile game, but perhaps the best of a number of mobile games released alongside MCU films.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
This one has my vote as the best of the MCU sequels, and for the most part the critics seem to agree.
The Winter Soldier had a tricky task in continuing the Captain America story but also being the first film to examine the character in his own storyline in modern times. And the result was more or less perfect. It struck the best balance out of any of these projects of standing alone as a terrific film while introducing new characters and plotlines to further the MCU.
We’ll soon see the development of some of these storylines (such as the status of the Winter Soldier) in Captain America: Civil War.
Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)
And then there’s the sequel to The Avengers, which is arguably the ‘biggest’ Marvel film to date in terms of size and scope. In a way, this film functions as a sequel not only to the 2012 film but to each and every Marvel project that came before it, and because of this it’s fair to describe this as the most challenging MCU project to date.
It did fairly well in dealing with this challenge, and it was generally well received by fans and critics alike. However, it’s also arguable that Age Of Ultron got a little too carried away with the introduction of new characters (Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, The Vision, and of course Ultron), when there was already so much material to include.
If anything, Age Of Ultron should function most effectively as a cautionary tale of restraint for future collaborative MCU projects.
This spring we’ll see where Captain America: Civil War falls on this broad spectrum of sequel achievements and shortcomings. It bodes pretty well, in the meantime, that The Winter Soldier may just have been Marvel’s best sequel to date.