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The Problem With Character Arcs in Sequels

Its time for another simpleton film discussion that nobody on Earth gives a shit about.


Today, I'm going to inspire eye-rolls from everyone by bitching about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and then, in the tradition of all blogs by mediocre filmmakers who are utterly repulsive to women, I'm going to praise "The Dark Knight" trilogy by contrast.


First, what is a Character Arc? Not that anyone fucking cares, whatever, here it is. A character in a movie begins with a myriad of characteristics that include their physical appearance, vocabulary, accent, philosophy so on and so forth. In a good movie, one or a series of events takes place that changes these character traits, especially their philosophy, but sometimes other elements of the character. This is called a Character Arc. This is not always a character learning a valuable lesson and becoming a better person, it can be the opposite. A great example of this is Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader, both because of his perception of the Jedi council and also because of dramatic injuries he sustained that resulted in him needing to live the rest of his life in a special suit. His philosophy, and physical appearance both drastically changed, even his voice is unrecognizable.


Character Arc is traditionally a given in literature and film and until the modern age of filmmaking is really commonly the main focus of most films from the 40s through the 80s. Think "What a Wonderful Life" or "A Christmas Carol".


If a character is unchanged by the plot that they're involved in, it could be argued that its inconsequential and not really a story worth telling, right? So when you have a character that's already been established with a slew of existing stories revolving around them, such as a superhero, the audience goes into the movie with an expectation of what Character Traits they should have. Usually, the character arc in a superhero movie is going to see the character begin as unrecognizable and then become what we already know them as, this is formulaic but it works.


So what do you do with the sequel? How do you then change the character again without making them unfaithful to their inspiration. Where the Marvel Cinematic Universe really began to screw the pooch with this was Thor. The movie "Thor" and the character "Thor" both, he starts out as this brash, arrogant asshole thats really eager to jump into conflict. That's exactly what we would expect Thor to be, but then he loses his hammer, and to earn it back he has to learn humility. So by the end of the movie he's not really Thor anymore, he's MCU Thor now. By the next movie the filmmakers have to decide, does he revert back to being real Thor rendering his whole first movie meaningless? Or does he continue to be humble Thor who isn't really Thor? And they kind of teeter between both. By the time the MCU entered Phase 2, they had really mostly abandoned character arcs, except in a new character's first movie. Each movie really became more like an episode in a series, I'm one of those annoying snobs that thinks every film should work as a stand alone movie and shouldn't need another installment to make it work. If someone was watching Avengers: Infinity War or Avengers: Endgame without watching any other MCU movies, or even without watching most MCU movies, it wouldn't make any sense, someone would have to explain the whole thing. To make either of those movies work as stand alone movies, it would require so many flashbacks and exposition that you wouldn't have time for anything else. With every character you wouldn't know who they are, a lot of conversations would be really confusing, and watching a movie from that point of view would probably make it a really bad experience.


But the MCU has done exactly what it's supposed to do, it's made a ton of money. I'd now like to point to a series that did work as three separate stand alone movies and a series at the same time. Let me first say that I could not accomplish that with the MCU the way that it is, a web of various storylines sharing a universe, combining established plot lines from prequels into one movie AND having a 100% comprehensive movie that is fully effective on its own, no, I don't think that's even possible. I think they've done the best work possible with the overwhelming amount of content they had to handle.


Okay, The Dark Knight Trilogy, very different from the MCU. Only one major character to handle in a linear storyline and only three movies.

Batman Begins: Bruce Wayne goes from someone who is vengeful and wants to kill Joe Chill but becomes someone who refuses to kill at all or even use firearms as he had planned to, because he realized his deceased father would have been ashamed if he were a murderer.

The Dark Knight: Batman continues to firmly hold the ideals he acquired in the previous movie. While he is an established character, even if you had somehow never heard of Batman, the movie makes sure you understand his role in the plot within the first ten minutes or so. But he has a new character arc in this movie, he begins the plot hoping to inspire people but learns over time and is taught by Alfred that sometimes truly being a hero means not seeming heroic at all, even if everyone hates you for it. This is another significant change in philosophy.

The Dark Knight Rises: Off camera Bruce Wayne has become really sad, I guess because his net worth is only $40B and he really wishes it was $60B, I don't remember. He begins the movie essentially believing he is the only one who can defend Gotham and has an obligation to stay, but by the end he learns that he can move on with his life and leave his duties in someone else's hands. It became just a little bit of mess.

Point being, each of these movies have a character arc without eliminating the last one. Each work as a stand alone film without contradicting the previous events. The character, Batman, remains mostly faithful to the source material while still changing over time.

Christopher Nolan is really good at these things, and aside from this trilogy, he's never made a sequel, which makes sense, he's clearly more interested in making stand alone movies.

That being said, it is a lot easier to do this with a Batman series than a Marvel Cinematic Universe. For one, Batman is a really complex character, so staying faithful to the source material is broad, he can change in a lot of different ways and still resemble a version of Batman that everyone is okay with. Again, this is just three movies focusing on one superhero, there's more room to make, you know, a movie around the character. You don't have to spend so much time juggling other protagonists, other antagonists, other story lines, setting up the next sequel, introducing new characters, exposition. This doesn't really leave any space to have character arcs, strong over-arching themes, a whole lot of character study or anything.


So, in conclusion. The Dark Knight trilogy is just made up of better movies, but the MCU is hours and hours of entertainment that has a greater payoff if you watch it like a series, and, if you consider it that, a new form of media thats not a mini-series, not a movie, not even a string of sequels like Harry Potter or The Fast and The Furious. I guess its totally fine to lack traditional characteristics of a movie like Character Arc, and we don't have to nit pick the picture for setting up the next installment instead of giving the audience closure, thats what a series is supposed to do.

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