The main upshot was this: the movie franchises which Marvel Studios has direct control over (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers as opposed to properties like X-Men and Spider-Man which are owned by other entities) now comprise their own cinematic universe, where all the stories take place in the same continuity and occasionally affect each other indirectly or cross over with one another explicitly. And that’s essentially how the comic book Marvel Universe has operated since its inception back in the early 1960’s. The theory with comic books is that you could engage with them either shallowly or deeply and be well entertained. An old saw of the industry (which admittedly is not followed so much any more) held that any issue could be someone’s first issue, and therefore a fair amount of background information and explanation should be part and parcel of every single story. This could be handled perfunctorily or elegantly in any number of ways. In the same vein, each issue should be a more or less self-contained and satisfying story, often ending in some kind of cliffhanger but still having provided a reasonable amount of resolving narrative beforehand.
If you were to read not just a single random issue but several consecutive issues, on the other hand, you would get multiple chapters of a long, ongoing story, with a deeper understanding of the recurring characters and how things got where they are. Furthermore, if you read not just one title regularly, but several, your experience would be commensurately deeper still, and when e.g. Iron Man found himself face to face with the Asgardian Destroyer, you would remember the times Thor had faced off against that enchanted armored automaton. And then every once in a while there would be a Major Event comic that involved just about every character, which would be all things to all people: a chance for the casual fan to be introduced to all the disparate elements of the fictional universe at once (hopefully hooking them in to explore some of those other titles) and a chance for the hardcore to enjoy an all-star greatest hits spectacular.
Note that what I am describing is basically the Perfect Bronze Age of Marvel Comics, specifically (which lucky for me was happening right when I was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s). I assume a lot of people think of comic books more along the simpler model of, say, Superman in the 50’s, where not only did having read last month’s Action Comics add absolutely nothing to the experience of reading this month’s, but in fact if you stuck around long enough you’d start to see the same basic story formulas repeated ad nauseum. What Marvel really contributed to the artform was the idea that someone could be a lifelong reader of any given comic and therefore the characters should age (gradually) and evolve (sometimes erratically) and keep the same people coming back for more, rather than relying on a fresh crop of seven-year-olds rotating in and out regularly.
Anyway, movies haven’t followed this model of storytelling and audience cultivation, and that’s fair because of the vast logistical differences between making comics and making movies. But Marvel Studios somehow got people to buy into the idea that movies could at least try it. The fact that the original Iron Man movie was a surprising success certainly helped, otherwise Samuel L. Jackson showing up in the middle of the credits and dropping vague hints about a superhuman initiative might have just been a throwaway gag. But then they got Hulk back on track, and introduced Black Widow in Iron Man 2, and introduced Hawkeye in Thor and by the time they got to Captain America they were able to make it a period piece with a modern-day epilogue that teases The Avengers in no uncertain terms.
Admittedly, my analogy falls apart a little bit at this point, if you’re a stickler. Marvel Comics introduced The Avengers as an ongoing comic title fairly early on and it was just another monthly title among a couple dozen, not a Major Event. It brought together Iron Man and Thor and the Hulk (and Ant-Man and the Wasp) in one place so that every month a reader had the choice of following their adventures as a team, or any individual hero’s solo title, or any combination thereof. The Major Events with universe-wide scope would come later. In the movies, The Avengers was the Major Event, and it was a mega-blockbuster and an all-encompassing story because the cinematic universe only consists of four other franchises. Maybe someday The Avengers might be a movie franchise with its own focus while a dozen other franchises play out in their own corners and then they can pull together an overstuffed epic hyper-blockbuster combining all of them that really is the equivalent to Marvel Comics’ Infinity Gauntlet or Evolutionary War or whathaveyou. Sounds crazy, but then again, ten years ago the idea of putting together enough successful solo hero movie franchises to then merge them into an Earth’s Mightiest Heroes movie that wasn’t suffocated by backstory seemed crazy, too.
(Uber-geeky sidenote: a lot of people assumed that the teaser appearance of Thanos the Mad Titan in the credits of The Avengers signaled that he would be the big bad for Avengers 2. In the comics, Thanos was the big bad in the Infinity Gauntlet event miniseries I mentioned above. For all we know, Marvel Studios could be playing a very long, slow game here, and Avengers 2 will have nothing to do with Thanos, but he will keep making cameo appearances here and there in various Marvel movies, some of them directly related to Avengers, some of them less so, until they are finally ready to unleash the mega-hyper-blockbuster of my dreams, which would cost $400 million just in actors’ salaries alone but would gross $9 billion at the box office. We shall see.)
Anyway, whenever Marvel Comics concludes a big Major Event, the monthly comic book titles keep on coming out same as always. And that was pretty much how I felt about watching Iron Man 3 after having seen The Avengers. Iron Man 3 felt like a monthly issue of Iron Man: a good story that continued developing the characters in meaningful ways, and which even reflected what had just happened in the big Avengers event, but which felt a little scaled back. And as a lifelong comic book fan, I didn’t see that as a bad thing at all. That’s the way it’s supposed to be with these characters. They have universe-shaking adventures, and then they have quotidian adventures, and they go back and forth. And they go on and on.
Which is of course in direct contradiction to what Nolan did with the Dark Knight Trilogy (as I’ve meditated upon at some length). Iron Man 3 is not the end of Iron Man’s story, for better or for worse. We know we’ll see him again in Avengers 2 (and presumably Avengers 3) and we may very well see him in Iron Man 4. At some point Robert Downey Jr. will no longer be able to pull off Tony Stark (and that will be a damn shame, because he is the best thing about those movies and I lay almost all the credit for the existence and success of this insane Marvel cinematic universe at his feet) but maybe they will find some way around that. I still fully endorse the idea that movie trilogies are a valid method of cinematic storytelling, and that they require a definitive ending to really work. I’m glad Nolan did what he did with Batman. But I’m also glad Marvel Studios is doing what they’re doing, embracing open-ended serialization and ever-escalating scope and stakes. I am unreasonably excited about the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie, simply because I have so fully bought into this cinematic universe.
And that leads to the personal revelation I had outside the theatre: the movies now are what the comics once were, to me. I no longer collect Marvel comics, though they’re still cranking them out. I have many fond memories of my collecting days and don’t regret or begrudge them, but I’ve drifted away from them. I no longer feel compelled to keep up with them at all. But I do feel compelled to keep up with the Marvel Studios movies, to watch every single one and figure out how they all fit together, to go into The Avengers 2 not as a casual fan of the spectacle but as someone who knows all the backstory and will get all the inside references (which, granted, will likely include not only movie callbacks but Easter eggs from the published comics as well). And for the moment, I am all in. Maybe all the Marvel Studios franchises will run themselves into the ground after their natural ending points have come and gone in their third installments, but then again maybe they'll stay strong (Star Trek VI was pretty good) or even prove unsinkable (like James Bond). Either way, I am obviously pretty geeked about going along for the ride.