Look at the Harry Potter books/movies, which tell a massive story of a man's life from birth to adulthood with specific focus on his child and teenaged years over the course seven installments. And yet, each installment was its own complete, self-contained story. The bigger mythos plays out in the details, but the "important for later" aspects very seldom left any of the "important now" aspects feeling incomplete. Especially impressive is that the movies, despite the tempting benefit of having been made behind the books in terms of plot turns, were able to resist the temptation to pack each episode with dangling teases for the next.
More impressive still were the Lord of The Rings movies, which still managed to tell three well-contained stories with concrete beginnings, middles and ends despite shooting all three films as one giant production at the same time. Even the granddaddy of the whole "movie trilogy" movement, Star Wars, tells three complete stories that can easily be viewed independently of one another.
And then there's the current king of this particular mountain, Marvel Studios, whose ambitious (and thus far wildly successful) Cinematic Universe experiment has given the entire medium a raging case of continuity envy. Five films released over half a decade sharing a single universe and timeline, culminating in gigantic ensemble action vehicle that ultimately serves to make said universe bigger and even more intertwined? Surely these films, above all others, would be both expected and enthusiastically forgiven for only delivering mere fragments of a narrative prior to The Avengers.
And yet, that's not what happened. Despite growing out of the comic books (the medium that invented the concept of "you have to buy them all to know what's happening"), the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far contains six films all of which stand solidly on their merits as complete stories independent of the bigger narrative. Yes, even the somewhat sloppy, "Oh crap, we didn't know this would be the most popular guy, quick give him something to do for a sequel" Iron Man 2. All the details and hints and recurring characters help make for a richer experience, but it's never 100% necessary.
Sure, the discovery of Thor's hammer at the end of Iron Man 2 is the start of a mystery to be solved later, but it's not a mystery that leaves a hole in the rest of the movie. In fact, it actually fills a hole regarding where Agent Coulson kept running off to. Not knowing that the gods The Red Skull is obsessed with in Captain America are the god characters in Thor doesn't subtract anything from the film itself, it merely offers a place where a deeper explanation for the magical/super-science backstory can be found.
Even The Avengers itself, despite the benefit of its preceding films all having been popular hits, deftly weaves introductions and re-introductions to the world, rules and principal cast into its first act. The obvious goal of this was to ensure that the film still worked as a singular narrative in its own right, so that it could play just as well to folks who hadn't been obsessively following the series up to this point as it would to those who had. Judging by the fact that The Avengers ticket sales dwarf even the combined popularity of the previous films, it worked.
I enjoy good world building as much as anyone, but I hope the price I have to pay isn't a long run of bad movies like Amazing Spider-Man and Green Lantern that we'll look back on a decade out as "the period when every damn movie was trying to be a prologue."
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.