TMarvel Studios’ genius was, at the very least, that every movie felt like it had a piece to it. Meticulously designed with the next step in mind, each chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe saga felt purposeful—it would introduce a hero, a few side characters, a villain, and then a stinger previewing the next film. Even if the movie didn’t totally work, individual films about Iron Man or Captain America or Thor were building toward something greater, and eventual team-up film, usually an Avengers film.
Marvel Studios has been criticized by critics for creating movies that are more corporate than artistic. Kevin Feige was the creative head of Marvel Studios. The Marvel Studios head broke the films into “phases” and regularly would explain to fans what they could expect next. Comic-Con would see new characters make their first appearances, often years before the film’s cinematic premiere. This was to hype fans about what they might be doing in future films.
But it’s been three years since the Marvel folks took the stage at Comic-Con, and for the first time in over a decade the trajectory of the MCU movies isn’t totally clear. With hopes it will present a clear and unified vision for the future, I look forward each entry of the MCU. Every time I go to the theatre, it leaves me feeling more confused than ever before. Thor: Love and ThunderIt was not an exception. The movie is self-contained, for better or worse, barely acknowledging a world outside of Thor’s New Asgard.
At least, the old Marvel films did at least have some way of setting up their next entries in their stingers. We got our first glance at Thor’s hammer at the end of Iron ManThe end credits for the first Scarlet Witch/Quicksilver introduction. Avengers. However, Love and Thunder’s end-credits scenes (which I won’t outright spoil, but you can read about here) merely introduce potential sequels and spinoffs to the Thor franchise specifically.
That may work for one film but fans may start to worry that hours invested in a series of films with little return may prove costly. A couple years into Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s time to take stock of what’s working and where it’s all heading.
How we used to be
It was capitalist fraud. You needed to go to all of the films to fully understand the plot. Marvel also wanted to maximize its movie ticket sales.
This format did have its pros and cons. We watched all the Marvel films together, for me and him. This was early during the pandemic. We didn’t treat them with reverence. When we felt bored, tired, or hungry, we would pause and pick them up the next day. These were like lengthy episodes of TV. As television, episodic Marvel movies work great. The phases were “seasons,” each AvengersFilm the Season Finale.
We were not disappointed by any one film (looking at us, Thor: The Dark World), we didn’t feel as if we’d wasted our time. Every episode of episodic storytelling has its lows and highs. We knew Thor’s background would be useful for a future installment. You wanted to create a story that was satisfying and final, even with problems in the script.
Some of the most hated films ended up being a key part in the final. This is the much-disliked Avengers: Age of UltronEvery big event actually was foreshadowed Avengers: Endgame. Of course we couldn’t have known that at the time—it’s possible that that film’s director Joss Whedon didn’t know where the MCU was headed either.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Avengers: Endgame
However, there were signs. Each phase had a very clear start, middle, and end. Infinity Stones were scattered sparingly through the films. This rewarded viewers who could identify an important MacGuffin by looking at it. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury would drop in at some point in nearly every movie to inform the Avengers that another threat was approaching, and they really ought to learn to work together.
In the ending credits scene, Josh Brolin teased the big bad Thanos (Josh Brolin). Avengers movie, six long years before he’d actually become the main villain in Avengers: Infinity War And Avengers: Endgame. A small part of his role was in Guardians of the GalaxyHowever, they were just there as a threat. The expectation of greater things propelled us forward.
The MCU was working
An episodic approach to the franchise. Avengers: EndgameOne of the most popular series endings in episodic cinematography was this one. This series finale not only connected over 12 storylines from various films but provided satisfying conclusions for characters like Iron Man and Captain America (Robert Downey Jr.). The touching moment when Iron Man sacrifices himself only worked because we’d watched the character grow from an immature playboy to a responsible, if still wise-cracking, dad over the course of a decade.
Captain America’s reunion with his love Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) hit home because Evans and the Russo brothers (who directed several of his movies) had spent years developing the character from a resilient but cloyingly earnest Boy Scout into a slightly more cynical and wiser version of the character, without losing Cap’s all-important moral compass. (See: the evolution of the “I can do this all day” catchphrase.) These emotional beats are only possible after many years of character growth.
Captain America is Chris Evans Avengers: Endgame
That narrative investment in the characters is what helped Marvel stand out from the competition—specifically the DC and X-Men movies. It was difficult to buy Batman and Superman’s clash in Batman v Superman when we had never seen Ben Affleck’s Batman onscreen before and didn’t know what made him tick. The Dark Phoenix movie failed in part because the audience had spent little to no time with Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey before she turned into the villain. There were other reasons those specific films didn’t work, but the franchise failures are largely due to lack of patience on the part of the studios. The franchises skipped over episodes about building a world and moved straight to the final season. The finale, though, is satisfying for most fans and moviegoers because of all the other building blocks.
Reports suggest that the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t always the carefully crafted story it appeared to be. Guardians of the GalaxyJames Gunn, the director of Infinity Stones, stated that he had received very little instruction about the scene in the which the character explains the Infinity Stones’ origins. Yes, it was dumb luck. But once the pattern was established—several one-off films each year, culminating in a team-up every few years—audiences knew what to expect.
The MCU has lost its way
It’s been three years since Finalefanfare has continued to grow since the debut of Disney+. The introduction of Disney+ and Marvel-themed television shows has seen Marvel properties multiply. Some of these are essentially connected to other entries. Doctor Strange, in the Multiverse of Madness barely bothers with character development for its villain, Scarlet Witch aka Wanda Maximoff, because it assumes you’ve watched her show WandavisionDisney+
Some people seem to be unable to deal with any other things: At first, I was charmed. Moon Knight, But I found myself confused and cold by the show’s star-studded cast. The script didn’t wind up being good enough to justify the show’s existence, and if the plot had nothing to do with the rest of the MCU, why did I spend six hours of my life on this show when I could have been watching far better projects featuring Oscar Isaac or Ethan Hawke?
This would mark a period of inactivity for the MCU, as we knew. Major stars such as Evans and Downey Jr. are now gone, and other actors like Scarlett Johansson(Black Widow), and Jeremy Renner (“Hawkeye”) look toward retirement. The franchise will need to reset and introduce a new set of heroes. It was clear that there was a plan. Actors like Johansson or Renner would hand the torch to younger talent such as Florence Pugh or Hailee Steinfeld, in films like Black WidowAnd shows like Hawkeye.
But Feige has confirmed that there won’t be a new Avengers team made up of these new actors subbing out for the old. It isn’t looking like an increase in action. Avengers 5In the traditional sense. I am now asking the question, “Why not?” This format was so successful before. It worked so well before.
Money is the easy answer. Disney needed to create a streaming platform and had shows that would fill the gap. Thus, the stories began to multiply. Now there is too many stories and characters flying in different directions. The cosmic entities of the Eternals seemingly have nothing to do with Steinfeld’s street-level arrow slinging. Plus, these projects all have wildly different tones, so it’s hard to imagine them ever coming together.
A Young Avengers team could also be in the making. A mystical grouping of all wizards and witches. A dark one that involves Blade and the Black Knight. It’s a dark one with gangsters, assassins and shamed would-be heroines led by Julia Louis Dreyfus. It’s…a lot. Even as someone who is paid to keep track of all this, I’m often tempted to drop episodes, movies, and storylines because I simply do not have enough time to keep up with every single story beat.
The studio was also confronted with unexpected problems. Chadwick Boseman was one of the studio’s brightest stars. He died in 2020. Black Panther was a big hit—the biggest solo debut for a Marvel superhero—and Boseman seemed poised to dominate the Marvel movies for years to come. Ryan Coogler, director of Marvel Studios was sent to scramble trying to revise the script for the sequel.
Corporate skirmishes with Sony, who owns the rights to Spider-Man and wanted to build its own superhero cinematic universe, left Peter Parker’s fate up in the air and created writing challenges for the ending of Spider-Man, There’s No Way Home.Johansson also sued Disney about her long-anticipated solo film Black Widow being released straight to streaming via the pandemic. Johansson and Disney have now settled.
Which brings us to Marvel Studios’ biggest unforeseen challenge: COVID-19. The virus hampered filming and released several projects. It also messed up well-planned timelines. Notably, Doctor Strange, in the Multiverse of MadnessIt was thought that it would debut prior to both Wandavision Spider-Man, There’s No Way Home. This revelation helps to explain a lot about the awkward storytelling found in those properties. Wanda continues the same pattern twice, switching from villain to protagonist again. WandavisionAnd again Multiverse of Madness. It’s a storytelling choice that some fans have likened to character assassination. Presumably, the initial intent was for Wanda’s descent into corruption in Multiverse und her confession about her wicked deeds will be in Wandavision.
This phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe is all about understanding multiverses. It involves variants and different characters from those universes. Intrusions are also possible. But instead of giving fans one succinct explanation for why characters can suddenly travel across the multiverse, we get three—the murder of the man who was maintaining one single master timeline In Loki; Doctor Strange’s misbegotten spell that leads to Spider-Man villains invading our main timeline in There is no way home; and America Chavez’s multiversal travel in Doctor Strange.
It is unclear for me, a Marvel fan, what these events are connected to one another. Again, I suspect shuffled release dates has something to do with this confusing plot, but it’s far from an ideal way to launch a universal reset.
Which Thor: Love and Thunder Stumbles
There’s more! Thor: Love and ThunderThe latest addition to the MCU is titled. Iron Man and Captain America are gone. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is the only remaining major character in the original Avengers. (Sorry, Hulk, but since Ruffalo has never gotten his own movie—and probably won’t—I don’t think his version of the Big Green Guy counts.) Presumably Thor will be the key to any movie that comes after.
Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth are in Thor: Love and Thunder
But Taika Waititi’s new film—which has underwhelmed critics relative to its predecessor, Thor: Ragnarok—lives in a world of its own almost knowingly devoid of references to other Marvel movies, save a throwaway joke about Thor saving Nick Fury’s phone number as “Nick Furry” on his cell. This meditation on a specific character’s emotional state would be fine, if we weren’t desperate for a rock to cling to in this overwhelming storm of Marvel content.
Solo movies that aren’t part of the crowd can be amazing. Black Panther For one, Coogler was able to shine in a way that didn’t involve being distracted by Easter eggs from other Marvel films. Coogler took advantage of this space to create a whole new universe. The movie includes Wakandan legend, the long history of Wakandan leaders and the debate over how those in power should help the poor. Waititi also used his time. RagnarokTo create new territories for Thor and to refresh his character with a comedy bent.
But Love and Thunder doesn’t break new ground. It’s simply a contained adventure that wraps up a decade-old storyline from an earlier film. To the screenwriters’ credit, there is some character development going on here. Thor, who has suffered from loss three times in the Marvel films, lost his brother, mother, father and many of his closest friends. He is left feeling vulnerable and lonely after this loss. But he manages to find hope through various relationships. For a character that has starred in so many solo movies, this evolution feels more like a end than a start.
Thor might still be alive. A teaser at the end of credit promises a fascinating future villain. It is a great casting decision. Marvel has so many cameos and other stingers, that at this point I don’t get excited over any casting decisions.
Here’s a list of just some of the actors Marvel has teased who have yet to show up in a Marvel property: Michelle Yeoh and Sylvester Stallone as Aleta Ogord and Starhawk in an end-credits scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; Will Poulter as Adam in that same movie; Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, who also was a tease for Aaron’s unseen nephew, Miles Morales, in Spider-Man’s Homecoming; Michael Mando as Scorpion in the end-credits scene for that movie; Harry Styles as Thanos’ brother Eros in EternalsMahershala Ai as Blade, Kit Harington and the Black Knight in a different scene in end credits of the same movie; Charlize Thron playing Clea Multiverse of Madness’John Krasinski even plays the role of Mr. Fantastic and Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier in that same movie stoked long-held fan predictions that those two actors would take on larger roles in the MCU.
Thor, deeply in thought
It’s an embarrassment of Hollywood riches just waiting in the wings. And who knows if or when we’ll ever see them. I would argue that, in fact, the list of people sucked into Marvel’s universe has become too long. Tessa Thompson is often left out of the movies because they waste genius talent. Thor: Love and Thunder because the movie doesn’t know what to do with her, or Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was set up as the big bad at the end of the first Doctor Strange movie but only played a bit part in its eventual sequel.
Feige announced that Marvel employees were heading on a creative retreat to help plan for the next ten years of Marvel films. One might question why they didn’t conduct such a planning session several years ago before FinaleThis was in anticipation for the current lull. Perhaps they did, and this meeting signals that they realize the throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall method is not working. It is time to focus on a few main stories and do them well, rather than many that are not worth the effort. San Diego Comic-Con will be in July. Disney Expo D23 is September. This gives the studio an opportunity to get people excited again about the future MCU.
Marvel’s team must explain to us that we have a plan, so it is possible to avoid Marvel exhaustion. Because twenty-nine films and seven Disney+ TV series in, the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
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