It’s not hard to see how the MCU got so Earth-shatteringly big. Exciting, bombastic comic-book movies that were faithful adaptions/ updates of the source material, including the fact that – hold your applause – they were all part of the same ever-expanding cinematic universe. That’s not all the MCU had going for it, of course, with 2012’s Avengers revealing that these films were building towards something big, as we eventually got to the culmination of around a decade of storytelling with Infinity War and Endgame.
For a kid like me who was an all-round nerd that read a few comic books (Ultimate Spiderman fans unite, all five of us) the MCU was a bit of a dream come true. Classic characters, whose comics I found far too intimidating/ expensive to even start on, refreshed and rebooted for the silver screen. And even more interestingly, they were all in the same world, and there was a shady villain rising in the background.
It was just like a comic series, but on the big screen!
And this brings me to the present day, where we’re in to “Phase 4” of the MCU, post-Endgame. And wouldn’t you know it, the MCU is losing its marvel for me. Why, you ask?
Well, because it’s like a comic series but on the big screen.
Issue # 1 – Back to formula?
After a decade of build-up, and a very expensive but mostly well-received payoff, what’s next for the MCU? There’s no clear indication right now, and that’s an issue.
A lot of this comes down to expectations; both those set by Marvel, and those the audience build themselves. After the Infinity Saga, the audience has a rough idea of what they expect the structure might be going forward: How often movies will release, how often bigger team-up films will happen, and when to expect the larger narrative to ramp up by. However, through either lack of planning or intent, it’s not playing out quite as expected so far. It feels more like the former, but I’m happy to be proven wrong. After all, the Infinity Saga clearly wasn’t prepared precisely and meticulously ahead of time, but tightened up as the release schedule progressed over the years.
I’ll give Marvel the benefit of the doubt, as they could simply be changing their formula. Not in terms of the “Marvel formula” – for better or worse, I think that’s here to stay – but the way they present their content, and build up story lines etc. It seems that they could well be releasing more content in a shorter amount of time, and thus their cinematic phases/ over-arching narratives will become shorter. I think this leads nicely into my second point…
Issue # 2 – Multi-mediums of Madness
One of the big ways the Marvel formula is changing is in terms of format. Before, MCU TV shows were connected to the movies in a somewhat wishy-washy sense, and they didn’t seem to take them as seriously as the movies. Now, with the launch of Disney+, the MCU is taking a more structured approach to TV and putting out shows involving bigger characters which have more impactful storylines. These shows are a lot like the MCU movies: Some standout ideas or shows (WandaVision) but largely around the mediocre- kind of good range that most of the movies occupy.
I think it’s pretty clear that this addition of TV shows that are more “important” to the MCU is largely motivated by selling Disney+; similar is Disney’s abandonment of Star Wars films in favour of more TV content. The benefit of them spending time exploring certain characters, some of whom need it, is somewhat ancillary to adding to the sub count, but it is nice for fans.
However, there’s a drawback to this for the audience; namely, it now costs more time and money than ever to keep up with the MCU. It was already a hassle for the more casual viewers to keep up with the MCU due to the sheer amount of content there is, but you only “had” to watch 2-3 films a year to get the full picture. Even then, I know plenty of people who just watch the Avengers movies and get enough context clues from those to skip the extra cinematic homework. But now the MCU is being spread across two mediums, one of which asks to be another subscription on the pile, it really seems too much.
Ironically, it’s made the MCU more like the comics than ever, something I thought I wanted a decade ago. The characters and concepts and general shenanigans are getting weirder and more comic-book like, and that can be fun. But I never enjoyed picking up a hardback of a big event, then feeling like I was missing half the story because 6 other comics intersected with it.
Unfortunately, it seems that’s where the MCU is headed.
Issue # 3 – Identity Crisis
The MCU sure does have a lot of characters by this point, doesn’t it? We’re especially feeling it now that a lot of older characters seem to be passing the torch; many of the Disney+ shows are focusing on establishing younger versions of characters who will be on board for a much longer contract. The problem is that these often fail to balance the resolution of the old guard’s story with the protégé’s introduction (I’m looking at you, Hawkeye).
On the other hand, we have older characters stagnating in terms of development. Recent movies like Doctor Strange & the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love & Thunder did a poor job of juggling the development of multiple characters. These two movies felt like they had to be a vehicle for X concept and YZ characters rather than a continuation of the core character’s story, or a detailed exploration of the newer character’s origins. This is nothing new for the MCU – many heroes have been given bland, token origin movies before appearing in an Avengers film. But where these recent films are busy ticking boxes for both concepts and multiple characters, the cracks are showing more than ever.
The recent Thor: Love & Thunder was very grating in this regard, as the film was just too busy to give adequate time to any one part of it. Jane Foster is rushed back into the franchise without a fine hold on how she’s changed; Thor is his Ragnarök self, dialled up to 11 for The Comedy; in a classic MCU move, Christian Bale is entirely wasted as Gorr the God Butcherer (The real butchery clearly happened in editing).
Like the original comics, the MCU cast is expansive, and this opens up some fun opportunities for smaller character cross-over events and narratives. However, the films need to try to keep it simpler and put some more effort into the standard of writing & characterisation that they deliver.
So, what’s next for the MCU? As I’ve said, it’s not clear just yet. A lot of the issues may be resolved with time; things might come together nicely for the end of this Saga as they did with Infinity War/ Endgame. Even so, I can’t help but feel things are slipping a bit with the MCU.
They’ve never been the height of cinema, but it doesn’t mean the people at the reigns shouldn’t try harder. Martin Scorsese’s past comments about Marvel films are starting to feel more and more relevant to me. With the standards dropping, the MCU feels like it’s aimless, resting on its laurels and giving us more of the same while it figures out what to do. Ultimately, the MCU feels less like a creative endeavour and more like a content factory than ever before.