Five thoughts about today’s Marvel Cinematic Universe
Let’s consider the following five notions as we take stock of where the biggest Hollywood movie franchise is now and where it’s going.
As a lifelong movie and comic book obsessive, I’m in the prime audience demographic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s the preface not to offend anyone when I say that after “Avengers: Endgame,” I never needed to see another superhero movie again.
This week I keep returning to that thought I had in 2019 as I reflect upon the divisive Phase 4 reaction by MCU fans and the recent announcement of three more years of new movies and shows up through “Avengers: Secret Wars” in 2025. Let’s consider the following five notions as we take stock of where the biggest Hollywood movie franchise is now and where it’s going.
1. The Marvel Universe is expanding
Marvel Studios built its brand on a handful of semi-recognizable heroes having their individual stories and breakthroughs while occasionally having them interact and team together when circumstances needed them to. This was significant because, with only two to three movies per year, it allowed general audiences to easily grasp the characters and stakes. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige wisely kept the center of gravity around Tony Stark and Steve Rogers while introducing the more extensive universe through franchises like the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Now that Iron Man and Captain America are off the board, there’s no center of gravity in the MCU where everything spins off from. Characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye, who formerly supported the lead heroes, are now headlining their own projects but still often feel secondary to the younger characters destined to succeed them. New heroes like Shang-Chi, the Eternals, Moon Knight, and Ms. Marvel have been introduced with complicated backstories and mythology and often have little connection to the MCU we’re familiar with. More and more new stars and characters are being introduced in post-credit scenes without any clues on when they’ll be followed up: Cliffhangers with an unlisted deadline.
And that two to three movies a year I mentioned? It’s now four to six films, plus a half-dozen television series connected through Disney Plus. The fact that fans spent more hours watching Phase 4 MCU films and shows than the combined running times of Phases 1–3 was mind-boggling.
One of Marvel’s most significant advantages over other movie franchises is the deepest bench it can draw from the comics. We’re seeing the fruits of that expanded universe now. Still, Feige can’t forget an underrated aspect of the MCU: Building their stories around one or two main characters from which we can identify and see all of the marvels around them through their perspective.
2. The MCU is experimenting
During the Infinity Saga (which comprised Phases 1–3), the MCU built a production formula with a high floor and low ceiling (coined by critics on the Reveal) that produced reliable results. But stick with any formula too long, and it becomes formulaic.
After “Avengers: Endgame,” it seemed like a good time to switch up the status quo, precisely what Feige and Marvel Studios did. A trio of notable directors (Chloe Zhao, Sam Raimi, and Taiki Wattii) released movies that feature three of the most distinctive authorial voices in the entire franchise. “WandaVision” spent much of its running time experimenting with form over content. Of the 12 movies and shows released thus far in Phase 4, the stories seemed to conclude with more than a dozen possible directions to explore in the future.
With the variety of visions and directions we’ve seen in Phase 4, three of the more popular entries were the “Loki” TV series with “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” on the film side, all of which explored alternate realities for the heroes. Feige waited until his San Diego Comic-Con presentation this year to announce the MCU is heading into the Multiverse Saga. Were we all part of a secret focus group to decide the next stage of films? Notably missing from any of the announcements were follow-ups to “Eternals” and “Thor: Love and Thunder,” both of which produced much more divisive reviews, even though the credits mention those characters would return.
As a longtime film buff, I appreciate and respect experimentation, but sometimes watching the sausage get made is rough. If we accept that Phase 4 was a trial-and-error period for Feige, it puts all of these releases in a different context. I doubt even the most die-hard Marvel Comics fan ever expected characters like Dane Whitman, the Swordsman, the Celestials, Alligator Loki, and Agatha Harkness would become live-action fan favorites 20 years ago, but that’s the world the MCU is playing with now. As Feige plunges into the Marvel Universe bench to find new hitters, we have to expect that not every big swing will become a sure homerun.
3. More voices are more interesting
Another feature of Phase 4 is a significant commitment to promoting more diversity in front of and behind the camera.
After 10 years of service, Scarlett Johansson finally was the lead star in her movie, “Black Widow,” directed by Cate Shortland, the first woman to direct an MCU movie as an individual. Zhao quickly became the second with “Eternals,” which featured the most mixed diversity of any cast in Marvel history, including deaf actress Lauren Ridloff. Alaqua Cox debuted her Echo character in “Hawkeye” and is looking to star in her series in 2023. The “Ms. Marvel” series was lauded for highlighting Pakistan’s history and culture, thanks to showrunner Bisha K. Ali and star Iman Vellani. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” did the same for Asian culture. “Shang-Chi” filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton will return to the director’s chair for “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty,” set to debut in 2025.
The Earth of the MCU now looks a lot more like the populations across our planet than it did a decade ago. However, we also live in a political climate where the voices against diversity are thunderous. The desire to campaign against anything that isn’t a straight white Christian male representation as “woke” is exhausting and frustrating, as if Marvel Studios didn’t spend its first decade pushing out nearly two dozen movies alone starring that demographic. I hope Feige continues this commitment because after a lifetime of straight Caucasian stories reaffirming my reality, seeing other perspectives is far more exciting and engaging to me at this point.
One more note: While Marvel has begun to acknowledge and include LGBTQ characters in its universe, I’d love to see more of a full-throated endorsement beyond a few brief seconds on-screen and a back-patting press tour. Throughout the MCU, let’s see more Brian Tyree Henry as Phaistos and characters like him.
4. The quality is suffering
Those familiar with comic book publishing history know about the many painful stories of artist exploitation throughout the industry. Right now, we’re seeing history repeat itself with Marvel Studios. Not only is corporate parent Disney continuing to be stingy with properly compensating the various writers and artists who conceived many of the characters and storylines Disney is making billions of dollars with, but Marvel Studios is also reportedly overworking and underpaying VFX studios to produce effects for their films. The lack of quality control is noticeable.
Marvel’s issues with effects are its most significant problem and must be addressed. A big reason superhero movies didn’t explode until the 2000s was that it took so long for the CGI technology to advance that you could realistically depict Spider-Man swinging through New York City. But in projects like “Thor: Love and Thunder,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Moon Knight,” and “Ms. Marvel,” there are multiple instances where the effects look cheap and rubbery, taking us out of the fantastic worlds Marvel wants us to engage with and back into reality. When the Hulk looks more convincing in 2012’s “Avengers” than in 2022’s “She-Hulk,” that’s an inexcusable problem.
Then there’s the ethical consideration of giving effects artists more time and money to complete their work to a satisfactory level. Recently Vulture published an account from a VFX artist about the negative ways Marvel treats people in their industry, flexing their massive muscles to squeeze the best deal out of non-unionized houses or accelerate their demise if the results aren’t to their liking.
It’s hugely disappointing that Marvel appears to be reliving its past with exploitive treatment. Disney is the world's biggest entertainment company, and Marvel is the most prominent film franchise ever. So, the only vocal reasons why the powers-that-be can’t afford to pay its artists can easily be drowned out by miniature violins. Feige once won a power struggle with notorious penny-pincher Isaac Perlmutter, former CEO of Marvel, so I suspect he still has more than enough juice to follow the lead of his do-gooding fantasy heroes and make things right here.
5. This is what we wanted
There’s no question that the MCU has cultivated a large, passionate fanbase. Sales and social media conversations continue to run high after a new premiere. People invest many hours in watching and rewatching these films and shows. There’s also a cottage industry of media entities that dissect every frame of the MCU through YouTube channels, blogs, and podcasts. It’s easy to look at all this and think people can’t get enough of Marvel.
And yet, we must always be careful what we wish for.
Spoiler alert: Making a good movie or television series is really hard! You’re dealing with hundreds of different people with unique skills, and the goal is to get the best work out of them while getting everybody to move in the same direction. In other words, imagine how dysfunctional your workplace is, and then realize that also happens at most Hollywood productions. It’s a damn miracle any movie finds a way to become great!
That’s what makes the Infinity Saga, particularly the MCU movies between 2014 to 2019, so impressive because Feige and the company developed a baseline quality that made most of these films a great night at the cinemas. However, making one (or several) great movies is no guarantee the next one will also be great. To quote Natasha from “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Nothing lasts forever.”
As the MCU continues to expand with characters, creators, and productions massively, and now quite literally, other universes, the odds that all of this goes off the rails increase precipitously. And I’m growing to be OK with that because the creation of art, even one as massively commercial as the MCU, is often messy. If Marvel Studios were a sports team, Phase 4 would be considered a rebuilding year after losing so many first-ballot Hall of Fame stars, but that also doesn’t mean the MCU is essentially the New York Yankees: They’ve won so many championships that any season that doesn’t end with a World Series title is considered a failure.
The expectations remain high for Feige and Marvel Studios, especially after announcing their ambitious story and schedule through “Avengers: Secret Wars.” After Phase 4, there’s much room for improvement if Disney expects this audience to remain fully invested in the MCU.
When I said I never needed another superhero movie after “Avengers: Endgame,” I meant it. As an old nerd who watched “Howard the Duck” in theaters, I never imagined that I would be able to see at least one great movie featuring my favorite comic book heroes, much less an entire interconnected universe that replicated the experience I had discovering Marvel comics. Now many of these classics sit on my shelf, accessible to watch at any time, whenever the mood strikes. I feel fulfilled in this respect.
There are no question companies will keep churning out superhero movies as long as they make money, and people like me will help them. But historically, these genre movies are mediocre to evil, and as of late, the MCU is reverting to the mean.
I’m learning to accept it. I’ll keep watching superhero movies and finding things to like about aspects of these projects. Still, it’s unlikely I’ll sing the praises of the MCU too loudly anymore. Fortunately, I’m still playing with house money, but I have no issues cashing in my chips when bored.
Paige, Rachel. “SDCC 2022: All of the Marvel Studios News Coming Out of Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con.” Marvel.com, 7.23.22.
Phipps, Keith and Tobias, Keith. “In Review: ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home,’ ‘Nightmare Alley,’ ‘The Lost Daughter.” The Reveal, 12.16.21.
Couch, Aaron. “Marvel’s Movie Math: Comic Creators Claim It’s “Bait and Switch” On Payments.” The Hollywood Reporter, 7.20.22.
Anonymous. “I’m a VFX Artist, and I’m Tired of Getting Pixel F — ked by Marvel.” Vulture, 7.26.22.
Chin, Daniel. “Marvel Has a VFX Problem.” The Ringer, 7.21.22.
Donnelly, Matt and Holloway, Daniel. “Does Kevin Feige’s Marvel Promotion Mean Ike Perlmutter’s Endgame?” Variety, 10.22.29.
Read More On The MCU Here
Loki: My Thoughts On The Season Finale
My take on Disney’s Loki Series being a 8/10 (Includes some spoilers)
5 Bold Predictions For Ms. Marvel
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Black Widow: Where This Leads Us
My review and take on why “Black Widow” was a 7/10 (spoilers included)