The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – for those who have not traversed it – is a reference to the collection of theatrical movies and streaming series featuring their comic book superhero characters. The basic template Marvel has utilized is telling distinct stories about their characters, while also interweaving those experiences into the experiences of other characters, forming a team narrative.
The discussions among Marvel fans in my little corner of the world these days are two-fold…does Marvel recognize what they need to do to keep a large, global audience fully engaged…and if they do…does that audience feel inclined to continue their investment in all things Marvel based on their recent content?
In 2018-2019, Marvel released Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame in theatres, which served as the culmination of what they call Phase Three of their planned storytelling. Phase Four of their theatrical schedule began with the release of Black Widow last year. Since then, they’ve released Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and the recently released Thor: Love and Thunder.
In this new Phase, Marvel also has released a great deal of existing and new character storylines within their streaming series: WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, What If?, Hawkeye, Moon Knight, and Ms. Marvel.
I have seen all of these Marvel properties. While I enjoyed comics when I was young, I have little recollection of them now. When I watch Marvel movies or series, I don’t have that iconic comic book background to know what is canon to the comics or not…and I don’t have a clue what might come next. So to provide some context, the following is from a guy who only absorbs what the Marvel movies and series provide. I rarely know how it ties back to the source material, and I’m certainly unable to puzzle together where superhero stories may eventually crossover…and a common villain or villains might appear.
First off, it should be noted in concluding its prior Phases Marvel did an incredible job of putting together several blockbuster theatrical releases with a finite number of characters, in a limited number of films, then intersecting their stories together to forge a high-quality resolution to the overall, narrative arc. The bar was set really, really high for Phase Four.
It is understandable Marvel’s fan base might shrink a bit after Phase Three. There were casual fans who got aboard and enjoyed the comic book ride, but also concluded it was unique and could never be topped…and have just moved on. The graphic novel novelty was surely going to wear off for some.
Maybe they can bring those casual fans back at some point…depending on how Phase Four plays out.
It appears Marvel is ignoring the fact a chunk of their fan base, because of all that prior formulaic success, is now expecting new movies and series to at least partially bind characters’ stories together. They are looking for connections to other superhero storylines, pushing the overall narrative for this current group of superheroes forward…outside of whatever current story is being rolled out at the time. World-building is essential to Marvel’s success, but so is team-building.
I believe Marvel also needs to reconcile many fans don’t want to feel like they have to research articles covering source material just to try and find potential connections, or guess at a possible overall arc for when this next wave of superheroes will likely come together to fight an ultimate threat…as the Avengers did vs. Thanos in the last two Phase Three films. Marvel has fans who do not know a thing about the comics these characters came to life within, and still have no interest in searching for connections among superheroes.
Marvel has always enjoyed winking at their fans, dropping hints in mid-credit or end scenes of what might come next. They’ll release some still pictures here, tease a trailer there. That was fine when they were producing a relative handful of theatrical releases with a limited number of characters in earlier Phases, but with the velocity of content released early in Phase Four the firehose of information pouring out doesn’t contain relevant info connecting these superheroes. They underestimated the logical impatience many in their audience would have regarding wanting to see superheroes and their stories start team-building to at least some extent with each release.
Bottom line…I feel Marvel released too much too soon in Phase Four, and very little has been connected between the characters. And, I think that’s a problem Marvel has to pivot towards and get corrected.
Spider-Man: No Way Home was a huge hit with most Marvel fans (me included), but a lot of what has been released recently – movies and series alike – have met with mixed reactions (me included).
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was madness. Poor Scarlet Witch. That girl has been to hell and back a couple of times now. What else can they do to her? Doctor Strange has been reduced to being a reckless, dangerous hack of a sorcerer. There was mention Marvel was going to be introducing more horror into their Phase Four. Indeed, I felt this script and story were horrible.
In Thor: Love and Thunder, Marvel did not understand the prior Thor film (Thor: Ragnarok) was successful first and foremost because of its uniqueness. With tons more humor and wackiness than was seen in a Marvel film before, and set for a third of the time within a bizarro, off-the-rails rainbow world with Jeff Goldblum of all people as a villain, it was never going to be replicated. Never. Yet, that’s exactly what Marvel so blatantly, obviously tried with Love and Thunder. They got crazy lazy, and for a character that didn’t even need another solo chapter, this movie for me landed with a thud similar to Thor’s hammer. If you pushed me for a compliment, I will say that even though this journey was God-awful throughout the ending was…acceptable.
It’s my belief these last two theatrical releases have been below the quality Marvel has given us in the past – especially with the characters of Thor and Doctor Strange – and these films barely moved the needle towards where we may be headed with the rest of Phase Four.
Love and Thunder has made over $300 million worldwide. Multiverse of Madness is closing in on a global total approaching $1 billion. Cracks in Marvel’s superiority at the box office certainly haven’t appeared in ticket sales. Audience surveys and critic reviews are where some fault lines have started to develop.
I believe Marvel needs to reconcile themselves to the fact if they want to have a chance of maintaining the lofty heights of their superhero success, their theatrical and streaming products going forward must feature more guest appearances…more hints…more clues…as to how all these current superheroes will come together to save the universe.
I’m not asking them to not surprise me…and I don’t need for everything to be spelled out completely. I’m just looking for Marvel to provide superhero storylines that start to relate in at least a partial way to each other…for these characters to start moving towards each other…building a new team…towards what hopefully will be another fan-tastic finish.
I want to stay connected with Marvel’s Phase Four. I’m just asking them to start making more connections.
Picture Courtesy Marvel Studios