When Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) burst into Iron Man‘s end-credits scene, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born as one of the most ambitious Hollywood projects ever. The idea of teasing sequels to blockbuster films was not new, but never before did a single company decide to create multiple parallel film franchises, each making reference to the other. As years passed by, the MCU grew bigger and bigger, exploring unknown corners of the galaxy as heroes famous and obscure became pop culture phenomena. Now, in Phase 4, Marvel Studios decided to expand its content explosively, connecting a bloated film release schedule with multiple series released on Disney +. There have never been so many MCU projects in production simultaneously. Yet, some of the amazement of those very first years is gone.
It feels like something is missing from the MCU. But how could it be when so much content is released almost every month? If Marvel Studios keeps making exactly the kind of productions we loved so much during the “Infinity Saga”, why do the latest MCU releases feel so underwhelming? While it would be easy to end the discussion by saying the explosion of content watered down the quality of MCU films – and now series – we are here to try to figure out exactly why.
No film or series exists in a vacuum. Therefore, we can not start to analyze any film franchise without considering what else is being developed in Hollywood at the same time. And the truth is, too much superhero content is being made right now. While movies such as Blade and Sam Raimi‘s first Spider-Man proved comic book adaptations could be critically acclaimed and commercially successful at the same time, it was not until the rise of the MCU that Hollywood realized there was a gold mine to be dug beneath the pages filled with colorful character with quirk names.
It was not only the MCU that kept expanding in the last decade. First, Warner Bros. also pushed for an interconnected universe with DC characters. And while the DC Extended Universe did not achieve the same success as the MCU, Warner Bros. is funding many more comic book movies and series than before the MCU. More important, though, is that Hollywood realized there’s comic book life outsides the planets of Marvel and DC. It’s not a coincidence that Prime Video turned The Boys into a multimillionaire franchise while Netflix put The Umbrella Academy in the superhero ring.
Since there are too many options to choose from, it’s reasonable to think that the superhero public became more demanding as the years passed. When almost superhero production can count on competent writers, acclaimed filmmakers, and star-studded casts, we start to look for something more than production value. And that’s the first reason why Phase 4 of the MCU seems worse than the previous ones. Even though Marvel Studios keep spending an obscene amount of money on hiring the best of the best, every MCU production stills look more or less the same.
Yes, each MCU film or series has its own setting, and some recent productions have even shown the sensitivity to explore diverse cultural backgrounds positively – Ms. Marvel, we are looking at you! But sometimes, it feels like the creative minds behind each production are constrained by storytelling rules that drag them down. For example, can you remember the last MCU film that did not end with a messy CGI battle?
Let’s take only the two latest MCU shows to compare. Both Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel introduce a character that has a personal connection with a specific country and culture, Egypt and Pakistan, respectively. First, the two shows introduce their heroes in a classic urban context for the first few episodes. Then, due to a plot twist, both series take their heroes on a trip to the country related to their personal history. Finally, each series explores how its heroes go someplace that might not be real. How can two series with such diverse tones and characters follow a structure so similar?
With the MCU trying to keep every character part of the same universe, Marvel Studios has a tremendous job of maintaining canon tight. That, of course, leads to a lot of external pressure for every film and series, as writers need to follow guidelines that sometimes might prevent them from doing some original. However, with the superhero fatigue increasing in recent years, the MCU needs to truly diversify its narratives if it wants to impress fans once more. Otherwise, there’s no reason to stick to the MCU instead of watching other superhero productions.
In the case of the MCU, the superhero fatigue we feel is also fed by Marvel Studios failing to realize what makes their movies interesting in the first place. We remember MCU films less for their epic battles than for exploring how superpowered people in impossible situations still find ways to be human. For instance, during years we followed Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as he dealt with alcoholism and anxiety, felt Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) pain for being displaced in time, and hoped Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) could find love in each other. Before being superheroes, these characters were humans just like us, trying to make sense of a chaotic world. That’s the big hook of the MCU!
Of course, if we are superhero fans is also because we love fantasy. However, shoehorning shallow villains and rushed battles for the sake of having them is not the right way to deal with Marvel’s fantastic elements. WandaVision shined as an exploration of grief, before becoming a power battle between two superpowered people that took the focus away from Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olsen) emotional universe. As for Lokithe best part of the show was how it dealt with the titular character (Tom Hiddleston) realizing he could be much more than what was expected of him. However, instead of sticking to this character study, the show decided to race against the time (literally) to turn it into a less interesting epic adventure.
The most obvious example of this trend is in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Few scenes in the entire MCU are so symbolic as Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) discussing what it means to be Captain America and how structural racism can weigh over even the most powerful Black people. That moment in Sam’s backyard, with the two friends throwing the shield at each other, is one of the best examples of the MCU’s potential to tell relevant stories. And The Falcon and the Winter Soldier finale is also an excellent example of what’s going wrong in Phase 4. In order to reunite all the main characters for one final battle scene, the show rushes John Walker’s (Wyatt Russell) redemption arch and ends up doing exactly what it was criticizing: it gives the white boy a pass for his crimes.
By no means do we intend to tell that we should be doing superhero films and series without thrilling action set-pieces and fantastic elements. We love watching bright lights flashing on the screen! But when these elements are introduced to the detriment of character growth, we can not help to feel something is going wrong with the MCU’s Phase 4.
Lack of Goal
And that leads to our last big complaint about how Marvel Studios has been handling Phase 4: lack of goal. Of course, not every movie in the “Infinity Saga” is a masterpiece. Far from it, actually. However, each new superhero story in Phases 1, 2, and 3 served a bigger purpose. And with that purpose comes meaning. Yes, we still complain about Thor: The Dark World – with good reason, by the way. But even the worst MCU movies were still connected to a bigger narrative. And it’s easier to forgive a bad chapter when the whole book still tells an exciting story.
Phase 4, on the other hand, suffers from discontinuity. So far, we have no idea how every piece will fit together because the connections each film and series have with one another are only made through cameos and vague references. There is no unified story to embrace all the individual journeys of Phase 4, so each new film and series is judged on its own instead of also for what it brings to the bigger picture.
While discontinuity could allow different creative teams to tell unique solo stories, that’s also not what’s happening. Even though there’s no unifying narrative, Phase 4 of the MCU is so obsessed with the future that it sometimes forgets to focus on the present. Loki‘s cliffhanger still tastes sour one year after the Season 1 finale. And we are all still astonished with WandaVision ‘s abrupt end. In the same line, Hawkeye introduces a new villain right at the end to justify the Echo spinoff without considering how disruptive that could be for Kate Bishop’s (Hailee Steinfeld) story. As for Eternals and Moon Knightboth productions introduce new heroes only to wrap up with the promise of a future adventure that’s still unrelated to everything else.
In short, every Phase 4 production seems more concerned with introducing a future project than telling its own story, which damages character growth. At the same time, there is no relevant future to look forward to. That’s something unprecedented in the MCU. Phase 1 was all about putting the Avengers together, while Phase 2 and Phase 3 had the shadow of Thanos (Josh Brolin) looming over the MCU. What about now? Why keep teasing new projects when everything feels so disconnected? By trying to have their cake and eat it too, Marvel Studios ends up doing none, ending up with no overarching story and no production focused on itself.
There are still a bunch of movies and series set to be released in Phase 4 until 2023. And since most of it is already in production, we doubt anything will change soon. However, if the MCU wants to survive in a market ever more crowded with superheroes, they need to stir the boat in the right direction and bring back what made the “Infinity Saga” so engaging.