Warning! Mild spoilers for several titles released by Marvel Studios in 2021 and 2022, from WandaVision through Thor: Love and Thunder
I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I have been on board since the first Iron Man movie and have watched each series as it has come to Disney+. People joke about the Marvel Studios formula – and there is some truth to that – but what is also true, is Marvel knows how to vary its storytelling. The Captain America movies are different from Ant-Man and both of those are nothing like Guardians of the Galaxy. I look forward to each release and enjoy talking about them with my friends.
Well, at least I still look forward to them. As much as I have enjoyed the film and television releases from Phase 4 of the MCU, I have recently come to the realization that I am losing interest in it.
With the first three phases, the MCU presented The Infinity Saga, an eleven year epic that spanned twenty-three films. (Twenty-two if you want to nitpick since Far From Home was more of an epilogue.) While each of the movies saw the various heroes tackle their own enemies, there was always a unifying story in the background. Some movies were more in your face than others, but each installment reminded audiences there was some guy named Thanos on a quest for a bunch of stones. And if he got them all hell was going to break loose.
When we finally got to 2018’s Infinity War, it was an amazing feeling. A decade of teasers, twists, and speculation were all answered. Everything worked like a charm as Marvel Studios were able to deliver the most emotional moments of the MCU with a snap of their fingers. A year later, Endgame closed the door on the previous stories while setting fans up for what was next.
Three years later, we are still waiting.
Phase Four has given us a decent Black Widow movie, the awesome Shang-Chi and Spider-Man films, the forgettable Eternals, and a Dr. Strange sequel that pretty much ignored all of the awesome storytelling of WandaVision. What about the rest of the Disney+ offerings? The Falcon and Winter Soldier was a fun show that culminated in great ending. Loki, Hawkeye and What If…? were very entertaining. Ms. Marvel has had a different vibe that has made it stand out.
But there is not connective tissue to tie them all together. WandaVision, Loki, and Dr. Strange deal with the multiverse while Black Widow, Captain America, and Hawkeye seemed to have a much more grounded story in mind. There seems to be a connection between Shang-Chi, Ms. Marvel, and the upcoming She-Hulk Disney+ show. It still remains to be seen what Moon Knight and Eternals have to do with the big picture. The Infinity Saga was hard enough to keep up with, but Phase Four has been near impossible.
Thor: Love and Thunder is the most blatant example. After a fun two hours that played to its strengths, the expected mid-credits scene came and wouldn’t you know it? Another possible villain was introduced! At this point, the MCU has to start getting their affairs in order. For over a decade, they told a a number of smaller stories that all tied into a larger one. It is hard to let audiences know they are now telling about a bunch of standalone adventures. The expectation was set a long time ago.
Superhero movies are very much a case of the whole being greater than the sum of their parts. There is a reason that there was never a long lasting comic book movie franchise before the MCU. There simply is not the fanbase for them. Sure, there are outliers like the original Superman movies and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but when you consider there are fourteen Puppet Master(!) movies, it puts into perspective what a long running franchise really is. Cinema history is littered with various superhero properties that have been unable to gain significant traffic with movie audiences.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is at its best when telling a collective story. This has been sorely missing in Phase Four. This does not mean every release should be about one thing and it should not be discounted that Marvel has done an excellent job of introducing new heroes for the future. But it is getting increasingly harder to stay invested in everything that is going on. It all remains exciting right now, but at this rate, the MCU will stop being accessible to all audiences. People will start picking and choosing the stories and characters they actually care for. Just like another Disney property.
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