Marvel’s current model has been incredibly successful – but for how much longer?
From a certain point of view, “what does Marvel need to do to succeed in Phase 5?” sounds like a silly question. After all, it implies that the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t successful in Phase 4 – which, by almost every possible metric, it was. Every film, from Black Widow to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, with Spider-Man: No Way Home becoming one of the top ten highest-grossing movies of all time. The fleet of TV shows released on Disney Plus proved successful as well, with shows like WandaVision, Loki, and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law dominating the conversation for weeks at a time. 15 years in, Marvel is still reaching new milestones; Angela Bassett, for instance, stands a real chance of becoming the first actor to win an Oscar for a performance in an MCU movie. And for a time, the MCU’s box office dominance seemed almost heroic after the pandemic, proving that movie theaters had a future after all.
But there are signs, if one looks closely enough, that the MCU is no longer in its imperial phase. Consider Eternals, which, with its loaded cast, millennia-spanning plot, and an award-winning director in Chloé Zhao, was hyped as a Marvel movie that could win over the Scorseses of the world; instead, it was a (relative) box office disappointment, and the first MCU offering to ever receive a Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Or Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which grossed well but received a comparatively muted response from critics and audiences alike. And then there’s Thor: Love and Thunder, which followed the beloved Thor: Ragnarök with glib, plasticky diminishing returns. The things about the MCU that people liked (such as the snarky, quippy dialogue) aren’t landing as regularly as they used to, and the things people politely ignored (such as the soupy VFX produced by severely overworked artists) stick out even more.
It’s true that a behemoth like the MCU can keep running for another few years off of inertia alone. And it’s also true that people who prescribe fixes for the MCU usually assume their specific bugbears are universal; I mean, I’d be happy if they cast Julianne Moore as Captain America and remade the plot of Safe, but I wouldn’t expect anyone else to like it. But as the MCU exits the transitional Phase 4 and enters the wilderness of Phase 5, it’s worth considering how they can recapture the magic of the early years.
One word that has often come up when discussing the current state of Marvel is “fatigue” – as in, “I have Marvel fatigue.” And when you look at the release schedule, it’s not hard to see why. Back in Phase 1 and Phase 2, Marvel only released one or two movies a year; today, Marvel averages three or four movies a year, and that doesn’t even include the three or four TV shows released alongside them. While it’s true that pandemic-related delays exacerbated the situation, there’s no denying that there’s an absolute flood of Marvel content these days.
But does there really need to be? Back in the early days of the MCU, every movie felt like a capital-E Event. They were big movies that could stand on their own (for the most part), but each was connected, and each seemed to be leading to something even bigger. More than the thrill of seeing superheroes duking it out on the big screen, there was the thrill of discovery, the thrill of seeing something enormous barely visible on the horizon and knowing for certain that you’ll see it up close and personal someday. The extra time between installments allowed audiences to cool down from one grand adventure while eagerly anticipating the next.
Compare that to today. It is, of course, hard to maintain a sense of discovery after sixteen years and billions of dollars, but what was once fresh and exciting now feels expected – inevitable, even, and not in the fun Thanos-y way. With a new MCU project released every few months, each as big and bombastic as the last, it’s easy to go numb; it feels less like the next chapter in a thrilling adventure and more like a quarterly report. And while it’s true that, strictly speaking, you don’t have to watch every MCU release, well…
If we haven’t quite reached the point where the movies are incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t caught up on the TV shows, we’re closer to that point than we ought to be. Having Wanda be the big villain in Multiverse of Madness wasn’t too big of an ask, considering how inescapable WandaVision was. But what will happen when audiences are expected to go into Captain America: New World Order knowing everything that happened in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? Or when She-Hulk makes her first appearance in the movies? We’re already starting to see this in action with the release of the Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania trailer; even if audiences can glean through context that Kang is a major threat, the gravity of the situation (such as it is) won’t be clear to them if they haven’t seen the last episode of Loki’s first season.
And at least those characters have been introduced before. What is the average viewer supposed to take away from Clea showing up in the credits of Multiverse of Madness? Or Eros at the end of Eternals? Maybe the thrill is supposed to come from seeing their respective actors show up (“oh hey, it’s Charlize Theron!”), but that excitement is inherently short-lived (“oh god, another character to keep track of.”) The lesson Marvel took from Guardians of the Galaxy’s success was “you can make any random character from the comics a beloved icon of the screen,” and not, as it should have been, “give films to directors with unique visions.” Speaking of which…
It seems like every Marvel movie starts the same cycle. Hype builds from early reactions, telling us that, no really, this one is completely different from everything that came before it. Black Widow isn’t a Marvel movie, it’s an old-fashioned spy thriller. Shang-Chi isn’t a Marvel movie, it’s pure kung-fu action. Eternals isn’t a Marvel movie, it’s an epic, trippy odyssey through space and time. And then the movie is released, and, sure as anything, it’s a Marvel movie. The action is flashy but rarely more than functional. The cinematography is flat and uninspired. The score sounds a little like John Williams and a little like nothing. Everyone quips at each other like they’re trapped in a Joss Whedon pilot. It all ends in a big, noisy, CGI-laden final battle. Whatever genre elements were promised feel watered down. And then, when the next movie comes out, the cycle begins anew. (It’s already started with Quantumania, which one of the writers compared to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, of all goddamn things.)
If it sounds like I’m down on the MCU, it’s only because it doesn’t have to be like this. They are one of the most successful and well-funded entertainment enterprises in human history. If they really wanted to make the most mind-boggling, balls-to-the-wall kung fu movie, spy thriller, or whatever else they wanted to try, they have the resources to do it. They could hire an established director, they could give them $200 million, and they could let them go wild – and enough people will buy a ticket out of brand loyalty alone that it will turn a profit. But then, they also have the resources to pay their VFX artists enough to compensate for their stressful, high-pressure work, but they don’t do that either – because it’s easier and cheaper and quicker to hack out one movie after another and rake in the cash.
But if 2022 proved anything, it’s that audiences are ready for more from their blockbusters. Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick aren’t perfect movies, but they’re both gorgeous, they both boast killer selling points (amazingly lush CGI for the former, kickass jet fights for the latter), and they were both made with the kind of care and craft that we only intermittently get from Marvel. The success of those two movies will ensure that more will follow – and Marvel could very well find itself left behind.
Will Phase 5 End the MCU's Golden Age? – Collider
Marvel’s current model has been incredibly successful – but for how much longer?