The people behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe recently announced their plans for “Phase Five” of their popular series of movies and TV shows. After an initial wave of excitement over hearing names like “Kang” and phrases like “Secret Wars,” the inevitable skepticism kicked in.
There are few box office juggernauts bigger than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Releasing several movies and TV series each year, the MCU has become a staple of the pop culture landscape. This is nothing new, but I’ve noticed the conversation beginning to change in the last few years. With each new release, there is an increasing impatience in the discussion. People are wondering where exactly everything is headed.
Certainly, the first “phases” in the MCU were constructed beautifully, slowly but surely setting up the inevitability of the final battle, while still telling individual stories. The eventual confrontation was as exciting a movie event as I’ve ever seen, as the heroes and villains we had been getting to know for ten years came together to accomplish a common goal, made all the more impactful when they initially failed. After Thanos’s defeat in “Avengers: Endgame,” audiences were left wondering where we could possibly go from there.
Marvel’s answer was to branch out, incorporating new (albeit lesser-known) heroes like Shang-Chi and the Eternals, all while playing it safe with the occasional release featuring established characters like Spider-Man and Thor. Marvel released several shows on Disney+ to further transition audiences into the next phase, telling the story of Falcon’s emergence as the new Captain America and Scarlet Witch’s increasing instability, which would eventually pay off in the latest Doctor Strange movie. This film, along with “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and the “Loki” series, would establish the concept of the “multiverse,” where there are other realities that run parallel to ours.
Obviously, this multiverse idea is where all of these shows and movies will come together. The creative decision-makers at Marvel clearly realized that it would be impossible to get much bigger than the “Infinity War” movies, so they’ve opted to just get weirder. This can be exciting, as the inherent unpredictability of the premise can push the characters in directions we might not expect.
As fun as “weird” can be, it can also be narratively risky. There is a difference between “random” and “unfocused” and, if a director isn’t careful, it can be very easy to accidentally move from one to the other, leaving the audience confused.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, it actually requires more discipline when trying to convey this kind of strange story, and the latest phase of the MCU seems to be lacking that. While it has now been revealed that we’re headed towards a confrontation with our new “big bad,” Kang the Conqueror, it doesn’t take away from the suspicion that the creators have been spinning their wheels for the last couple of years, waiting for inspiration to strike, offering a string of movies with wildly differing levels of quality.
“Black Widow” was a fine spy thriller – a sort of nod to the “Jason Bourne” movies – but, given that we know the eventual fate of the character, it seemed largely unnecessary. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was enjoyable, but the hero himself – played by the likable Simu Liu – was regularly upstaged by the supporting characters. And the less said about “Eternals,” the better. It’s as though the characters simply evaporated from my memory, as though they never existed at all. I did, however, really enjoy “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which perhaps speaks to Marvel having a better handle on their established characters than their new ones.
Then, of course, there’s the inclusion of a political agenda. In some cases, it’s an asset. I’m actually all in favor of expanding racial representation. I would imagine younger Asian-American children were very excited to have a hero that looked like them and so thoroughly incorporated Chinese culture, just as the continuing “Black Panther” series (minus Chadwick Boseman, tragically) will continue to empower African American audiences.
Unfortunately, there is often an overextension to some of these elements. It’s not enough to have a female superhero; she must actively humiliate her condescending male counterparts. Characters of color aren’t merely fighting for justice, but for social justice, specifically. Sometimes these traits are organic to the character, and sometimes not. Either way, there they are, admonishing white male audience members to feel guilty and improve themselves (with the former much more important than the latter). This heavy-handedness doesn’t merely stop at race and gender, however, as it seems the only atrocities the Eternals ever seem to mourn are those done by the United States.
One of the real problems here, though, is the growing resentment that can develop in an audience that feels forced into watching these movies to keep up with the nature of a shared universe. Were one to skip “WandaVision,” one would have absolutely no idea why Scarlet Witch was suddenly a villain in “Multiverse of Madness.”If you’re wondering why Hawkeye isn’t showing up in Marvel movies anymore, you need to watch his series, whether you want to or not. And perhaps you’d prefer to skip out on the anti-American sentiment in “Eternals.” You would do so at your own risk, as there’s a good chance that the mythology set up in that film will come heavily into play in later cosmic films of this phase.
I suppose it comes down to Marvel being a victim of its own success. While not every film in the first three phases is a masterpiece, they each felt like they were contributing to something larger, which meant we were eager to see them. With no discernible narrative structure to the latest phase, however, there’s nothing really compelling us to watch, except the promise that it will all come together eventually. In the meantime, we’re being fed a political message that we may not agree with, hoping that it will all make sense in the end.
Right now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing great at the box office. The audience has been willing to put up with its lack of direction and its agenda. But with each successive unfocused movie or show, it risks alienating its audience. With the announcement of “Phase Five,” Marvel is starting to reveal its larger plans. Let’s hope it is able to effectively execute them, before viewers start to feel like the MCU no longer deserves their attention (or their money).
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.