By: Shaleen Shukla
I’ll start by saying that the MCU has been churning out entertainment for the last 15 years. Time and time again, any franchise finds it difficult to keep the same momentum, enthusiasm, and engagement it might have achieved at its peak. The doomsday predictions are now being thrown around. Yet, on turning the clock back, around the time Age of Ultron, some of the cast members were already expressing a lack of interest and motivation in playing their characters.
And then came Captain America: Civil War, Spiderman: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok , a part of the ‘Phase 3’ , widely praised by critics and audiences alike and from here, the discourse completely changed. The energy and excitement was back again, the build-up to Infinity War, the ever-so-teasing cameos, introduction of some great new characters (cue, Doctor Strange and Black Panther), Marvel was back at their game.
However, admittedly, this time around, it will be much harder for Marvel to pull a similar revamp. And the lacklustre performances of about half of its projects is just the tip of the iceberg.
Currently, Marvel has no clear direction, no overlapping narratives and we only know so much about Kang, as we do about that friend who calls once a year on your birthday. The building of the universe, block by block, has always been a topsy-turvy path. It would be unfair to expect this phase to match up to the hype of ten years of world-building up to the Infinity Saga. However, what is more realistic and reasonable are the concerns about oversaturation. People say too much of a good thing is a bad thing, while too much of a mediocre thing is even worse. Well ,the feeling is pretty much the same with Marvel releasing new shows or a new movie almost every month. Frequently, VFX artists and screenwriters have registered their complaints about too little of a time window to work with, and thus being overworked, up to 18 hours a day. As a result, even a good idea translates to an average movie. And thus the cycle of uninspiring performances continue.
Arguably, the biggest issue of concern are the stories themselves. A key aspect of Marvel in Phase 1 was to focus on character-building first, and then go for a crossover event. However, today, in order to not lose their fanbase after the high of Endgame, movies are loaded with cameos, that obviously do not pay off eventually. Phase 1 was populated with cameos being exclusively confined to the post-credits scene. The movie itself completely focused on the character in question. However, the first appearances of cameos in the main movies only started in Phase 3 and by this time the foundation for most of the central characters were firmly in place.
And now, time has come for strengthening this foundation. More than half of the central characters have no existing story lines. The focus should be to let the audience know the qualities and flaws of the heroes they will be rooting for in the upcoming decades. But almost all of these shows have been populated with excessive cameos and references, which can be really confusing for even a fan to watch. While this may seem to contradict with my previous point about not having enough overlapping narratives, the key is not to just have stories stretching into each other but to rather do it in a seamless fashion, without disrupting the flow of the movie itself for an Easter Egg is only an Easter Egg when it eventually pays off.
The first indication of this could be seen in the introduction of QuickSilver in WandaVision. Bringing back one of the most beloved characters from the X-Men franchise sent the fans into a frenzy about alternate universes, portals, Mephisto and everything else under the sun. The pay-off was a five episode build-up to a ‘Bohner’ joke. A wiser alternative could have been to entirely reserve this cameo for a series/movie, where there would’ve been better results. Marvel attempted to keep up the hype and also save the best for the last but sadly, were not able to pull off either of those.
But, perhaps, the biggest of Marvel’s woes is the game of perception. It is a no-brainer, that throughout Phases 1 to 3, Marvel seriously lacked having women or people of color as central or consequential characters in their movies. The first one in the MCU to jump on this trend was Black Panther, coming a decade after the first MCU movie. Only, towards the end of Phase 3, did Black Panther, The Wasp, Wanda and Captain Marvel become more prominent to the MCU.
Even after being late to the party, Marvel did start working on this flaw. Yet, it became almost impossible to now shift focus from characters central to the universe to the newly surfacing diverse faces. A great example would be the scene, towards the end of Endgame, where all the female characters united onscreen for about 5 frames of screentime. Characters that had no interaction or chemistry with each other before that scene, or even after that scene were just made to share screen space, leading them to nowhere fruitful. It just seemed like a token attempt at getting brownie points, to give the women of the fanbase a little something to cheer upon. It also minimized any actual human interactions we could have seen among the characters, as they had barely enough time on screen. This almost felt like Marvel trying to score some quick social inclusivity points, while only committing enough to not have any impact whatsoever on any of the character arcs, or the narrative of the movie. Yet again, on trying to step on two boats at the same time, Marvel simply failed to float.
So, with the big conclusion of the Infinity Saga, you would expect Marvel could easily start with a diverse array of characters building up another great saga, instead of trying to shoehorn them into the spotlight, much later into the narrative. But because of the factors mentioned previously, Marvel has been finding it hard to build anything close to the universe they had. And so, naturally, this compensatory measure has not been universally well received. A not-so-insignificant chunk of this backlash has been because of the perceived conspiratorial ‘woke’ take-over, by some rabbit-holes on the internet. However, the fact that the opinions of this fringe have seeped well into the mainstream, should signify that it is not only trolls and the -ists, but rather the everyday audience who have taken an issue with the latest MCU content.
A large portion of the fanbase is finding it hard for any of these stories to hit the emotional chord that it used to. Another significant point is messaging. In general, nuance is more welcomed by audiences than outright distinct messaging. That is why the plot of Civil War is still the hotspot of debate in any YOUTUBE comment sections. It shows a clash of ideologies and values, various perspectives and attitudes, urging the spectator to come up with their own theories and conclusions.. A similar theme is observed in most of the critically and popularly acclaimed pieces like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. They showcase a series of events that lead up to the building of a character, often with a deep backstory which refrains from explicitly focusing on generalized standards of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. A similar approach made Thanos much more than a one dimensional villain, especially in Infinity War.
But the only example in Phase 4, along similar lines, is of Loki, and to some extent, Hawkeye and Moon Knight. Sylvie, Loki and Kang, all have ambiguous intentions, which keeps the viewer on their toes. However, on observing another case, when Wanda subjugated an entire town, and kept them hostage as a defense mechanism to her grief, Monica felt the need to explicitly state that the town would never know what she had sacrificed for them. But when Tony allowed his emotions to get the better of him and attack Bucky at the end of Civil War and when Thor decided to go for Thanos’ chest instead of his head to cause as much suffering as he could, or when Starlord took his anger out on Thanos, in the middle of others trying to retrieve the Gauntlet, we all knew they had made short-sighted decisions and that the consequences would be deadly, to say the least. But the movie did not explain the reasoning, both for and against those actions and was simply left for the viewer to interpret.
The theme of villains recognizing their wrongdoings, and course-correcting has been yet another way of emphasizing by the creators on what is good and what is not. Movies like Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever had a similar pattern where the antagonist realized that the protagonist was morally ‘right all along’, and thus forfeiting their plans, but that is, after having a full fledged battle that wipes out more than half of the armies on both sides. If I had a nickel for every time Wanda decided to go bonkers evil, and then come to an enlightening realization, I’d have three nickels, which isn’t much, but it’s weird that it has happened thrice. The theme of the bad guy coming around can be easily messed up, if the reason for ‘coming around’ is not compelling enough. Others like Falcon and the Winter Soldier and She-Hulk had similar themes with Zemo and The Abomination respectively. The intelligence of the audience should not be underestimated. Case in point, if that were so, the Christopher Nolan movies would never be as successful as they are.
My objective was to highlight some issues that, I believe, are not as commonly discussed when analyzing the current state of the MCU. The hateful backlash against representation of diverse groups has been extensively covered. Even as of today, women account for about half of the total superheroes in the MCU. If representation in proportion to half the population of this world is ‘woke’, then this term should lose its meaning. Captain Marvel got tons of online hate and abuse, all because of an out-of-context comment. Derogatory memes and objectifying remarks have repeatedly surfaced, to ‘revolt against the agenda’. The aversion to having an increasing number of people from diverse groups, is clearly reflected among some. Or on the other side, a counterproductive intent of some of the crew, working on shows such as She-Hulk is to evoke a negative reaction from the audience. Intending to troll the very audience you’re making the movie for, is not a promising sign. Talking down to Hulk(Hulk-splaining?) about anger management and being a Hulk, did not sit well with many either. We could take Jen’s struggles seriously, but not at the expense of dismissing Bruce’s. And to poke fun at a time-tested MCU formula that has worked for years, only then to revert back to a Twilight-Zone ending did not do justice to the quality fourth wall breaks we had seen in the She-Hulk comics. But these are just a small part of the puzzle that makes up the bigger picture of Marvel’s downslide.
So, all of this being said, you may assume I am driving to a conclusion, to take a stand. But I have done my part of putting out my subjective perspective and mentioning the patterns I observed. The final verdict of what Marvel is doing right, what is being done wrong and the conclusion on what is the future of this cinematic universe is for you, the reader, to derive.