My Marvel Comics fandom goes as far back as the early 90s when I used to collect trading cards with my cousin and best friend at the time. It was my introduction to the vast universe of Stan Lee’s creations and the start of an obsession that ranged from Spider-Man, X-Men, the Avengers, and my all-time favorite: The Punisher. When it came to the movies, however, it was a mixed bag for most of the 2000s until Marvel Studios kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2008’s Iron Man.
After three phases of amazing Marvel adaptations, I was in tears during the finale of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. That singular moment of almost every Marvel superhero coming together to fight Thanos was a boyhood dream of mine that came true. It made up for the failures of the big studio adaptations that failed to capture the essence of the comics and made me optimistic about the MCU’s future; however, I’m penning this blog today to explain why Marvel needs a kick in the ass.
The MCU is by no means in danger of collapse like other attempts at universe-building that fail miserably. There are more than enough Marvel fans out there who will continue to shell out good money to see the latest MCU chapter on opening weekend as well as stay up until 3 am for the next Disney+ episode to drop. From that standpoint, Marvel remains the top Disney-owned brand over Star Wars. Yet, the kind of issues that hurt the Star Wars brand in the ‘80s following the release of Return of the Jedi is starting to appear in the MCU.
Avengers: Endgame marked the end of the Infinity Saga that started with Iron Man (NOTE: Spider-Man: Far From Home was treated as the saga’s epilogue). Top draw heroes including Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark, Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers/Captain America, and Scarlett Johannson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow either retired or made sacrifices for the greater good. This was the true end of the road for the original Avengers lineup as well as the end of all the buildup to the confrontation with Thanos. Unlike Jedi, fans were still left with more than enough superheroes to pick up the baton for future MCU films. There was just one question: Where exactly were they going?
San Diego Comic-Con 2019 revealed the majority of Phase 4’s lineup which included the theatrical side (Black Widow, Shang-Chi, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, etc) and the new shows being set up for Disney+ (WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, etc). While most fans got excited by the announcements, others criticized them as Marvel going “woke” by pushing more female and diversity-led characters. I was not discouraged by the announcements for three reasons:
A blank check to bring back RDJ, Evans, and Johannson should the direction fall short.
Marvel regained the rights to X-Men and Fantastic Four following Disney’s Fox acquisition.
These three points kept me optimistic about Marvel’s future. Then a nasty pandemic hit. We were given a year to decompress from Marvel before it kicked back up again. But by the end of 2021, it was starting to feel like too much all at once.
Phase 4’s kickoff in 2021 consisted of 4 MCU theatrical releases and 5 Disney+ shows. Each one felt more disconnected than the next. Story quality ranged from superb (WandaVision) to subpar (Black Widow). Nothing was outright terrible. The problem was our expectations as fans grew too high. With She-Hulk: Attorney at Law as the latest MCU release, something does not feel right anymore. So I came up with these reasons for Marvel needing its ass kicked:
Too Much Comedy
Marvel has been known for its whimsical style of humor going back to Iron Man. With each film, they seem to push the envelope to see how far they can go before it gets outlandish. James Gunn’s B-movie approach to Guardians of the Galaxy worked beyond anyone’s imagination to the point where it did not even need the Marvel brand name attached to it. Taika Wattiti’s Flash Gordon homage with Thor: Ragnarok single-handedly made the God of Thunder more entertaining than he was in his past appearances. Now it just seems like it’s the wackier the better for the MCU from Thor stripped butt naked in Love and Thunder to She-Hulk twerking in her office. Kids might like it. Adults are cringing.
2) Too Much Content
It was easier to follow the Infinity Saga when fans had to wait a few months to a year at a time for the next MCU installment to hit the theaters. While we got TV shows directly or loosely tied to the films on ABC (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) and Netflix (Daredevil and the Defenders), they had no significant impact on the larger storytelling of the MCU. But now there are so many movies and shows to follow, the dots are getting harder to connect which leads to another issue…
3) Lack of Consistent Quality
I vividly remember the behind-the-scenes on Iron Man when director Jon Favreau explained how hard it was to make the suit convincing on screen. By the later part of the 2010s, all the movies became riddled with CGI to the extent of having simplistic dialogue scenes be shot on a green screen soundstage. This does not sound bad. Yet, for the VFX companies who work on these movies and shows, they are being given too much to work on and little time to make it amazing. This leads to a lack of innovation and it leads to audience fatigue. One look at She-Hulk is enough to say Marvel was becoming more quantity over quality. The same goes for their storytelling which varies from filmmaker to filmmaker.
4) Overselling and Underdelivering
I have found most of Phase 4 to be overhyped setups that do not pay off. Cases in point: The mysterious space engineer in WandaVision; the post-credits scene of Black Widow; the marketing on Eternal being the MCU game changer; and the lack of rumored surprise cameos in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The only Phase 4 movie that delivered on fan expectations was Spider-Man: No Way Home, a multiverse storyline that Sony called the real shots on and made more money than any film in this phase thus far.
5) Underwritten Characters
Now I go back to the criticism about Marvel pushing diversity in Phase 4. The main issue here is not diversity and inclusion. I welcome it. But it is when they force characters into a film or show to check off a box and they do not give that character enough to win the audience over. America Chavez in Doctor Strange was forced into the storyline. Not the actress’s fault. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had a convoluted arc that tried to address real-world race relations in America. I blame the pandemic and the writers for that. Eternals pushed for LGBTQ and handicapped superheroes. Yet, they were as bland as the movie itself.
6) Impatiently Waiting for X-Men, Deadpool, and Fantastic Four
Fans anticipate Marvel to do justice to their first family and the mutants after years under the Fox banner. Unfortunately, their licenses transferred over by the time Phase 4 was finalized. Fans are constantly looking for the breadcrumbs that lead to these characters’ MCU arrival. Doctor Strange “seemed” to be the moment. But John Krasinski’s Reed Richards and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X were just red herring variants. We still have a ways to go before any of these characters change the MCU game.
There are other nitpicking points that anyone could make. None of it may change the minds of Feige and his team. So what exactly does Marvel need to get their ass kicked? It’s not just a significant drop in the box office and DIsney+ viewership. It’s something else:
The DC Extended Universe.
Under new leadership at Warner Bros.-Discovery, the studio is now in a push to find their own Kevin Feige to right the wrongs of DC Comics on film. They have already canceled projects (i.e. Batgirl, Wonder Twins), are in the process of retooling completed projects (i.e. The Flash, Aquaman 2), and plan to re-create a cohesive cinematic universe while keeping successes like Joker stand-alone. This should end any confusion that fans have in following these movies.
Where DC can truly succeed, however, is by establishing a successful tone opposite of Marvel. They tried to go dark with 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and failed. It led to a lighter direction in subsequent films that did more damage to the brand. That was a result of shifting leadership. If WB managed to stick with one visionary over the course of several films in the same way they succeeded with the Arrowverse on TV, they have a shot at knocking Marvel off its feet. Time will tell if that happens.
Marvel wants to grow by getting new fans acquainted with new characters. But to mature, they have to undergo some growing pains through the serious competition before they regain their focus.