The idea of a Marvel Cinematic Universe has from the beginning given its movies an operatic flavor, where the interlocking template was bigger than any one title or character. Yet the studio’s formal unveiling of new “phases” of its grand plans at Comic-Con underscored how the challenge of connecting multiple movies into one sprawling organism might have become, to borrow from another Disney franchise, a trap.
Marvel assiduously built toward “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Endgame,” delivering a massive two-part, five-hour-plus, every-hero-imaginable conclusion to the Thanos saga in 2019. The result was a staggering commercial success, bidding farewell to a pair of signature characters who helped launch this run of movies in the process.
What could the studio possibly do for an encore? Phase 4, the latest chapter in Marvel’s cinematic march, was intended to address that, serving as what amounted to a multi-movie palate cleanser while resetting the table by introducing new characters and capitalizing on existing ones.
Three significant events, however, followed “Endgame,” two beyond anyone’s control, and the other above Marvel’s specific pay grade: A global pandemic that threw the entire movie industry for a loop; the tragic death of “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman; and the late-2019 launch of Disney+, a streaming service that, as a major priority for Marvel parent Disney, became another very hungry mouth to feed.
As dazzling as the “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” footage unveiled at Comic-Con looked, losing Boseman created a no-good-answers dilemma for the sequel, clouding the future of a franchise that after the first movie appeared poised to be a major linchpin of Marvel’s plans.
The pandemic, meanwhile, played havoc with studio schedules, adding degrees of difficulty to the releases of “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Eternals,” and making it difficult to evaluate their box-office performances or what impact that might have had.
Finally, buoyed by its enviable movie track record, Marvel not only aggressively supplied Disney+ with original shows but chose to treat them as further extensions of its universe, adding to the logistical hurdles associated with that.
The tide of series for Disney+ has, best-case scenario, provided a way to tease certain characters – like the next “Captain America” movie, or introducing the villainous Kang (Jonathan Majors) in “Loki” – and in the worst case, further stretched the Marvel brand at the risk of diluting it.
Whatever the impact of those second and third factors, Phase 4 has been a mixed bag creatively speaking, highlighted by the tepid responses to “Eternals,” introducing less-heralded characters (although like Shang-Chi, they’ve been around in the comics since the 1970s); and “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the latest sequel featuring one of the original Avengers.
The movies outlined for Phase 5 and the glimpse provided of Phase 6 indicate that Marvel is eager to restore the epic scope associated with the story that culminated in “Endgame.”
The fact that Marvel dominated trending topics and overshadowed other high-profile commodities at Comic-Con reflects its enduring strength. Even a more mortal Marvel is still playing an extremely strong and enviable hand.
Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for focusing on individual titles, without fretting about their place in the larger MCU. Just getting the Fantastic Four right – finally – seems like a formidable objective, beyond dwelling on the sequels and cameos that they can do in the films that follow.
It’s worth noting, too, that the comic books Marvel has used as its foundation regularly churn out world-threatening threats. Movies take a few years to make, meaning each individual film already faces the daunting task of hatching a plot capable of bearing that weight.
Marvel’s success has owed a great deal to the fact that its movies are seen as events by fans, and the connectedness of its universe has undoubtedly contributed mightily to that dynamic.
As is so often true in Hollywood, though, a blessing can turn into a burden. For now, the studio would be best served by delivering some really satisfying movies and letting the rest of the equation follow.
Accomplish that, and by 2025 we might look back and say that Marvel was just going through a phase.