It all started in 2008 with the first “Iron Man” film. Comic book movies, previously considered immature cash-grabs that no one in Hollywood took seriously, were suddenly well-rounded dramas that anyone could enjoy. Over the next 11 years, Marvel and Disney continued to build the MCU, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, culminating in one of the highest-grossing films of all time, “Avengers: Endgame.” The MCU is now in the midst of Phase 4, with a total of 28 feature films and six limited series on Disney+, and that number is still growing. This is a feat that no other movie franchise has accomplished in history, with the movies and shows still performing consistently well with critics and the box office.
Some have begun to wonder if this number presents an unnecessary roadblock for new fans. If someone wanted to watch the MCU’s newest movie, “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness,” in theaters, they would have to be caught up on all 34 previous titles, including their ongoing plotlines and characters. Calculated out, that’s about 93 hours of content, which would take just under four days to consume. That’s easy for a die-hard fan who’s already watched these films as they came out, but for someone who wants to catch up on the largest pop culture phenomenon in recent history, it’s nearly impossible.
A lot of the newer MCU movies will open the film up where the last one left off. The newest “Doctor Strange” movie directly follows “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “WandaVision,” piggybacking off of the conflicts that were established in those two titles. A lot of people argue that these films just act like any other sequel, and that film series do this type of thing all the time. After all, you wouldn’t watch the second “Lord of the Rings” film without watching the first, right? The MCU should follow the same principle — except there aren’t 34 “Lord of the Rings” movies. Watching the first three hours of “Fellowship of the Ring” wouldn’t take you nearly as long as watching everything from “The Incredible Hulk” to “Hawkeye.”
Others compare the MCU to the growing “Star Wars” franchise, which currently has nine feature films, two spin-off movies, several television shows (both live-action and animated), and a string of novels and comic books. That being said, it’s not fully impossible to jump into the franchise at any given point, and that’s mostly due to the way that the series is divided. You could theoretically start your watch-through at movie 7, and though you would miss out on some worldbuilding information and a few characters’ backgrounds, that sequel trilogy is designed to stand alone. It’s a little more complicated with the MCU, especially considering that their movies aren’t numbered. While you might’ve been able to start with “The First Avenger” without seeing the Iron Man trilogy, that’s simply not true with the Phase 4 movies.
Perhaps it’s as easy as just writing off the MCU as something that’s meant for the fans that are in it for the long haul. After all, you’d probably be hard pressed to find anyone that’s just a “casual Marvel fan” nowadays. Most people have either heard of it and have no interest, or are in the theater every opening night. However, the growing size of the MCU is not just a problem for new fans anymore. It’s a factor that is not only affecting the entertainment value of new MCU titles but is even becoming a roadblock for previous fans as well.
Most of that is due to the MCU’s new reliance on television shows and limited series. Full enjoyment of the MCU now requires a subscription to Disney+ and a few hours out of your week to sit down and watch whatever side-plot they’ve squished into six episodes. But it doesn’t stop there. The MCU story has recently introduced the concept of the multiverse, and with that, previous shows like “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and “The Punisher,” along with the X-Men franchise, are also a part of the MCU canon. Most of these titles came out over five years ago, so fans not only have to keep up with new content as it comes out, but have to now backpedal into previous projects to stay updated with the characters and storylines that are being added into the movies.
With this new multiverse concept, Marvel might’ve bit off more than they can chew. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now unfathomably big, and with the ability to reality hop and time travel around any problem, MCU writers might’ve plummeted the stakes to zero for each movie going forward. So, where does the MCU go from here? They can’t simply stop making movies, especially not after so much time and dedication from fans and creators alike have gone into these stories and characters. Do we just let the MCU reach its expiration date?
Some recent movies like “Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” and television shows like “Moon Knight,” offer a solution to this problem. Both of these titles have successfully separated themselves from the main Avengers saga, introducing characters and plotlines that have little to nothing to do with the rest of the MCU. Though they take place in the same universe, and occasionally make references to the rest of the series that previous fans can enjoy, these titles stand almost entirely alone. Any common viewer could sit down to watch these movies without needing to take time out of their week to play catch up.
This trend offers a compromise between the two main needs of the audience. New fans can easily watch them without needing to read up on the MCU bible, and these titles also offer a narrative stepping stone for upcoming movies. Casual viewers can find entertainment from the witty humor and dark atmosphere of “Moon Knight,” and dedicated fans can look forward to seeing him in future titles.
Though this might not be enough to save the MCU, it at least helps to stall for time until the franchise reaches an epic conclusion. For now, Marvel content is pleasantly balanced between action-packed ensemble movies and well-rounded solo features that nearly anyone can find interest in. Now it’s just a matter of watching and seeing how far Marvel can tip the scales while keeping their content fresh.