Even casual Marvel fans have probably heard of the San Diego Comic-Con, if for no reason other than that Marvel announces new projects there. For over a decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has churned out phase after phase of grand heroes and epic crossovers like a well-oiled machine. Lately, however, the MCU’s phases have become tedious, leading to what many have termed “Marvel fatigue.”
Once upon a time, Marvel movies came out three times a year like clockwork. They were culturally significant events, with anticipation building between them. Culminating in the wildly successful “Avengers: Endgame,” the first three phases of the MCU, collectively known as the Infinity Saga, charted a path from the somewhat experimental “Iron Man” to the billion-dollar blockbuster. Executives made it up as they went along, down to the original end credits scene. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) might as well have been addressing the real world when he said, “Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.” And the universe has grown to mythical proportions.
It’s hard for a Marvel movie to be anything but a smashing success. Yet, between Disney+ and the pandemic, Phase 4 has floundered because it attempted too much, with recent additions trying to maintain the MCU level of connectedness and follow-ups while still expanding for the future. Of the seven movies in Phase 4 — “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Eternals,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Thor: Love and Thunder,” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” — controversy already hit three. Marred by her character’s death, “Black Widow” botched its streaming release, with Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit as the cherry on top. Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals” (2021) dethroned “Thor: The Dark World” to claim the dubious honor of Worst MCU Film for itself. Some fans think that the late Chadwick Boseman should have been recast so T’Challa could live on.
Between these movies and their varying levels of success, short streaming series have risen to fill the gaps. I doubt most fans have seen all of them, on top of the six movies released so far. There are so many that it’s a struggle to name them all: “WandaVision,” “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Loki,” “What If…?,” “Hawkeye,” “Moon Knight” and “Ms. Marvel.” Some claimed “Ms. Marvel” was too juvenile and alienated the core audience. (The white male comic book reader strikes again.)
At first, the episodes dropping almost weekly felt novel, like the return of appointment television. But as series upon series kept coming in relentless bursts, trying to keep up diminished the enjoyment of the MCU. There are no dark, air-conditioned theaters and hushed audiences suddenly erupting into cheers. No longer an escape, the MCU succeeded in turning itself into homework for loyal fans interested in following along. Some series, unfortunately, led directly into movies like a six-hour-long prequel. And now there are many of them, multiplying like the heads of a hydra whenever you finish watching one. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t let up from here.
At SDCC, the MCU established Phases 5 and 6, jointly known as the Multiverse Saga, culminating in “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty” and “Avengers: Secret Wars.” As new projects snowballed, it probably felt like a breaking point for many fans. Each disjointed project seems related to either new or forgotten characters. Some even come from other movie universes, a real-life multiverse outside of the visions created by “Loki,” “What If…?,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” (Yes, it’s a lot.) The latter two Phase 4 films did actually bring in characters from a mix of prior Spider-Man movies, Fantastic Four attempts, Netflix Marvel shows, and the X-Men.
Explaining the list of projects announced at SDCC would take its own article. “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” will be the first we see of the next big bad since Sylvie killed a Kang variant in “Loki.” Next, we revisit the Guardians of the Galaxy, who last appeared for continuity’s sake in “Thor: Love and Thunder.” In “The Marvels,” we finally follow up on Carol Danvers, Kamala Khan and Monica Rambeau in their first outing together. Then there are the Skrulls (remember them?) and Nick Fury in “Secret Invasion.” We also get Disney+ spin-offs of Disney+ shows, focusing on fan-favorite minor characters with “Echo” and the recently retitled “Agatha: Coven of Chaos.”
The first show to get a second season, “Loki,” returns with its retro-future aesthetic to keep viewers off-balance. Other characters make their Phase 5 returns despite not having appeared onscreen yet. It’s okay to be unfamiliar with the leads of the movie “Blade” and the series “Ironheart.” Blade’s voice namelessly greeted a minor character in “Eternals.” Ironheart, also known as Riri Williams, will be introduced in the upcoming “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
Overwhelmed yet? We’re not even in 2024, a year when another packed slate delivers “Daredevil: Born Again,” “Captain America: New World Order,” “Thunderbolts” and “Fantastic Four.” Two of these films come from “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” unfortunately for fans who tried to avoid that hours-long series. Future “Thunderbolt” antihero John Walker, aka U.S. Agent, temporarily wielded Cap’s shield before Falcon took up the mantle of Captain America. Meanwhile, “Fantastic Four” appears to be the third iteration of the twice-failed team-up. Maybe the third time really is the charm. “Daredevil” finds a second life as the same old guy as before. Charlie Cox has already reprised his role in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (as well as “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” this August).
With everything so interconnected, it’s hard to tell what plot keeps the universe moving forward and what is just fan service. Given the slate of upcoming Phase 5 projects, “Falcon and the Winter Solider” is serving its purpose. On the other hand, distant, ambiguous projects like “Agatha: Coven of Chaos” so far lack a defined goal beyond fan service. Then, some projects are both. The Tom Holland-led “Spider-Man: No Way Home” swung into the box office as a resounding success, fueled by the Marvel fanboys eager to see three Spider-Men in action, with Daredevil’s cameo just the icing on the cake. Fan service will take you far. Oh, and the movie helped to break the multiverse. See? Practical.
I’m not here to argue against fan service. After all, it’s gifting us a bunch of shorts about a talking tree named Baby Yoda. Well, I mean Baby Groot, the MCU’s equivalent of Star Wars’ omnipresent merch magnet Grogu, The Child. Fan service ensures people keep turning out for movie after movie, enjoying them enough to return for the next installment. After a while, however, fan service on this scale gets a bit tedious. It risks alienating the casual Marvel viewer or the newcomer with about as much pop culture understanding as Steve Rogers fresh out of the ice. Some executives might forget the quiet voices, but not all of the billions of dollars audiences bestow upon the franchise come from serial rewatches by hardcore fans.
I’m not asking Marvel to be art. It’s a product, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Each installment is designed to get people to shell out money and secure their return with a post-credits scene. The MCU already Pavloved us into staying through the credits just to see a promotion for distant movies that may or may not be made. Reliably, they take comic book inspiration and churn out upwards of three formulaic but usually decent new pieces of content each year. With both niche and broad appeal, people became content over the years to sit through even the not-half-bad features because they bore the MCU logo.
But is it good marketing to bombard the audience with so much reference-heavy content that nobody can keep up with it anymore? Attempting to serve up something for every type of fan means more subpar, segmented projects. In trying to appeal to everyone, maybe the MCU now appeals to fewer people than before.
Some newly introduced heroes increase the diversity of the MCU, giving faithful fans who maybe aren’t straight white men a chance to see themselves as the lead. “Captain Marvel,” “Black Widow” and “Ms. Marvel” (and their title characters) appeal to a different audience than the boys’ club that used to dominate the MCU. Plus, we have more heroes of color now, including Phase 4’s Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), Sersi (Gemma Chan), and America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). Not so long ago, if you thought of a hero, he was probably a white guy. Just to name a few, we have Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Star-Lord and Spider-Man.
But apart from valid criticism about flaws in their newfound representation, that move has generated backlash from the same straight white men who like to gatekeep their MCU. Captain Marvel stole a motorcycle from a misogynistic man? How dare she! Deaf heroes like Echo and Makkari from “Eternals” face backlash over subtitles. (Squint. I don’t care.) Angry retaliation also includes review bombing MCU entries like “Ms. Marvel” while decrying the fact that they can’t relate to the struggles of a Muslim Pakistani teenage girl. Well, maybe she can’t relate to the current crop of heroes. Like many young women, Ms. Marvel canonically idolizes Captain Marvel. Now she is an idol for many young women herself. Introducing these heroes is a meaningful step forward, even if it means expanding the overcrowded MCU.
As for the Netflix bunch? When characters like Daredevil, Kingpin or any other of the numerous cameos reclaim their masked mantles, the MCU often expects the audience to know who these characters are. It’s a new chapter in the hefty MCU encyclopedia, one with no good reason other than a simple equation: Fan service equals money.
Pleasing superfans by bringing back popular characters builds a rapport with them, a move that makes business sense but also risks alienating casual fans. The MCU has enough homework, and audiences don’t need more. If they don’t care enough to catch up, they’ll just be confused and drift away from the MCU, only turning out for their favorite heroes and villains or maybe not at all. Streaming diminishes the need for movie theaters, so if the movies are no longer worth it, who wants to spend money and time (and risk COVID) on something they could see on Disney+ in three months?
Until the next big crossover, I’m treating the MCU as the choose-your-own-adventure it should be. With only weeks between entries instead of the feasible three films a year like before, it will only get harder to stay up to date on everything MCU. Even if I try to work the MCU into my streaming schedule, I will undoubtedly miss some things. I might as well make it a conscious choice.