Consider, if you will, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a living breathing economy. Sure, it makes billions of dollars every year through blockbuster movies and merchandising. But other than its financial successes, what exactly sets the MCU apart from the rest? Other franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and even Fast and Furious all have interconnected, episodic lore, but none have captured hardcore or casual audiences quite like Kevin Feige‘s golden empire.
So what’s the secret?
Well, the MCU has been a careful balance of buy-in investment of attention from fans, and the studio delivering to them exactly what they wanted. It wasn’t always perfect, but by the Endgame closing bell, we all could agree that the market was alive and booming.
The question is now, where are we left after the seemingly insurmountable success of Endgame? How has the pandemic and the real-world economic fallout factored into the production of this so-called Phase 4? With an explosion of shows and movies that already surpass the runtime of Phases 1-3 combined, are we doing okay 1.5 years into this?
The answer is that no, we aren’t doing too well at all.
Again, if you would consider the MCU to be a living economy, we have quite literally experienced an “inflation” of sorts. Not to be confused with our current economic crises. What I mean is that, with the increase in output (3-4 Disney+ shows a year, 3-4 movies a year), the currency of MCU magic feels… well, diluted.
And not just on a quantitative basis, but even on the direction. Real-life companies hold investor meetings, signaling that they have a clear purpose and plan, assuring that, regardless of unpredictable bumps in the road, the end goal is clear.
That, I believe, is what made (and can still make) the MCU truly special. We‘ve always had the occasional dud. In retrospect, most MCU movies were actually just “pretty good”. But in our minds, we elevated them higher, because they shared an interconnectedness that made the entire narrative stronger, thus boosting our confidence in investing goodwill into the series.
This leads to the first of three reasons that we have entered into a Marvel Cinematic Universe Recession.
1. The interconnectedness has decreased drastically
This occurred for several reasons, the first of which was what I call the Fanbase Conundrum. Famously plaguing the Star Wars franchise nearly to death, the Fanbase Conundrum refers to a franchise becoming so successful, that it creates a growing subset of hardcore fans. These fans are incredibly passionate, breathe intense vitality into the fanbase, and likely know more trivia and lore than many of the creators/studios themselves.
The downside is that this hardcore fanbase becomes finite, and soon the studio must decide how to address the casual and newcomer audience. 30+ projects into the MCU, they can no longer expect the general audience to have watched every movie and Disney+ show beforehand. As with franchises like Star Trek, once the lore becomes too heavy, there will be a decreasing amount of fanbase willing to carry on… at least until a hard reboot… or, the option of standalone projects.
It’s these standalone projects, I believe, that are seriously alienating the hardcore fans. Consider the show Moon Knight. I think most audiences thought it was “okay.” The show set up a great premise, Oscar Isaac was incredible, and it was compelling week to week. So why has it suddenly been forgotten as an afterthought (aside from the rushed, lackluster finale)?
In my opinion, it was a lack of any connectedness to the MCU. Really, rewatch the show. There is almost nothing connecting this show to the MCU except the Marvel label on its posters. Not throwaway references, cameos, or even post-credit scenes or references in subsequent shows or movies. It exists as an island, and fans felt alienated. After years of investment into this ongoing overarching, grand story, would these standalone stories even be worth our time?
Then, take the most recent release, as of this article (July 2022), Ms. Marvel. It was a so-so show, hampered by a lack of any compelling antagonist or serious conflict, but bolstered by very charming performances by its actors and interesting cultural exploration. It was a show that was doomed to mediocrity.
BUT THEN, the finale was released. An okay-ish showdown with Damage Control (already referencing their previous appearances in Homecoming and No Way Home) was somewhat satisfying, but the show took a simple swing to the stands and included a reference to Mutants. Moreso, a reference to Mutants with the goddamn 90’s X-Men theme overlaid. A partner that with a non-awkward Carol Danvers cameo in the post-credits, and magically, the show is hailed as a resounding success.
I don’t mean that to diminish the merits of the show itself. I actually did quite like it. But the giddy MCU post-credits feeling you get when they set up something well is just so damn uniquely exciting. And none of it felt unnatural. They are hinting at the dawn of mutants, and also teasing Ms. Marvel appearing in the Marvels. Simple. Great. That’s it. That’s what we want. That’s what gets fans excited. We miss that.
2. There doesn’t appear to be any direction
Contrast the Ms. Marvel finale stingers with literally all the “teases” we got in the past year. Almost all of them were vague, directionless bait that confused audiences, both hardcore and casual.
Okay, so Sharon Carter is the Shadowbroker somehow and she’s talking to someone on the phone. Are we supposed to know who that is? What is this even set up?
Shang Chi‘s rings are calling out to… something. Okay, what? How can we be excited about this, if this could literally be referencing ANYTHING? Galactus? Vampires? A Shang Chi rogues gallery villain?
Okay, Eternals, that’s a Harry Styles and a bad CGI dwarf. We need to go do something urgently it seems, but what? Is this for Eternals 2 or something else? It seems like people are just excited to see Harry Styles the actor, or those hardcore comic fans, knowing his comic backstory, that can even react, but otherwise, most of the audience is left in confusion, not necessarily the feeling you want leaving a theater.
Dane Whitman shouldn’t grab that sword. But why? Who is that voice? Apparently it’s Blade, but let us see him! It would be like if we only heard Nick Fury’s voice at the end of Iron Man 1. There is no excitement if we don’t know what you want us to be excited about. We don’t need to investigate an obscure interview later that week to confirm we heard Blade.
Venom in No Way Home? Great! Oh wait, he‘s going straight back to the Sony universe? What was the point of that? To leave a piece of the symbiote? Or was that just for laughs? Why wasn‘t he in the actual movie? More frustration than excitement.
“Hi, Dr. Strange, I’m Charlize Theron and I’m in the MCU now, and we need to jump into a portal now because reasons.” Yay?
Oh, Zeus is still alive because deaths don’t matter in the MCU, and here is Hercules and the actor who plays him. Now you should be excited, except we just peppered you this entire year with stingers introducing dozens of potential new storylines that we may or may not get to for a very long time, of varying importance.
I think I’ve made my point. Up until Ms. Marvel’s finale, it has mostly felt like Marvel has planted the seeds of potential storylines and characters to be picked up later on. However, none of these shows or movies seem to actually be communicating with each other. In some projects, it seems like the Blip was (rightfully so) a HUGE deal for the entire universe, and in others, it is never referenced like it wouldn’t have been the most significant event in all of history.
It’s this haphazard, directionless outlook that makes the audience, especially diehard fans who follow the lore obsessively, much less invested. After all, as I’ve said, the actual appeal of this franchise is that its one big story to follow, rewarding those who can recall where we’ve been and also appreciate the significance of storylines crossing over.
3. The quality is noticeably decreased
Sure, we can blame this on the much larger output of projects. As I’ve said, the hours of runtime of Phase 4 so far is about the same runtime as all of Phase 1-3 put together. However, I don’t think the sheer amount of projects is necessarily the only factor hampering the noticeable decline in content.
Even the most novice of audiences have noticed the sheer lack of CGI polish lately. Reportedly, the special effects artists and engineers are extremely frustrated by Marvel’s work and time demands. This, too, is likely multifactorial, as the post-pandemic workforce is bogged down by the Great Resignation, where workers of all trades have shifted to other careers, companies are bleeding profit in the economic recession and thus tampering with the pay and burden on their workers, and the costs of living are rising everywhere. Factor in too, many of these projects were put on hold during the Pandemic, and to catch up with the aforementioned profit loss, the studio is racing to release these projects as soon as possible, exhausting their special effects resources and thus producing noticeably substandard products.
1. Slow. down.
I’m sure there are macroeconomic reasons for Disney/Marvel to release these projects in rapid-fire the way they are. But other than monetary profit, if they truly want to recapture the gold standard quality of the MCU studio name, they should take a step back and recalculate exactly how much time they need to put together competent movies and shows that won’t appear visibly rushed.
2. Throw us a bone. We like references.
Sure, the critics and general audiences will criticize the movie for being littered with shoehorned references to other movies. But you know what? Forget ‘em. We love it when a throwaway line references something that happened in a previous movie or show.
Think about it. How much more satisfying would it have been in Multiverse of Madness if we referenced the events of What If? Why couldn’t that evil Strange have been Strange Supreme? Or even throw in a reference to the Watcher? How did we get Loki, No Way Home, What If, and Multiverse of Madness, all dealing with very similar subject matter, and none of them had any substantial relation to each other?! That was a punch in the gut for fans who assumed that some type of connection was coming, but never did.
3. Make some purposeful post-credit scenes. We love that stuff.
I’m sure the directors roll their eyes at this. This has been an issue since Phase 2. Some movies simply don’t have compelling post-credit scenes. Some are played for jokes. But honestly, even the ones played for jokes piss us off when they aren’t consequential.
There is something uniquely cool about finishing a Marvel movie, and waiting for the post-credits to potentially set up an upcoming movie. Its the gambler’s effect. When it happens, and its good, audiences are overjoyed. When its lame, it brings the feeling of the recently watched movie/show down with it.
Suck it up, directors. We know its gimmicky, but giving us that dessert just makes the entire meal that much more positively memorable.
All in all, I do believe we are well-into my suggested “MCU Recession.” The sheer amount of projects have inflated and devalued the “specialness” of the MCU, coupled with decreasing quality due to multifactorial real-world workforce issues. I believe truly the only way to “fix” this recession and bounce back moving forward is to emphasize interconnectedness between the projects, and assuring the audience that there truly is a clear path ahead for this story.
In Feige we trust. Still.