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There is No Endgame Now
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has lost its cohesive arc
There was a lot to be excited about among this weekend’s Marvel Cinematic Universe announcements at San Diego Comic Con, with obvious highlights including the Fantastic Four’s long-awaited MCU debut, and two full Avengers movies in the same year. But it also confirmed what’s been apparent throughout Phase Four of the superhero meta-universe: Disney and Marvel Studios are introducing long-term story arcs and franchise-spanning supervillains faster than they can follow up on them.
Spoilers below for many MCU properties, up to and including the most-recent movie, Thor: Love and Thunder. Also, if you are not a fan of superhero movies, unfortunately I’m not sure you’ll find much of interest in this essay. Forgive my niche diversion today, I promise we’ll be back to something more general-interest in my next post.
When Iron Man came out in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. I don’t just mean that it was first movie in the soon-to-be-shared canon of crossover superhero films.1 It was clear from the get-go that Marvel had greater aspirations than merely making a profitable movie out of a then-second-tier character. The ambition of creating a crossover franchise was obvious, from Terrence Howard’s James Rhodes vowing to suit up as War Machine in the sequel:
To Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury emerging from the shadows in the not-yet-automatic post-credits scene to tell Tony Stark he had entered a bigger universe:
To a month after Iron Man’s release, when Robert Downey Jr. showed up at the end of The Incredible Hulk to announce their future team-up (a surprise that blew 15-year-old Lewie’s mind so thoroughly that I saw the movie in theaters a second time just to rewatch this scene):
Unfortunately, the MCU also quickly established another, related precedent: Setting up cliffhangers for future movies that they didn’t have plans to resolve. The first clear example of this came just before the climax of Hulk, when the camera holds the shot as Bruce Banner’s gamma-irradiated blood seeps into Tim Blake Nelson’s brain:
To anyone familiar with the comic books — or, let’s be honest, anyone who was curious after watching it and looked up the lore on Wikipedia — this scene clearly implies that Nelson’s Samuel Sterns was becoming the character’s infamous alter-ego, The Leader. As had been the case with the teases of the New Goblin in Spider-Man 2 and The Joker in Batman Begins, audiences could infer that The Leader was being set up as the villain of the Hulk sequel, or even the then-incipient Avengers movie.
Alas, the character hasn’t been seen on-screen since. Obviously plans change and filmmakers can’t fully guarantee that every cliffhanger they introduce will eventually pay off — especially when they don’t own the source material. But it’s hard to rewatch Hulk and see Sterns’ head swell up without being distracted by the fact that such blatant sequel bait went unfulfilled. Enjoying a sci-fi popcorn movie means suspending your disbelief, and thinking about Hollywood politics and intellectual-property rights is a surefire way to break the spell.
The Infinity Saga of MCU films spanned 23 movies. At the risk of revealing my plebeian taste, I think most of them are pretty good, and many are genuinely great. But what made audiences hang on every release for over a decade was the fact that the nearly two-dozen movies built on each other to tell a single, cohesive story. There were many different characters having different types of adventures across different figurative and literal worlds, but ultimately each installment built on the previous one towards the clear end of the climactic showdown with Thanos.
That doesn’t mean that the earlier movies didn’t have villains with comparable destructive power. It’s true that once bad guys are capable of intergalactic destruction, the relative scales of their respective strengths are pretty much irrelevant. In Thor: The Dark World, Malekith the Accursed had the ability to darken the whole universe. Doctor Strange’s Dormammu can suck life into the Dark Dimension one planet at a time. Surtur from Thor: Ragnarok may be narrow-minded in his quest to destroy Asgard, but a being powerful enough to bring down the galaxy’s strongest realm could presumably have made quick work of the others if he so desired. Yet for the most part the stories were told in a way that respected the intermediary villains’ powers without diminishing the threat that Thanos posed over the horizon.
Nor is it to say that the established characterizations and powers are fully consistent throughout the saga. Bruce Banner’s relationship to his big green alter-ego changes with each appearance. Loki evolves from a jealous sibling to a cartoonish dictator to a double-crosser whose betrayals are predictable to the point of being boring. The fairly small, one-planet-in-the-universe conception of Asgard in Ragnorok bears little resemblance to its presentation as the grandest of the finite Nine Realms in the first Thor. And once Doctor Strange establishes that there’s an order of powerful sorcerers in London monitoring extra-dimensional threats to the Earth, one wonders why they didn’t notice when the Dark Elves were trying to blanket the universe in darkness a few kilometers away.
Yet with a few exceptions (like Sterns’ bulging cranium) Marvel never seriously wavered from driving the story they’d promised forward. Tony Stark had indeed became part of a bigger universe, and did put together a team. Rhodey did try on one of Tony’s suits, even if it was Don Cheadle and not Terrence Howard who fulfilled his vow. Each new object introduced in a post-credits scene — be it Mjölnir, the Tesseract, or Captain Marvel’s pager — invariably paid off shortly after. A dozen intervening movies passed between Thanos’ evil smile in The Avengers and him snapping his fingers in Infinity War, but each one dropped just enough clues in a new part of the universe to make it clear where the franchise was headed, and that no bad guy they faced in the meantime was as important as the one we all knew was coming.
Until Phase Four.
Who is the current big-bad of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Your answer probably depends on which movie you watched last.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings introduced…well, the legend of the Ten Rings. The magic bracelets don’t just function as versatile weapons, alternately emitting energy blasts or collectively taking the shape of whatever object best suits the moment in combat, but also grant their holder some degree of telekinesis and immortality. With the exceptions of the Infinity Stones and possibly the Norse gods’ relics, they are the most-powerful objects any being in the Marvel universe has brought to Earth. This naturally begs the question of where they came from, which the movie makes a specific point not to answer. They even ratchet up the mystery in the mid-credits scene, bringing in Bruce Banner, Carol Danvers, and Wong to explain that the rings are at least many millennia old, bear no resemblance to dimensional magic or alien technology that they’d seen before, and are now acting as a beacon. Whatever’s behind them — whatever’s coming for them — is implied to be a huge, universe-shaking deal.
The cosmic side of the MCU is further flushed out in Eternals, introducing, you guessed it, the Eternals. These godlike beings were made by the Prime Celestial, Arishem the Judge, who also created the first sun and is probably the universe’s most-powerful entity. (I’m really trying not to let this essay veer into how recent worldbuilding directly contradicts that of earlier films — otherwise the forthcoming paragraph about Thor 4 would be a thousand words long — but the fact that the movie makes no connection between Arishem bringing light to the universe and the Dark Elves whom Thor 2 established as having ruled the primordial darkness is a great example of Disney’s disinterest in engaging with its own established canon.) It turns out such creation comes at a cost, as birthing new Celestials means routinely sacrificing billions of intelligent life forms. The heroes save the Earth for now, but Arishem makes clear that that is subject to change as he continues his pattern of intergalactic genocide. Not to mention that the mid-credits scene introduces Thanos’ brother, Eros, who is usually considered a superhero but who brings a sense of ominousness to his MCU introduction.
How do you top Arishem as a villain? The only thing scarier than a merciless omnipotent deity is a whole pantheon of pissed-off gods. Which brings us to Thor: Love and Thunder. In the mid-credits scene, Zeus — the leader of the universe’s diverse divine figures, whom Thor leaves for dead after he refused to help his Asgardian cousin battle Gorr the God Butcher — orders his son Hercules to kill the Norse God of Thunder. (No explanations are offered for how every polytheistic religion in history can separately be correct, nor why Zeus goes by his Greek name but calls his son by his Roman name Hercules instead of the Greek Heracles.) Hercules alone may not be a Thanos-level universal threat, but if the next logical step is for a vengeful Zeus to unleash the full pantheon on Thor and his friends, you can expect that the full Avengers would have to assemble to fight them.
Even the TV shows, once regarded as supplementary material that tied into the movies but didn’t shape them, are ratcheting up the stakes in an uncoordinated way. WandaVision had huge implications for the threat posed by dark magic. Moon Knight both predated and went further than Thor 4 in depicting the power that non-Norse gods have over mortals. And Loki was critical for understanding the Marvel multiverse, the logic that governs it, and the impending danger of its disorder.
With Black Widow focused on global rather than galactic threats and Spider-Man: No Way Home itself a culmination of other stories, the only Phase Four movie that fits what I would call the established MCU archetype — a mostly self-contained adventure whose teases of future films are part of a recognizable franchise arc — is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The Doctor Strange sequel picks up threads from previous stories as it sets up a new adventure and mostly follows it through. Further establishing the logic of the multiverse feels like a natural byproduct of the plot rather than a shoehorned teaser for future releases. The soft-launches of the recently acquired X-Men and Fantastic Four properties are surely fan-service but didn’t feel forced. It even provides a real ending, with Wanda Maximoff sacrificing herself to destroy the dark magic that possessed her.
…or at least that’s what it seemed like at the time. However, Elizabeth Olsen believes her character is still alive, and if she is, given what she showed she is capable of in Multiverse of Madness, you can add the Scarlet Witch to the long list of potential-saga-spanning existential threats. Then the mid-credits scene introduces Charlize Theron’s Clea, who’s sure to be an important character, and wouldn’t you know it, the Dark Dimension is causing trouble again. I bet it will take a big team-up to stop Dormammu again too!
Having to keep track of so many disparate looming existential threats to the universe doesn’t inspire awe. It makes the storytelling feel disconnected, devoid of stakes, and most of all, cheap.
After the Comic Con announcements, we now know that Marvel is working towards a double-feature of Avengers movies in 2025: a time-traveling invasion in The Kang Dynasty and a potential canon-resetting Secret Wars mashup. We don’t know exactly how they will adapt these stories, but with Kang the Conqueror poised to debut in next year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and 2024’s Fantastic Four likely to introduce Doctor Doom, you can start to connect the dots of how Disney will put the pieces in place for the Multiverse Saga’s climax.
One thing that immediately stands out about this plan as different from the Infinity Saga is that relatively little time will elapse between each big bad’s introduction and his feature. Six years passed between Thanos’ debut and when he found the final Infinity Stone, or four if you start from his first substantive appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy. Meanwhile, while Kang has been rumored to be a major supervillain for quite some time, he hasn’t actually entered the MCU yet, and won’t do so until just two years before his grand plan comes to fruition.2 And assuming Doctor Doom is key to the Secret Wars story, he will have debuted just a year prior. Good, fun filmmaking doesn’t require years of buildup of course, but the prolonged anticipation is part of what made the culmination of the Thanos arc so meaningful.
But when you look at the slate of upcoming films in the context of all the major cliffhangers mentioned above, you notice something else, too. We — and I increasingly suspect this includes the executives at Disney — still don’t know what any of this means for the plot threads they’ve already set into motion.
After Black Panther: Wakanda Forever closes out Phase Four later this year, there are six MCU movies scheduled in an 18-month stretch for Phase Five: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, The Marvels, Blade, Captain America: New World Order, and Thunderbolts. That’s a lot to be excited about! But based on these titles we aren’t likely to see any resolution to the loose ends of the encroaching Dark Dimension, or Zeus’ pantheon of vengeful gods, or the impending judgment of the MCU’s creationist deity. There are two more as-yet-unannounced films planned for release alongside the pair of Avengers movies in 2025, so perhaps one will deal with the ancient race to whom the Ten Rings are beckoning or the presumed-to-be-reborn Scarlet Witch. But that isn’t enough time to resolve all or even most of the major cliffhangers Marvel has left us with over the last couple years.
Given the source material, it’s likely that Secret Wars will bail Marvel out of some of these unresolvable storylines by simplifying the multiverse or even resetting the ever-more-conflicting cinematic canon. But doing so would be an acknowledgment that Disney had indeed bitten off more than they could chew. Would fans really be satisfied if the teases they’ve been waiting for years to see pay off get pruned from the timeline before they are fulfilled?
I don’t have a problem with the MCU model of teasing sequels and spinoffs within its movies. I like the sense that the film I just watched is part of something bigger. I enjoy the feeling of walking out of the theater already excited about what’s coming next. Even as the quality of Marvel’s recent releases has declined, I’m still a sucker for the thrill of throwing different action figures together to take down increasingly bigger bad guys. Say what you want about the homogeneity of modern movies and the downstream impacts of Disney’s theatrical dominance, but there’s a reason why (what was then seen as) a quirky movie about a lesser-known superhero spawned a cohesive, immensely popular 12-year saga about stopping a giant anthropomorphic raisin from bedazzling his glove.
The problem — to borrow a phrase from another beloved franchise that Disney has acquired — is that their teases of future storylines now feel as aimless as an escalator to nowhere:
“You've become part of a bigger universe,” Nick Fury warns Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man. The emphasis here should be on part. The first mega-arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe worked because each movie understood that it was building towards the same endgame as the other installments, not crowning its own new titan. Re-establishing a clear direction for the MCU will make a satisfying culmination to the saga much easier to assemble.
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Technically 2002’s Spider-Man was the first-released movie in this series, but it wasn’t until 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home that the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire trilogy was retconned to be a different branch of the same canonical multiverse.
Another technicality: While Jonathan Majors has already appeared as a Kang variant in Loki, it wasn’t the same Kang who will found the titular dynasty, and despite Disney’s best efforts the TV shows still don’t have the same gravitas as the movies anyway.