THE FUTURE OF MARVEL (LOVE LETTER/ESSAY): ‘WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR ME LATELY?’

Source: Unsplash by Erik McLean

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed a startling new trend in the past few months. Tell-tales, hearsay and cynically-steeped gossip, digitally plastered on the never-ending chains of YouTube comments, Discord threads and Reddit posts alike. Make no mistake, this hasn’t been done with Nick Fury’s subversive tact or a Skrull’s talent for underhanded subterfuge.

No no, what I’m discussing is being espoused louder and prouder than when Brie Larson claimed Captain Marvel could lift Thor’s hammer (yeah, okay then).

The topic of discussion amidst what were once loyal fans…

…if Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is coming to an end.

No, I don’t mean because the MCU has miraculously come up with a narratively satisfying explanation for how it’s universe (well, multiverse) can now sing Kumbaya in a threat-less new age of Valhalla-like prosperity. I’m afraid it’s because a sizeable swath of the MCU’s diehard fanbase are losing faith in the creative direction of this franchise…

…y’know, kind of like when Iron Man 3’s ‘Mandarin’ turned out to be a British Actor named ‘Trevor Slattery’.

With videos like ‘Disney Marvel is DOOMED | The M-She-U EXPLAINED‘, ‘The Decline Of The MCU and Why I’m Done With It‘, and ‘Marvel Might Be Screwed….‘ popping up on my Youtube feed like ‘Baby-Groot’ sized sprouts, I will tolerate this no longer.

In all seriousness, the number one job of any fanbase is to hold their community’s franchise accountable in regards to the creative quality of it’s content (and no, I don’t mean abject, Drax-brained harassment thrown at actors). I mean, we are the customers after all and the customer’s always right…

…but are we really though? Do we sometimes forget that demanding that a franchise raise the bar year after year, continually moves the needle of expectation in regards to what our standards of excellence should be? Are we, to put it simply, getting spoilt?

So, let’s take an honest look at what Marvel’s done for us lately. And to be honest…

…it’s quite a lot.

First, let’s look at the good.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Oh sorry, did you forget? Argued and heralded by many as the best MCU film to date, this film literally reinvented the boundaries of cinema. How? Well, you know how… by unabashedly crossing the now arbitrary lines between franchises, allowing us to experience Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland on the silver screen… TOGETHER.

Not only did Jon Watts facilitate an excuse to bring to life every fan-girl and boy’s wet dream, but it successfully tied off the arcs of each and every villain explored throughout Spiderman’s cinematic, bond-esque lineage. A ridiculous task, but critically and commercially achieved regardless. Not too shabby for a post Thanos MCU, wouldn’t you say?

Shang-Chi and Legend of the Ten Rings

Now, sure. Marvel might have originally flumped their first interpretation of ‘The Mandarin’ in Iron Man 3, but boy did they make up for it in this MCU martial arts epic (yes, the word ‘epic’ is still a thing). Shang Chi’s Shakespearian-like tale of a family torn asunder by a father’s mad quest for love saw Simu Liu successfully assert himself as a future mainstay presence in the MCU as ‘Shang-Chi’ – Tony Chiu’s depiction of ‘Xu Wenwu’ aka ‘The Mandarin’ was strong enough to establish himself as one of the MCU’s strongest villains, hands down.

Ultimately, Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s talent managed to pay homage to the legacy of Chinese filmography whilst affording us some of the best choreographically stunning set-pieces I’ve seen since The Raid series. P.S. boldly revisiting ‘Trevor Slattery’s’ as comic relief continues Marvel’s penchant for course correcting, whilst boldly embracing, prior missteps within the franchise.

Honestly? I’d argue this is the best Marvel origin story since Iron Man (sorry Black Panther, you were close).

Moon Knight

One of the least expected properties for Marvel to muster into live-action existence, Oscar Isaac’s Moon Knight faithfully depicted a man tortured by dissociative identity disorder. Few punches were pulled, with the story perpetuating intrigue throughout it’s 6 episode run, leaning into the darkest element’s of the character’s original source material whilst successfully reinventing it.

For critics of the MCU’s supposed tradition of ‘staying safe’ (not that I agree), this entry in the franchise should’ve soundly put that notion to bed. With the protagonist’s trauma-fuelled past, further compounded by his tormentous possessor (the justice-obsessed Egyptian god ‘Khonshu’), Oscar masterfully brings this wealth of depth to life, nailing the identities of both ‘Steven Grant’ and ‘Marc Spector’ with his inspired, powerhouse of a performance.

Coupled with the addition of Ethan Hawke’s ‘Arthur Harrow’, a villain who is first introduced silently, nonchalantly placing shattered glass in his shoes before proceeding to walk in them… this show didn’t have an infinity Aether’s drop of chill, and audiences loved it.

Loki

A show centred on the MCU’s most charmingly silver tongued trickster? Yes please. Not only was Tom Hiddleston’s return to this feverishly loved character wholeheartedly welcome, this series and it’s wonderfully peculiar premise did a great deal in establishing the sheer wackiness/boldness in the terrain Marvel’s future would be exploring: the multiverse. More importantly, it gave us our first look at Thano’s successor as Marvel’s next big bad: ‘Kang’.

Played by the insanely versatile Jonathan Majors, the creative fertility in having potentially countless versions of the same character terrorise the universe is exciting. Loki gracing us with the debut of this omnipotent, time-traversing, overseer of multiversal space was a treat to behold. Whilst delivering a tale as twisty as Heimdall’s dreads in Thor: Ragnarok (I’ve never gotten over that), Marvel successfully added a resonance of depth to the once maniacal misfit through a refreshingly introspective and philosophical approach to the character. What’s not to dig?

Don’t tell me I’m not swaying you…

WandaVision

This one was a doozy. A show revolving around a character whose grief enslaves an entire town? Creatively, WandaVision was a show that in many respects attempted things you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Progressively journeying through different eras of television, from monochromatic 1960s serials to pseudo reality sitcoms, WandaVision pays homage to network television with unbridled style. Following ‘Wanda Maximoff’ (soon to become ‘The Scarlet Witch’), reeling over the loss of ‘Vision’, was again Marvel’s commitment to telling stories that revelled in the morally grey.

Lately, Marvel’s Phase 4 has decidedly taken a less obvious/typical direction to it’s universe. With morally dubious characters getting their very own projects, and it’s universe confidently shattering the barriers between franchises (via it’s multiverse), it’s safe to say this era for Marvel has already showcased it’s dedication to providing a wholly different, post Thanos experience.

P.S. I also jam to the show’s all too catchy ‘Agatha All Along‘ song far too often. It’s a problem.

Now, of course I could drone on about Falcon & the Winter Soldier, the What If series, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel and so on so forth. Each, although not without their imperfections (sorry ‘Lucky’, I expected more), were enjoyable entries that did enough to present enticing and welcome new variables to the MCU. The re-introduction of Vince D’Onofrio’s ‘Kingpin’ in Hawkeye. Ms. Marvel’s tasteful representation of Muslim culture. The Falcon & Winter Soldier’s commentary regarding the root causes of the disenfranchised rebellions that lead to terrorism (also, shout out to my man, ‘Zemo’). Black Widow’s introduction of the infectiously charming ‘Yelena Belova’ and hilariously absent minded ‘Crimson dynam-

Oops, sorry. ‘Red Guardian’.

Anyhow, you want further proof everything’s fine? Just look at Zemo’s moves…

…phase 4 is doing just fine.

Now, with the wins aside… let’s look at the blunders.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Okay, certified fresh on rotten tomatoes? Sure. Hailed as perhaps the most stylistically unique Marvel entry to date due to Raimi’s macabre spin. Again, sure. A film befitting of it’s title, and thus dripping with multiple franchise melting pot potential? Not quite.

Yes, Wong. We did.

As much as this entry was ‘fun’, that wasn’t how fans of the franchise solely had in mind for this project. After the daring events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, I, like many, was successfully convinced that this Multiverse of Madness would make that film look like an appetiser.

I’m sorry Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios (what a title), we love you but… when you go around saying things like – There are more big surprises in Doctor Strange 2 than in Infinity War, Endgame, and Spider-Man: No Way Home combined – the you’ve officially blown your whistle to demand everyone board the hype train.

Yes, Patrick Stewart’s ‘Xavier’, and Josh Krasinski’s ‘Mr. Fantastic’ were particularly cool cameos but lest we forget… this was a film that was rumoured to have a Tom Cruise variant of ‘Iron Man’, ‘Wolverine’ and the implicit promise of countless referential nods to Marvel’s extensive lineage spanning well before the current MCU. With Marvel looking to have the multiverse play a key part in it’s future, many believed this would be a more provocatively foreboding entry enlightening us further as to the direction of this franchise. Instead, we got an entertaining but relatively throwaway MCU adventure – no doubt a contributing factor to some of the lack of faith in this franchise’s fate. The issue here wasn’t quality, but expectation.

THOR: LOVE & THUNDER

Despite it’s end having promised a refreshing new direction for the character’s development, Thor: Love & Thunder didn’t reach the fan-favourite heights of it’s predecessor, Thor: Ragnarok. Of course, it’s not uncommon for a sequel to fall short of it’s prior entry’s success. However, with academy award winning Taika Waititi returning to shepherd the project, the alongside academy award winning Christian Bale accompanying as ‘Gorr: The God Butcher’ (such promise) the fanbase expected this flick to reach Olympus rivalling heights (shout out to Russell Crowe, you killed it as Zeus). But alas, lofty promises and an overall lack of tonal severity/meaningful stakes neutered this outing faster than Doc Ock in No Way Home

Don’t give me that… we all saw it.

This was not ‘Bale’s Tale’ as many had hoped, with emphasis being placed on the cute (but wholly pointless) dynamic between Thor and Natalie Portman’s ‘Jane Foster’. I love Taika Waititi, but when you go around saying things like Christian Bale’s Gorr is the highest out of any villain that Marvel’s had”, you’re again announcing to fans to all board the hype train. Regrettably, too little screen-time meant the criminal waste of Christian’s acumen as a Hollywood titan. Although certified fresh, this outing was another throwaway MCU adventure, and example of quality not being the issue… but expectation.

ETERNALS

So, this particular entry holds a special place in my heart… as one of the most outlandishly puffed up pieces of inconsequential material conceived. With a remarkably star studded cast, lore set to establish the very foundation of the MCU’s mythological fabric and Best Picture Academy Award winning Chloé Zhao helming the project, this entry should have ascended Marvel’s legitimacy in cinema to never before seen sophistication. Honestly, I thought this would be a best picture academy award nominee.

Why? I’ll tell you why. Because Kevin Feige went and said so.

“I’d also like to give you a few quotes about when ‘Eternals’ wins best picture, and when ‘Avengers 5’ is the biggest movie of all time — so let’s bank those quotes as well.”

Goddammit, Kevin. You’re killing us.

With Eternals failing to bag itself a critically fresh certification, likely due to it being overstuffed with underdeveloped plotlines, adding more holes to the MCU than the explanations it promised. Not even the efforts of it’s sprawling star-studded ensemble (Angelina Jolie’s ‘Thena’ and Kumail Nanjiani’s ‘Kingo’ spring to mind) could save the flick from the bowling ball heavy sag of it’s leads: Gemma Chan’s ‘Sersi’ and Richard Madden’s ‘Ikaris’. Honestly, these two were about as dry as Groot’s bark, genuinely having me appreciate the romantic complexities of the Twilight Saga.

So, do I understand where some of the fanbase’s current doom and gloom perspective on the franchise might have stemmed from, of course. Although Marvel’s leadership has perhaps been lax in appropriately managing expectations for certain projects, we cannot forget the wealth of excellent projects they’ve already handed to us during phase 4. And besides, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The First Avenger (come on, you know it deep down), Avengers: Age of Ultron (I love you Spader, but they did you dirty)… the list goes on. We’ve been through this before guys.

PLENTY

Look. I just think, sometimes we as fans wholly enjoy the good… but interpret the bad as ‘the end is nigh’. In all seriousness, if you’re asking Marvel ‘What have you done for us lately?’ Without recognising that Marvel’s legacy has always had it’s highs and lulls? Where have you been, because the snap was only 5 or so years… and the MCU is a 15 year spanning behemoth of a legacy.

Look, perhaps I’m wrong, and sure Bob Chapek as the CEO of Marvel studios is certainly no Bob Iger (what’s with all the Bob’s though, seriously) but with Marvel’s recent roadmap announcement… I have a funny feeling we’ve seen nothing yet. And y’know what? I’ll say it…

…lately?

They’ve done plenty. So, let’s just get back to theorising who the next black panther will be okay?

Agree, disagree, discuss the multiversal significance of having two ‘Bobs’ run the biggest entertainment studio on earth, let me know in the comments below!

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