Can Marvel movies get out of the corner they’re backed into?

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Marvel Studios keeps bringing home lots of money – but the films are in danger of losing their sense of peril. A few thoughts…

Spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame lie ahead.


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I’ve been writing and reporting on blockbuster cinema for long enough now to know that you never, ever write Marvel Studios off. I recall in particular the build up to James Gunn’s first Guardians Of The Galaxy film was one such moment. A sizeable gamble, being released in the traditional box office graveyard of August: this, I remember many prophets of doom suggesting, was the bit where Marvel tripped.

Of course, the truth was anything but. The third Guardians Of The Galaxy film is well into production, the first two are amongst the most-loved MCU features.

Likewise, reading the responses to its two most recent films at the time of writing – Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness and Thor: Love & Thunder – and you might think that the Marvel bubble has burst. Neither, on the whole, has been particularly strongly received.

A quick check of the box office numbers though suggests that there aren’t too many sleepless nights at Disney HQ. The pair have grossed the best part of $2bn between them worldwide, and whilst those numbers are lower than Marvel Studios had got used to, there’s not another movie studio out there on the planet that wouldn’t want them.

And yet, as a watcher and appreciator of the movies, I’m puzzled as to how they get out of the fundamental problem to my mind that’s facing the ongoing franchise: how can they bring stakes back to the stories?

Avengers Endgame

Cast your mind back to Avengers: Endgame. I think it’s an astonishing achievement, if a film with a few problems. The first hour though I firmly recall sitting in the cinema and just loving the sheer boldness and bravery of it.

Then time travel kicked in. Straight away, that took away finality, but again, there was some skilful steering there. The whole idea that people lost five years meant that, even though time travel reversed the much-loved cliffhanger ending of Avengers: Infinity War, the characters and the broader world still had some bruises from it all. There was some consequence. Plus, the end of a couple of Avengers too.

Had commerce not demanded, Avengers: Endgame – or perhaps Jon Watts’ Spider-Man trilogy – would have been the curtain. The story had come to an end, and an incredible cinematic blockbuster achievement would have been concluded with a bit of a chef’s kiss.

Yet Disney has shareholders, and Marvel movies are the studio’s key live action cinematic asset. The wheels had to keep turning. More films needed to be made, and now, there’s a streaming platform that needs feeding too. As such, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as fans had come to love it was expanding. If you want to get every Easter Egg, understand every reference, know what’s fully going on in Doctor Strange 2, you have to invest your team in not just the films but the shows. It’s not compulsory, and the films are written in a way to try and make them appealing to all-comers. But it all interlinks, and the time commitment required to stay on top of it all – from our side of the fence – is increasing.

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness

That to me isn’t the problem, though. The problem for me – and I’ve deliberately sat on this for a while before writing this – is the idea of multiverses. A narrative tool that gives Marvel movies a get out of jail card. But also, a card that means, well, nothing really matters anymore.

I remember sitting through Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and gasping when Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury was bumped off. I then remember feeling a bit cheated when he returned in tact, but at least some explanation was generated. And heck, who doesn’t want to see more Samuel L Jackson on screen?

But in the era of the multiverse, everything can be reversed. Nothing has to stick anymore. And as much as a film like Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness at least tried to have some fun with it, it’s still a multiplication of deus ex machina to a degree, hard baked into the set up of Marvel’s ongoing cinema world.

The stakes are gone. It’s already hard to watch a major blockbuster movie that’s able to narratively wrongfoot you. Now, the multiverse era runs the risk of making it not even matter should it be able to pull something like that off.

Still, this is the kind of thing that can be papered over if the movies themselves are strong. But therein lies another problem that Marvel’s trying to figure out. I think there are broader, ongoing problems there too.

The recent phase of films – with the exception of Shang-Chi I’d suggest – has been pretty flat. I’m very aware that each of the movies has its fans and detractors (and I’ve read some sterling defences of Marvel phase four, that I respect but disagree with), and I’m not looking to pick a Twitter fight or anything.

But I do think, on the whole, the quality has dropped. I see more and more people talking online about almost feeling obliged to watch the next Marvel film, rather than eagerly booking midnight showing tickets. A common complaint is there’s just too much of it now. That it’s a little less special. That, of course, is Marvel becoming a victim of some of its success.

Simu Liu in Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings

To Marvel’s credit too, the films are never boring, but also, the highs of its work feel very much in the rear view mirror at the moment. Personally, I felt that half of Shang-Chi & The Legend Of The Ten Rings was the brightest spark Marvel’s films have managed since Avengers (I’m counting the Spider-Man movies a little on the outside, given they’re a Sony co-production and serving two masters and two universes there). The last two films – the new Doctor Strange and Thor sequels – have been edging towards, well, not very good, in spite of their moments. Not just the heavily-reported CG issue with both movies. Just that they’ve fallen a little short of where they used to be.

After all, I think even the most fervent Marvel fan would accept the films we’ve had in the last three years are a notable drop than the ones we had the three or four years before.

Furthermore, cinema is moving, but Marvel films don’t – arguably with the exception of Eternals – feel like they’re keeping up.

Look at how Mad Max: Fury Road should have revolutionised action cinema back in 2016, demonstrating how physicality comfortably trumps CG when it comes to spectacle. It’s not just Marvel films that didn’t recognise the lifting of the bar – arguably the Fast & Furious franchise is the one that’s really failed to heed those lessons more – but with the odd stylistic exception, the formula feels pretty steadfast now. Is it a coincidence that Top Gun Maverick committed itself to physical sequences, and a more straightforward, better told story, and has comfortably defeated every blockbuster in its path?

Might, whisper it, audiences be getting tired of familiar-feeling CG-decorated smash-ups? And is Marvel feeling just a little of that pushback?

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

There’s a confluence of things here, but ultimately, it might just be Marvel has been, and is, hugely successful. As such, this particular phase – in both senses – is inevitable.

Because write Marvel Studios off at your peril. And even as I pen these words, I find myself hugely excited at the next film it’s got lined up, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. I think Coogler is a superb filmmaker, and appreciating the shadow of grief over the movie, it’s the first Marvel film in a while I’m keen to see as quickly as possible.

What’s more, there’s clearly a long term plan. Marvel knows where it’s going. I just hope it can find stakes, stories, peril and better films again…

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