I wasn’t an MCU fan from the get-go. And I am still not a fanboy. I was a Marvel kid, but I was far, far more interested in Spider-Man and the X-Men than in the Avengers. But the MCU earned my respect and many of my dollars over the years (although there are several MCU movies I still haven’t seen).
The MCU was solid from the start. Things picked up in Phase Two. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy are two of the five best MCU movies. Things really picked up with Phase Three. Not because of the quality of the movies, or just because of the quality of the movies, but because those movies complemented each other, building to something big. Three dozen movies culminated in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. The MCU pulled off what all its imitators would fail at. The end result was a cultural event and accomplished something no one movie could.
So don’t get me wrong. I don’t want the MCU Phase 4 to fail. It’s just that I am quite confident that it will. There are things Marvel can do in response, although saving the future of the MCU may leave something that doesn’t look that much like the MCU Phase 4 recently announced.
SPOILERS for Endgame below.
First off, why it will fail:
Superhero fatigue. Everyone is just waiting for the superhero bubble to burst. Make money while you can, sure, but no one thinks it will last forever. It has been 11 years since Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. 19 years since X-Men. The sword and sorcery boom only lasted 9 years (Conan the Barbarian and Beastmaster in 1982 to Beastmaster 2 in 1991). Marvel is living on borrowed time—three more years might be too long.
Endgame provided a natural exit. There are hardcore Avengers fans and then there are a lot more people who were just along for the ride. Batman or X-Men fans who saw greener grass on the other side. People who were never superhero fans who got sold on the grand Thanos arc. Some, many probably, are MCU fans for life. A lot of others enjoyed the ride but are ready to move onto other things. Now is the perfect time.
Loss of marquee names. The biggest stars of the first three phases of the MCU, Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, are gone. Scarlett Johansson will be gone after the standalone Black Widow movie. Star power matters in Hollywood and the MCU suddenly has less of it.
Bad timing. Speaking of the Black Widow movie, the MCU powers-that-be royally screwed it by slotting it after Endgame. The Black Widow is dead; nobody cares anymore. How does this make Johansson feel after she kicked major ass in movie after movie? And after they gave Captain Marvel a huge gift with the mid-Infinity War and Endgame slot.
The replacement players. Anthony Mackie and Natalie Portman are great. Everybody knows they were not the original choice to play Captain America and Thor. (Although we don’t know that Hemsworth won’t be sticking around.)
The China syndrome. China and other foreign countries have become hugely important to blockbuster movies. They need that audience. The risk is that movies become so dumbed down (for an audience with a different cultural context and limited English skills) and watered down (for Chinese censors) that American audiences jump ship.
Increasingly esoteric properties. I only very recently heard of The Eternals. I just heard of Shang-Chi two days ago. The first Doctor Strange movie was solidly in the bottom half of the MCU, box office-wise. The MCU did it with Guardians of the Galaxy. That doesn’t mean every esoteric property will work.
Too much TV. The MCU conquered movies. It did something no would-be cinematic universe could pull off. That doesn’t mean the MCU can do the same to TV. Different medium, different demands. 5 of the 11 projects announced are TV shows.
SJW Malarkey. Thus far, the MCU has mostly talked a big game. Just enough to keep away the virtual lynch mobs, appeal to normies, and attract the ire of useful idiots, without ever actually veering from a commitment to entertainment. Which makes it easy to think you can get away with taking that next step and switching from making entertainment to making boring propaganda tracts.
Hubris. How else do the great fall? Studio execs, flush with cash, start paying a little less attention. Or, worse, they start paying too much attention. Pull off enough stuff people thought you couldn’t and you’ll get to thinking you can pull off anything. You start making movies for yourself instead of for the public.
What Marvel should do about it:
Lean into what works. Something will replace the superhero bubble. It remains to be seen what that is. One possibility is space fantasy (although Valerian and the Star Wars revival’s struggles might suggest otherwise). If so, the MCU is already leaning in with the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Thor: Ragnarok, and Infinity War/Endgame. But best keep your head on a swivel.
Treat Spider-Man like a marquee superhero. Tom Holland is a great Spider-Man and a great Peter Parker (caveat: I haven’t seen Far From Home). But I can’t help but feel that the MCU powers-that-be are a little worried about Spider-Man overshadowing the rest of the MCU. So he gets his tech from Tony Stark instead of inventing it himself. He is pulled away from New York as much as possible. Bad move. Spider-Man is a marquee hero: treat him like one.
Give X-Men a hard reboot. I think we can all agree that the X-Men franchise launched in 2000 is good and dead after Dark Phoenix (caveat: another movie I haven’t seen). It was a good run, if one overshadowed by the MCU. Now that the rights to the X-Men are back together with the rights to the Avengers, studio execs might be tempted to just keep the X-Men out of the Avengers way. Word I hear is that Marvel has been undercutting the X-Men comics since the MCU took off. This is the wrong approach. Like Spider-Man, the X-Men are a marquee property. It is time for a hard reboot, yes (although maybe keep around Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool and Josh Brolin’s Cable). But definitely bring them back in a big way and don’t worry about stepping on the Avengers’ toes to do it.
And if all this doesn’t work, well, Disney has all of those other properties . . .