The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a masterpiece of film producing. Say what you will about the MCU’s artistic flaws—and there are many—the grand plan dreamed up and put into action by Kevin Feige and the people at Marvel Studios was brilliantly schemed and flawlessly executed.
Over the course of 20 films, in three “phases,” the Marvel team laid tracks that lead up perfectly to the climactic final pairing of Avengers movies, Infinity War and Endgame. While satisfying individual stories were told, new characters were introduced, important artifacts were seeded in the form of Infinity Stones, and all the while the growing menace of ultimate Bad Guy Thanos hovered in the margins, growing in prominence and menace slowly, but surely, until just the right moment finally came.
The genius of it all was that throughout the entire epic run of movies, through all the films and phases spread over ten years, the MCU never lost the critical balance of appealing to die-hard fans while remaining accessible to casual viewers. That was always the secret sauce. The entire time, you never had to be a comics super-nerd to enjoy an MCU movie. It helped, and you understood the goings-on a bit better, but anyone’s mom could walk in off the street and enjoy Black Panther or Guardians of the Galaxy without any trouble.
This is why I’m worried about Phase 4.
Here’s the thing about comics: They’ve been around for a long time. When you’ve existed for decades, as many comic characters have, you inevitably pile up a lot of history. That history, called canon, is part of the fun for a lot of people. The joy of learning not just the backstories and lore, but the arcane details, is what draws many people to comics. It’s why comics were considered a nerdy pastime to begin with- not because of the spandex, but because nerds love learning, reciting, and arguing about trivia.
For normies, however, canon can represent an intimidating and confusing barrier to entry. What might at first seem like simple fun quickly converts into a joyless slog when it turns out you have to do homework just to understand what the hell is going on. Nerds do themselves no favors in this regard, often letting their love of trivia turn into hostile gatekeeping behavior.
None of this was an issue when the MCU was still fresh and new. When there are only two or three movies for each hero, there isn’t a lot of canon to keep track of. Once you start hitting four or five movies, though, plus or minus a couple of Avengers films, plus maybe a spin-off TV-series, the personal histories start to add up.
Suddenly, there’s quite a bit of canon to track. Now when watching MCU movies with your mom, you start getting those questions: Who is that again? How do they know each other? What’s so important about that thing? Wasn’t that person dead?
Granted, when you’re building an interconnected cinematic universe, this problem is an inevitability. Marvel is no stranger to convoluted continuity. Indeed, both Marvel and its archrival DC have taken drastic steps in their efforts to pare down and simplify their bloated comic continuities.
By the early 80s, DC comics’ continuity had grown so cumbersome and complex, it was becoming a problem. It wasn’t just little things, like that Batman’s butler Alfred had more than one last name–Pennyworth or Beagle–depending on which comic you’d read. There were straight up two different Flashes, Barry Allen or Jay Garrick, depending on which comic you read.
For decades nothing was centrally planned. Many writers, spread across multiple companies, writing independent stories. Contradictory canon. Confusing timelines. Thus, two Flashes.
This situation is what is called, in comics geek parlance, a multiverse. The Superman of Earth-1 had the Kryptonian name Kal-El, and worked at the Daily Planet. The Superman of Earth-2, on the other hand, was named Kal-L, was a little less strong, and worked at the Daily Star. (Earth-3 Superman… he’s a dick.) Sometimes, these Supermen even crossed into each other’s universes, met up with one another, and had adventures together.
Eventually, the weight of complexity that built up from decades of stories grew too much, and DC, realizing readers were becoming alienated, decided to simplify things. The result was called Crisis on Infinite Earths, a 12-issue miniseries that rebooted DC’s continuity with a drastically reduced scale.
Gone were the extra Earths (at least for the time being). Instead of a multiverse, everything was condensed down into a single, canonical storyline. Backstories were cleaned up, simplified, and hardened. Everything pre-Crisis (all the messy stuff from the Golden Age of comics) happened on Earth 2, and was sealed off forever. Everything moving forward happens in Earth 1, and would be the continuity. Everything moving forward would be centrally planned, as part of DC’s new, more approachable post-Crisis continuity.
And for a while, it worked. Everything was much cleaner. Until, of course, time marched on, and DC found it necessary to reboot itself yet again. Since Crisis on Infinite Earths, there has been Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, Flashpoint, and Rebirth–that last one wasn’t a true reboot, but you still see how complicated this all gets.
Marvel, for its part, has never “rebooted” its continuity, per se, but has still attempted to solve the problem of off-puttingly labyrinthine narratives. In lieu of rebooting, Marvel’s solution was to instead start all over again from scratch in a new series. The original canon is still going, but Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe is a retelling and reinvention of all their major stories and characters- Avengers, Spider-man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc- but simplified for new readers and updated for modern tastes and sensibilities.
Is your head spinning yet?
Even these drastic moves by the major companies have failed to completely solve the problem because reboots and new launches have ways of simply becoming the latest layer of construction on an ever-expanded building, rather than an out-and-out replacement. DC comics nerds now discuss pre-Crisis and post-Crisis canon and continuity with the same intensity as ever, while Marvel’s Ultimate line has simply created the dreaded problem that I referenced before: a multiverse.
Which brings us to the MCU. For a while, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still young, fresh, and new. Characters like Iron Man and Black Widow were all blank slates, free to be defined however the writers wanted. The movies weren’t limited to comics-nerds because all of these stories were being told for, essentially, the very first time. There was nothing audiences had to know or remember about any of them.
Marvel learned the right lessons from DC’s messy early years too, keeping the storylines centralized and synchronized and tightly controlled. (Perhaps to a fault.)
Movie by movie, though, the MCU took shape and solidified. Characters began to have histories. Backstories. Relationships. Canon.
By the time we hit Phase 3, the climax of Marvel’s first big storyline, there were dozens of major characters who each had complex personal histories to keep straight. Thor, a headliner character, had appeared in three solo movies, multiple Avengers movies, and cameo-ed in several more (not to mention that he’s now joined the Guardians of the Galaxy, giving him even more storyline).
Come Avengers: Infinity War, things were no longer entry-level. You had to know stuff. Iron Man and Captain America’s falling out, Star-Lord and Gamora’s romance, Gamora and Nebula’s history with Thanos, and, of course, the lore of the infinity stones, are just a fraction of the people, places, and things that factored into that story. That was fine, though. The last two Avengers movies were the capstones of a saga, and no one can fault the end of a 10-year epic for requiring some investment.
Now, however, we’ve entered a whole new era. The “Infinity Saga” is over, and Marvel finds itself in a whole new situation. Many of the giant legacy characters, like Iron Man and Cap, are gone, and a slew of fresh faces are stepping up to launch Marvel into “Phase 4.”
Nonetheless, Phase 4 isn’t exactly fresh as a daisy, the way things were when Iron Man debuted. Now, fans can’t watch Loki on Disney+ unless they’ve at least seen a handful of movies catching them up on backstory.
More to the point, Phase 4 requires a direction. As a centrally planned endeavor, it needs an overarching storyline that would propel it forward towards a climactic conclusion, just as Thanos and the Infinity Stones functioned for the first phases, and it is here that I believe Marvel has made its great misstep.
The overarching thematic through-line for Phase 4 appears to be introducing to the MCU a multiverse. Hints to this were seeded in the first Disney+ Marvel show, WandaVision. Titles to future films, like Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, also make it rather obvious, as do casting announcements that indicate the return of myriad actors from former Marvel properties in “other universes.”
The moment of truth came, however, with the show Loki, which finally took the leap of creating the MCU Multiverse, and giving us our new Thanos-level Big Bad villain, Kang the Conqueror. There’s no turning back now.
My concern is that, once a multiverse gets going, the skill level will go from intermediate to experts-only. Or should I say, nerds-only. Only diehard fans are going to be able to follow what the hell is going on. Individual films might be somewhat approachable, and they will do their best to explain their internal logic, but the broad strokes of the MCU’s story are about to get very, very muddled.
Say goodbye to the families, the walk-ins, the casuals; once it gets that intricate the MCU will become a fans-only endeavor. Granted, the MCU has a LOT of fans, but how strong is the hold? If Disney starts shedding the fans who can’t keep up, it’s still going to lose a lot of the audience that generates its value.
Of course, this may be a problem without a solution. It is also an inevitable one- indeed it is a sign of success. You only get this problem if you’ve lasted decades, long enough to pile up an inconvenient amount of content and history to keep track of.
Perhaps it is a credit to Marvel that, rather than try to fight the inevitable, they have decided to embrace it. And hey, maybe it’ll work! The success of Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse suggests it’s possible. However, that movie was a one-off; it isn’t tied to the larger project of the MCU. It’s one thing to enjoy lots of versions of everyone’s favorite neighborhood Spider-person, it’s another when the ‘verse starts to include Lokis, and Kangs, and Time Variance Authorities, Scarlet Witches and Sorcerers Supreme.
I remember walking out of Captain America: Winter Soldier, and hearing the conversation behind me on the way out. A boy of about eight was tugging on his father’s arm, excitedly telling him about the post-credits sequence featuring Wanda and Pietro Maximoff. “Dad! Dad! Dad,” he said, “I know who those two are!” It was a cute moment, not least for the fact that it would have been me had my own father decided to come.
Walking out of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, or in the living room after an episode of Loki’s second season, I’m worried that the same kid is going to have to be sitting down with his father with a pen and paper, drawing him a map.
That is the true yardstick for these things: How much of the runtime do you spend explaining what’s going on to your parents.
Feige and the Marvel brain trust might have a plan, and they’ve earned a bit of faith, but I fear that pretty soon, we’re all about to be pausing and drawing maps a lot more often.