Spoiler alert for all current Marvel releases.
In 2019, Marvel Studios released the second highest grossing movie of all time, Avengers: Endgame. The movie was the culmination of 21 projects, each of which introduced multiple characters within the same central narrative. The movies created a story led by two main characters, Iron Man and Captain America. Each movie had the clashing personalities work together and lead their team against various threats, but in Endgame, both characters die. After massive box-office success with Avengers: Endgame, how does a studio move on? How do you create an interconnected narrative when your main characters are dead?
Marvel Studios answers this by hitting the ground running. In the span of four years after Endgame‘s release, they released 18 projects, known as “Phase Four.” This almost doubles the original franchise, with much less time between each release. The 21 previous films had been released by Marvel over eleven years, starting with 2008’s summer blockbuster, Iron Man.
The large volume of new content led many viewers to be overcome by media fatigue. Media fatigue is a sense of exhaustion viewers feel after overstimulation from a certain medium. With the sheer volume of projects that Marvel was producing — a new product to consume every few months — this feeling began to set in for many people. Over time, less people became interested in keeping up with the new movies and shows, resulting in fewer viewers at premieres.
A constant stream of projects from Marvel also pointed many to a larger industry issue regarding visual effects (VFX) artists. In the past year, many Marvel VFX artists came out saying they were overworked with the massive amount of projects and strict deadlines. In an article from Vulture, a freelance VFX artist named Mark Patch spoke of the demands from Marvel when he was asked to work on a project. He knew that Marvel’s demands were outlandish. “While an average feature-length superhero or sci-fi movie might have 1,600 visual effects, he says this ten-hour show…would require around 3,000 VFX shots to be completed on a much shorter timeline.” Additionally, Marvel wanted to pay him less despite the large amount of work. Ultimately, he walked away from the contract. Marvel forces these artists to rush to meet short deadlines. As a result of the employee crunch, the quality of visual effects had gone down in Marvel projects, and fans were noticing. Many found Marvel shows like She-Hulk unwatchable due to the character’s jarring animation and unfinished VFX.
Despite the vast amount of content being produced and released by the studio, Marvel’s Phase Four felt empty. In past phases, stories were contained within themselves, yet there was always a tie-in of some sort that made the world feel connected to the greater Marvel Universe story. Marvel’s Phase One consisted of origin stories that did not intersect. However, at the end of this phase, Marvel’s The Avengers had neatly tied them all together in a larger connected story.
The studio seems to disregard any need for interconnection in Phase Four. The third project in this phase, Loki, ends with the main character opening up the multiverse — infinite worlds of infinite possibility. Loki‘s universe-altering effects are never mentioned again in subsequent projects. The multiverse was brought up again in Spider-Man No Way Home (2021) and in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), but these projects never make a meaningful reference to each other, despite Doctor Strange taking place directly after No Way Home. This presents a common theme within the phase: a lack of cohesion.
Another example of this can be seen in the TV show WandaVision, a story about Wanda Maximoff unconsciously forcing a town of people to live in a perpetual sitcom with a family she created in her mind. The story ends with her learning from her mistakes and understanding the consequences of her actions, sacrificing the family she created in favor of the town’s freedom. Chronologically, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is supposed to follow WandaVision. The movie features Wanda as the main antagonist, completely disregarding the character development shown in WandaVision.
Her motivation in Multiverse of Madness is to travel the multiverse to steal her children from another world. Director Sam Raimi even said in an interview with the Rolling Stone, “I just know that halfway, or maybe three-quarters of the way into our writing process, I’d first heard of this show they were doing and that we would have to follow it. Therefore, we had to really study what WandaVision was doing, so we could have a proper through line and character-growth dynamic. I never even saw all of WandaVision; I’ve just seen key moments of some episodes that I was told directly impact our storyline.” Despite his words, “a proper through line and character-growth dynamic” was exactly what the project lacked, and the villain’s motivation lacked any form of cohesion.
A great way of creating a large, connected story is to feature characters in multiple projects to give the viewers a sense that this world is lived in. When Marvel failed to create that sense by introducing huge inconsistencies within characters, the viewers thought the opposite. The impression made by these characters make the world feel disjointed.
How does a studio recover from a mixed bag of projects, each struggling to recover the fans’ attention? Marvel responded by releasing their Phase Five and Six movie release slate to get people excited for the future of the MCU. While this news did excite many fans, it equally concerned them. Marvel failed to understand its issue of volume. They announced two new Avengers films that would come out in less than four years. These films would give a central structure to the growing narrative of the MCU, but may not give fans enough time to keep up. Will Phases Five and Six suffer the same fate as their predecessor? Can the MCU save their narrative? The films have all the ingredients for a great story, but whether or not the writing can hold up remains to be seen.
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