With Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania already out and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 arriving in cinemas imminently, Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is well underway. However, with some viewers beginning to tune out, future stories will need to address the lackluster performance of Phase 4. This is the key to keeping the MCU a larger, compelling story. In a nutshell, the MCU is at its best when its stories are self-contained but never entirely disconnected.
The consensus among critics is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has stagnated somewhat after the end of the Infinity Saga. After Avengers: Endgame, lots of viewers have begun to tire of the deluge of Phase 4. The new TV shows and movies often feel, at best, tenuously connected to any overarching plot. This stands in sharp contrast to early MCU movies which were mostly standalone but always had some connection to the others. Each felt like a small piece of something much larger. On the flipside, some MCU stories are starting to feel overly self-referential, seeming to exist as much to introduce or set things up as to tell stories of their own.
How the Infinity Saga Kept Its Direction
The Infinity Saga was not really planned. Not more than having a rough direction, in any case. In hindsight, it’s full of retcons and abandoned ideas. A notable example is the initial hint at Thanos’ comic book motivation of literally courting Death, before his intent was later changed. All the same, the main story goals were always clear. The initial setup was simple. Assemble the Avengers, introduce Thanos, and make them fight each other. While each early MCU story was self-contained, they all set up things that would be pivotal to the central plot, like the infinity stones, first introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger. Importantly, they also made a point to show the connection.
The MCU popularised the current trend of including mid- and post-credits scenes to movies. Importantly though, they were originally used in a very precise way. Iron Man ended by introducing Nick Fury. The Incredible Hulk ended by showing that Iron Man was involved. The Avengers ended by introducing Thanos. Each post-credits scene gave a tantalizing hint that there was something big just over the horizon to build tension. And it worked. Viewers would eagerly wait to see how the next story would tie in — casual viewers wanted to learn more, while comic book fans were eager to see the stories and team-ups they knew brought to life.
Why MCU Phase 4 Felt Directionless
Marvel followed up the climax of Avengers: Endgame with an explosion of new stories. While clearly intending to build on the hype from the previous movies, it’s made the overall storyline feel dilute. Some MCU Phase 4 TV shows, like Wandavision, played an important role in showing the aftermath of Thanos and “the snap.” Many others, however, felt poorly paced or even entirely disconnected. The introduction of so much in such quick succession doubtless didn’t help.
While the multiverse plotline with Kang the Conqueror has slowly emerged, much of the current MCU still feels tangential to it. There was plenty of early speculation about who exactly the next MCU big bad would be, but it’s often felt like writers have been testing the water with new ideas while not committing to them. Occasionally there have been subtle hints, like a couple of easter eggs thrown into Moon Knight. But these are not enough for most viewers to see a clear connection to the rest of the MCU.
All Universe, No Plot
The main villain of the new MCU Multiverse Saga was revealed in the 3rd story of MCU Phase 4. Loki introduced Kang The Conqueror. More accurately, it introduced He Who Remains, a multiverse variant of Kang, who was previously keeping Kang restrained. It then seemingly did very little with him for several stories. The multiverse direction was followed up by Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. These three stories, however, are seemingly the only ones in MCU Phase 4 to be truly plot-relevant. Many of the others can be skipped without missing out on much. The result is that a lot of people have done exactly that.
Any direct reference to the multiverse plotline has seemingly been absent from the stories of MCU Phase 4. They’ve expanded the universe considerably, but they’ve done so at the cost of the cohesion which the MCU was once best known for. All the while, new MCU characters still keep showing up. While many of these new characters will no doubt return later on, there’s no longer any need to know how and where they’ll fit. Only the knowledge that, at some point in the future, they will. Somehow.
How The MCU Should Focus
The best MCU stories have been the ones that mostly stand alone, but still strongly hint that they’re part of a larger story. The weakest, like Iron Man 2 or Ant-Man and the Wasp, have seemingly been preoccupied with introducing new characters and setting up the future, sacrificing compelling stories of their own. This was originally done most effectively with a post-credits scene linking things together, but this has mostly been abandoned. Newer post-credits scenes have turned into jokes, references to unrelated characters, or in some cases just teaser trailers.
The bottom line is that MCU Phase 5 needs to regain focus. It should aim to do two main things. It needs to tell compelling self-contained stories, but it also needs to make those stories matter to the overarching plot of the new MCU saga. A good way to achieve this is to slow down. Instead of introducing too much too quickly, the way Phase 4 did, the stories need to concentrate on introducing things as and when they’re needed. This can help to return the Marvel Cinematic Universe to what originally made it so compelling to many viewers – the feeling that each of these stories is an intimate piece of one single, much larger one.The Incredible Hulk