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The Marvel Cinematic Universe Has Already Messed Up Kang the Conqueror's Story

The MCU needed to start fleshing out Kang's story years ago, and now it might be too late to handle it in a way that makes sense.


Did you know that Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania villain Kang, played by Jonathan Majors, is the Marvel Cinematic Universe's next main villain after Thanos? You almost certainly did, but not from watching that movie or anything else in the MCU. You know that because you know about Kang the Conqueror from the comics or because you watched a YouTube video or read an article about him, like this one. There's not much chance you could glean how important this guy is just from watching this movie.

So it's kind of hilarious when Janet and the residents of the Quantum Realm spend most of the movie cryptically referring to Kang as "he" and "him" instead of saying his name. Because when they do finally say it, it means nothing, as all we know about him is he's angry and wants to kill everybody--we have absolutely no further sense of him as a person or as a cosmic being. And without any setup or development, he doesn't feel like anything more than the baddie from this movie, who will return in the future.

That's partially the fault of Quantumania itself. This film is Marvel Mad Libs, having recognizably Marvel proper nouns do recognizably Marvel verbs in recognizably Marvel situations and hoping for the best. They pulled out all the old Marvel tricks for this one--introducing a generic new fantastical world with generic fantastical locals in a generic resistance movement fighting against a generic fantastical bad guy who shoots generic energy projectiles out of his hands. And a good guy whose defining trait is that he loves his daughter. For what it's worth, Jonathan Majors is doing his best with the part--and he's extremely watchable in Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania. So he's not the issue.

The rest of the blame goes to the franchise itself. There may have been some point in the MCU's past when simplifying the plot down to base emotions was enough to get by, but those were simpler times with simpler enemies. The old franchise big bad, Thanos, was pretty easy to understand. He was a weird extremist who needed to gather up some magic rocks so he could kill an unprecedented amount of people all at once. It was your standard superhero stakes, but on the largest possible scale. So reducing the stakes to "Iron Man really loves his daughter," as Avengers: Endgame did, is theoretically workable, because that sentiment aligned with saving everyone else.

This new so-called "Multiverse Saga" isn't like that, and Kang the Conqueror is certainly not Thanos. Thanos was just a space alien who was really, really strong. Kang is a person who has lived an infinite amount of time and been to both the beginning and the end of countless universes. Instead of being alternate versions of the same character from other universes--or variants, as they called this phenomenon on Loki--each Kang is the same individual at different points in his infinite personal timeline.

On Loki, we met Kang's precursor, He Who Remains--formerly Nathaniel Richards. He Who Remains had fought and killed every alternate version of himself across the multiverse and established a single stable reality as the sole stream of time. He was a benevolent dictator of the multiverse, essentially. But then Sylvie killed him, allowing the multiverse to create itself again, in turn creating new versions of Nathaniel Richards who once again fought each other across the multiverse. But this time a bad one, Kang the Conqueror, was the winner. And he interfered over and over again in his own past and future until he'd amassed his Council of Kangs. You can read a much more detailed explanation of Kang's whole deal right here.

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So, yeah, Marvel was shifting from fantasy to heady sci-fi you have to think about a little bit, with time travel and all sorts of fun logical puzzles becoming inherent to the narrative when you start going deep into multiverse stuff. The Marvel formula needed to be seriously tweaked as soon as the franchise began to shift focus from Thanos to Kang, because this stuff is far more complicated and bears more explaining than the MCU as we've known it before. Which should be a huge deal--if Christopher Nolan can have huge success with movies that need a solid hour of exposition just to explain their premises, then Marvel could probably figure this out.

But they didn't. And so in Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania, while it pays lip service to quantum mechanics, all you actually need to know is that Ant-Man really loves his daughter, and Kang is really mad. All the other details and contexts are minor and unimportant.

That's how the entire MCU has been since the last Ant-Man movie. All that matters is the most base personal conflicts, and there has been no overarching story at all. In the MCU's Phase 4, we got seven movies and seven TV shows, and among all of that, there was only a single story thread that began in one thing and continued in another: the corruption of Wanda Maximoff into the Scarlet Witch that started in WandaVision and ended in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Everything else has been separate--and we still have no context whatsoever for Shang-Chi, Eternals and Moon Knight.

Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania was supposed to be a turning point, using well-liked characters to welcome the MCU's new main villain to the forefront and finally give us a real central plot to care about. But it never had a real chance because they failed to do the legwork to set any of this up. While the Season 1 finale of Loki put us on the path to this situation, Kang wasn't actually on the show. And he was neither mentioned nor teased nor hinted at in any way in any other film or TV show in the MCU before he showed up in Quantumania.

The tragedy of all of this is that it's likely far too late for the MCU to handle Kang with any kind of intelligence. Marvel and Disney are really big on catering to the lowest common denominator, and to do that with ideas like this, you'd need to set up the concepts over time in small doses, like Loki Season 1 getting us used to the idea of variants. But they would have needed other movies or shows to get in on the expository fun.

But none did. And since Marvel simply bothered to get into the details on Kang or any other aspects of the multiverse, now that he and his era of the MCU are actually here, the situation may be beyond salvaging with any intelligence. But it's really impossible to say--with no overall plot to speak of, the MCU has no shape. How can we even start to guess at how they're planning to handle this from here? We know Kang will be doing stuff, and we know that the Skrulls will be doing stuff, and we know that the Fantastic Four will show up, and we know that eventually everybody will be shipped off to Battleworld in Avengers: Secret Wars.

But with the way the MCU has been going, there's no reason to think any of it will make sense or reward you for spending so much time and energy thinking about it. Instead, if the multiverse saga continues on the way it's been going, it's destined to be little more than disconnected stories that handle complex concepts in simplistic ways and never really add up to anything worth caring about.

Phil Owen on Google+

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