The Marvel Cinematic Universe Is Broken, And Marvel Can Only Blame Itself

The Marvels and Loki Season 2 were just the latest of many recent MCU projects to feel like their stories had been gutted during post-production.


The hits never stop coming for Marvel during its so-called Multiverse Saga. The Marvel Cinematic Universe juggernaut has spent nearly the entire post-Avengers: Endgame period mired in one mess or another, constantly shuffling around its release schedule and, as a result, having to seemingly rewrite, reshoot and re-edit all of its movies and shows on the fly to accommodate everything that was going on.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like that's going to stop any time soon. The Marvels, basically the franchise's title movie at this point--following up on the Captain Marvel film, as well as Disney+ shows WandaVision and Ms. Marvel, without actually giving viewers any reason to watch them--is bombing at the box office, the Jonathan Majors situation certainly isn't fixing itself, and, probably a result of those first two things, the director of the next Avengers movie is reportedly no longer directing the next Avengers movie. With everything continuing to be in flux, we have every reason to believe that the Marvel Cinematic Universe will continue to operate the way it has been: with a bunch of unrelated stories that don't matter to each other and which have no big-picture narrative to speak of.

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At this rate, though, The Marvels is likely to be only the first of many box office bombs for the MCU--unless they can find a better way of correcting course.

For the first decade of the biggest movie franchise ever, it trained its fans to watch a certain way. While the various different sub-franchises didn't always feature major character crossovers, they would at least be able to manage some references to current events elsewhere--Doctor Strange containing a reference to War Machine's injury from Captain America: Civil War, for example. Those nods rewarded fans for watching everything by giving them a sense of the franchise as a whole and where each of the individual series stood in relation to each other. It was clear that this was a universe that was actually connected.

The post-COVID portion of the MCU hasn't had that. Despite having so much context to work with, there have beenonly traces of big threads, like Julia Louis-Dreyfuss assembling her little erstwhile Avengers group across a few movies and shows, but ultimately there's just been too much content, and very little connectivity between it.

This is a problem because it obviously wasn't planned to be this way. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it reshuffled the schedule and essentially delayed the entire franchise by a year. But Spider-Man: No Way Home stayed put in December 2021, and the Doctor Strange sequel that was supposed to lead into it, instead ended up taking place afterward.

I can't even begin to guess what had to change in both of those movies and in others because of that rearrangement. But my best guess is Marvel's solution was to make everything standalone as much as possible, removing all traces of these now-incorrect references to other parts of the MCU, until they could get back on top of things. So the early days of the Multiverse Saga were full of stories that had no apparent relationship with each other, leaving us with a bunch of orphaned new threads like Shang-Chi, Eternals and Moon Knight. Moon Knight was especially egregious, containing no references to the rest of the MCU or any other Marvel stuff at all. The only reason we even know it's in the MCU is because Marvel said it was--the show itself provides no evidence for that claim. At least the Eternals knew about Thanos.

To make things worse, many of these stories have seemed to suffer greatly on their own from the removal of so much franchise connective tissue. At the end of Black Widow, Natasha is surrounded by government vehicles, but then the film cuts to her being free and clear with no explanation. Shang-Chi was probably originally set during the Blip, but there are basically no contextual clues for that movie's place on the timeline in the finished movie, or how Carol Danvers and Bruce Banner--both of whom appear in a mid-credits sequence--are actually doing, post-Thanos.

WandaVision did its whole "Agatha All Along" musical number before revealing that, actually, Wanda has created her sitcom world all on her own and Agatha showed up later. So, it definitely wasn't Agatha all along. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was all over the place thematically and had villains with no plan, as if the specifics of their core motivation had evaporated. Everything Marvel put out in 2021 was accompanied by this odd feeling that there was supposed to be something more there. Eventually the threads were going to have to come together to form a bigger tapestry, right?

The Kang the Conqueror variant Victor Timely and Ravonna Renslayer on Loki
The Kang the Conqueror variant Victor Timely and Ravonna Renslayer on Loki

Three years later, Marvel doesn't seem to have any more control of things now than they were then. The last three major MCU projects--Secret Invasion, Loki Season 2, and The Marvels--all reek of having their plots ripped out from them. The Marvels pretty clearly was supposed to directly lead into Secret Invasion--these stories go together but they make no sense in this order. And The Marvels is the sort of film that moves at such a quick pace that it almost succeeds at making you forget about its nearly non-existent plot--at least until you arrive at the out-of-left-field ending, which isn't set up by the rest of the film at all.

Loki Season 2, meanwhile, was full of subplots that trailed off in the final two episodes--surely they had more planned for Ravonna Renslayer than that, and Sylvie was an afterthought for most of this season--and at the end of it all, the events of Season 2 had no perceivable impact on any other ongoing MCU story. And at the start of 2023 we had Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania, which apparently had a lot more Bill Murray scenes than what they ended up using--even though some of those scenes were crucial pieces of plot and backstory. Murray is barely in the finished cut.

It's that last bit that's really telling. It's not as though Marvel isn't doing the work to tell these stories well and to do so in a connected way. They're spending the money and filming what they need to film, but whenever something changes in the greater franchise, they gut their own work and waste everybody's time--over and over again. And so the past three years have been full of shows and movies that are, at best, barely coherent on individual terms, and which don't function as a unit in any way.

The cumulative effect is, well, there's not really a franchise to care about. There's nothing to have an emotional attachment to. Marvel right now is just a brand the way it was before, with a bunch of distinct franchises that don't work together. This is a real drain, subconsciously--the fans have lost their emotional urgency for the franchise, over time and in a low-key way, and you can see that decreasing enthusiasm in the franchise-low opening weekend for The Marvels. That drain will continue until Marvel stops operating like this.

It's not going to be easy, especially since it's quite possible the MCU is about to make some kind of pivot away from Jonathan Majors, who's playing the main franchise villain at the moment, and that's going to require a lot more rewrites and reshoots. But they can't just keep stripping everything down to the barest bones--Marvel is going to need to put in a lot of extra effort to make the MCU work as a whole again. It's going to be very expensive, but Disney can afford it.

Phil Owen on Google+

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