By now, you know the story.
During a particularly rough patch in the ‘90s, longtime comic book giant Marvel Entertainment decided it needed an influx of cash. Over the course of a decade, the company licensed out the film rights to nearly all of its most well-known superheroes – Spider-Man to Sony, Hulk to Universal, X-Men, Daredevil, and Fantastic Four to Fox… What Marvel didn’t know then was that superheroes would explode into the cinematic landscape beginning with 1999’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man.
No doubt regretting its character fire sale, leaders at the comic book giant regrouped to discover that despite their most famous characters being scattered to the studio winds, Marvel had managed to retain the rights to a ragtag crew of heroes known only by the nerdiest comic book aficionados – relative nobodies like a thawed WWII veteran, an interstellar Norse god, and a billionaire industrialist in a metal suit who all just happened to belong to a larger comic book team called… The Avengers.
Fast forward to today. Owned by Disney (thanks to Bob Iger's 2009 purchase of Marvel for $4 billion) the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” of interconnected, multiversal stories is made up of over 30 films, with no less than a dozen more in active development. With over $40 billion in revenue between box office, merchandise, and home entertainment, the MCU is the seventh highest grossing media franchise of all time.
And until recently, we might’ve added “with no signs of slowing down.” But post-Quantumania, we’ve got to wonder… is Marvel’s pop culture dominance waning? Has the weight of the MCU finally become too high a barrier to entry for new fans? And could the increasing complexity of the multiverse and the increasing burden of fan expectations be too great a barrier for casual viewers?
Infinity Ends (Phases 1 – 3)
When Marvel Studios was young, its first slate of films served as character introductions and origin stories for what would soon become the company’s core heroes – Iron Man and Iron Man 2 in 2008 and 2010, respectively; 2008’s Incredible Hulk (though Universal); Thor and Captain America in 2011. And of course, this four-year arc culminated with 2012’s crossover event film, The Avengers, serving as a climax to what was retroactively called “Phase I.”
The pace quickened and the world expanded in “Phase 2” – a six-film arc in the span of two years. "Phase 2" revisited established heroes with Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: Winter Soldier, while also introducing new ones... the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. Once more, Marvel's core cast came together in a Phase-terminating blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron, setting an MCU box office best of $1.4 billion. In just five years, the “MCU” had become appointment viewing; a blockbuster behemoth; a gotta-see-it, interconnected, epic saga whose release dates were avoided by every competing studio (who, by the way, all eagerly raced to launch their own "cinematic universes" to mostly disastrous results).
But no one could’ve expected the scale and scope of “Phase 3” – an 11-film arc in the span of just three years. Introducing major new players to the canvas – like Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and Spider-Man – Phase 3's eleven films included six that bypassed $1 billion at the box office. In "Phase 3," individual stories served as crossovers, intersecting timelines became the subject of academic study, and the pieces began to fall into place in a way that few but Studio chief Kevin Feige could’ve imagined.
Seeds sown as far back as the original Avengers came to harvest as viewers finally met Thanos – the “Mad Titan” who, we discovered, had been quietly orchestrating the goings-on of the “MCU” all along. Rewatches suggested that before they’d even known what the “Infinity Stones” were, viewers had seen the all-powerful gems distilling control of Time, Space, Reality, Mind, Power, and Soul on-screen, changing hands and establishing their powers across the 20 previous films like chess pieces.
It all came to a head in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War and 2019’s Avengers: Endgame – pivotal, nexus event films shattering box office records and reuniting every character from every one of the 20 films preceding in a final, epic showdown against Thanos. Both of Phase 3's Avengers films crossed the unbelievable $2 billion box office marker, with the latter at least briefly besting Avatar to become the highest grossing film of all time.
The first 23 films from Marvel Studios weren’t sequels to one another, but a massive, growing universe of films diverging into different genres; introducing, overlapping, and remixing mythologies; a franchise whose pieces accumulated and compounded into something unlike anyone had seen before: a true cinematic universe. Those first two dozen films – today called “The Infinity Saga” – changed the game… and now, fans are beginning to wonder if Marvel can recapture that enthusiasm within an increasingly-complex story…
The Multiverse Muddles (Phase 4)
Given the conclusive events of Endgame, it makes sense that “Phase 4” would be a very different era of Marvel storytelling. On one hand, Phase 4 would need to introduce a new cast of Marvel heroes to refill the heroes’ ranks post-Endgame… a sort of “Phase 1” of the next overarching, 20+ film Saga. On the other hand, Phase 4 needed to contend with the often-traumatic upheavals of remaining Infinity Saga characters. The result was sure to be a darker, more reflective, more diverse, and more experimental era of Marvel films… and it was!
After the COVID-19 pandemic caused countless delays and release date swaps – forcing filmmakers to rewrite, re-shoot, and re-order their plans – Phase 4 officially launched in 2021. Across the amazing breadth of Phase 4, we saw plenty of the “highs” of Marvel Studios. For example, the first project of the Phase was January 2021’s WandaVision – the first-ever series in the MCU canon, broadcast exclusively on Disney’s then-new streaming service, Disney+. An exploration of loss and power, WandaVision cleverly used the format of a weekly television sitcom to build a puzzling, experimental story about grief, reality, and self-determination.
A must-watch, award-winning triumph, WandaVision didn't just establish the post-Endgame positions of Wanda and Vision, but also teased at the concept of the Marvel “Multiverse” – the comic-book friendly plot device that allows multiple, parallel realities to coexist (a concept that lends itself to franchise-friendly reboots, recasting, and restarts). But it was the next, equally-smart Disney+ series, Loki, that jump-started the next Saga.
In it, a past version of Thor's brother Loki – having time-traveled in Endgame – is captured and recruited by the Time Variance Authority – a bureaucratic governing body of reality charged with maintaining the Sacred Timeline. There, Loki and several variants of himself drawn from other universes fight their way to a world beyond time, where they encounter “He Who Remains” (above) – an omnipotent, omnipresent, otherworldly figure who warns that if they kill him, they’ll destroy the benevolent grasp he maintains on the timeline, fracturing reality, splintering off parallel universes, and unleashing all-powerful, multiversal variants of himself who won’t be half as nice…
Right away, fans recognized that “He Who Remains” was the MCU’s version of legendary comic book baddie Kang the Conqueror – an unstoppable, Thanos-level force that would no doubt become the defining “Big Bad” of the next 20+ films. And with one stroke of the sword, it began. With “He Who Remains” offering his last, eerie words (“See you soon”), the Sacred Timeline shattered, leading to impossibly infinite realities branching from every decision ever made… It was a surprisingly essential moment to “paywall” behind a Disney+ limited series…
The good news is, if you missed it, you got a glimpse into the multiverse again with 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. A $2 billion earner, No Way Home gave Doctor Strange the unenviable job of finally pulling apart the cracks in the Multiverse that Wanda and Loki had formed, allowing other universe's versions of Spider-Man to slip in (and in so doing, retroactively making Tobey Maguire's early 2000s Spider-Man series and Andrew Garfields 2010s reboot of the character part of MCU canon.)
When Doctor Strange returned in his own sequel – Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – just four months later, he seemed to have forgotten everything he'd learned or done in No Way Home (no doubt thanks to shuffled release dates post-COVID). As a result, he learned it all over again in a reality-hopping journey that required viewers to draw from WandaVision, No Way Home, Loki, the original Doctor Strange, and ideally the What If...? animated Disney+ series to fully grasp. In other words, it was a big ask. While a casual viewer could find their footing, to really get Multiverse of Madness would require viewers to stay up to date on weekly episode releases and to draw from film lore established years in advance.
When it’s all said and done, Phase 4 (from WandaVision to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) spanned less than two years: January 2021 to November 2022. Yet in those 23 months, it included seven films, eight television series, and two television specials. In other words, the increasing complexity of the MCU mixed with its rapid fire release schedule and its very wide spread across theatrical and Disney+ definitely peaked with Phase 4, when – frankly – keeping up with the MCU really required some homework!
Maybe in the case of a “universe” as blockbuster as Marvel’s, it’s okay to trust that your audience has mostly kept up with cross-platform projects; that they’ve synthesized the emerging next generation of heroes (Moon Knight, Scarlet Witch, She-Hulk, Shang-Chi, Ms. Marvel, a new Captain America, and more) as they’ve flickered into existence on Disney+ exclusive series; or that they can at least find their footing quickly back in the theatrical entries even if they’ve missed the in-between projects.
But Phase 4 saw the sheen of Marvel begin to fade. A studio once known for meticulously-planned-out character arcs, almost obsessively-observed timelines, and the joys of seeing it all come together in unexpected crossovers seemed to fray. So much was happening, and so quickly... At least as the reviews tell it, quantity began to overtake quality as the universe expanded exponentially. Spread increasingly thin, Marvel projects veered into increasingly stylized genres...
Multiverse of Madness, a horror experiment by Sam Raimi; Thor: Love & Thunder, a bro comedy turning the hero redeemed in Endgame into a buffoon; She-Hulk as a fourth-wall-breaking courtroom comedy; Wakana Forever, a morose funeral rite for Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman; Moon Knight a frenetic, mythological character study; Ms. Marvel, a cultural teen action show; Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a return to "Phase 1" form exploring systemic racism and the formation of the next Captain America...
One had to wonder – how could such dissimilar parts come back together? Would there ever be another Avengers film? Would all the new chess pieces ever really amount to anything? But, we were told, Phase 4 is about experimentation. The real start of the Multiverse Saga kicks off with 2023’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, when we get our first real picture of the villainous Kang who will define the next three years of Marvel projects and start to see it all come together. Well, Quantumania is here, and the views are… Uh oh…