Marvel’s MCU might be the most successful screen franchise of all time, but Phase 4 is set to bring a plethora of new content in just a couple of years. Can Marvel maintain their balance of quality and quantity in the MCU?
A Decade and a Half of the MCU
This year Marvel will celebrate 15 years since production started on Iron Man, the first release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a creation which has gone on to spawn some of the most popular and highest grossing films of all time. Despite sometimes less than warm critical reception, there can be no doubt that the MCU has been a success, gaining millions of dedicated fans across the globe, and bringing in billions of dollars in profit.
There comes a point, however, when all artistic endeavours drift towards stagnation, and the MCU in particular has several characteristics which make it vulnerable to lethargy. After the climax of Endgame, Marvel needed to ensure it’s 4th phase would avoid this; but the more one looks into what has been delivered and what is to come in Phase 4, there is a real worry that the MCU is reaching a point of saturation.
What’s Happening In Phase 4
At the July 2019 San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige took to the stage and announced the productions that would make up Phase 4. A slew of hyped spin-offs, curious remodels and intriguing new characters and stories were announced, amongst a lot of devoted applause from the fans and self-congratulation from those on stage. Once the agenda was finalised (you can find the full list here), there were a total of 24 new releases to appear over the space of just two years. On average, that’s one new release every month. In comparison, the first three phases together contained 23 screen releases over 11 years.
What’s more, of Phase 4’s 11 films, only two have brand new lead characters, and of the 13 TV series, only four have brand new lead characters. On a yearly average, Marvel’s content level will increase by 600%, but less than a quarter of these releases will have a new character as its lead. For some devoted fans this amount of content may look like a wonderful prospect, but even they would have to admit that Marvel is risking its quality for the sake of quantity.
What The Problems Might Be
Even before the big screen, Marvel’s comics were known for delving deep into smaller characters; it’s a trait that made their comic book universe so engaging and endeared their material to so many fans. There are however some distinct problems with this methodology for the MCU. Within a movie that is focussed on superheroes, there has to be plenty of action sequences, fight scenes and superpowers on show, and that ultimately leaves limited room within the runtime to develop characters. The TV shows might have more time across multiple episodes, but it still lacks the intricacy and space that a graphic novel provides to its reader.
Of course, Marvel have broken the mould with WandaVision, doing so brilliantly to create a truly intriguing series. However, it’s hardly a formula which can be transferred to other shows. There has also been some success with the Loki TV series, approaching the character from a notably different angle. But Marvel will struggle to bring this kind of adventurousness to all of their well-loved characters, especially with the rate at which these releases are coming.
While the new characters to the MCU like Shang-Chi, She Hulk and Moon Knight appear fascinating, there has to be a question of how much depth is left in characters like Hawkeye, Captain America, Thor and the Guardians. Fans will of course love seeing these characters on screen, but to keep them in central roles seems to be blocking the way for the more radical figures. Series like What If… and Secret Invasion might feel original on the surface, but along with the third big screen iteration of the Fantastic Four, they are fundamentally using the same characters we already know so well, taking up precious time and space that could be used to introduce new leads.
There are some good things coming out Phase 4 not related to new characters. Spider-Man: No Way Home has of course been an enormous success, and Black Widow, for all its issues, was well received. But the Ant Man & The Wasp sequel, a third Guardians Of The Galaxy film and holiday special, and The Marvels film, as good as they will all be, do feel like they are being made simply for the sake of it.
That isn’t to say that all the brand new stories and characters are going to be an overwhelming success. We saw this with Eternals, but Marvel is in the position that it should be taking more laudable artistic risks like this. Marvel will still continue to make a profit, and after bringing in more than $23 billion worldwide through the MCU, it’s not as if Marvel Studios can’t afford to take some chances. Or can they?
The Disney Effect
Marvel Studios was bought by Disney back in 2009, but until 2015 it still operated as an independent studio. Since then, Disney has slowly increased its influence over the MCU, and with the launch of Disney+ Marvel has been given an unlimited resource for releases. The lack of restriction combined with the corporate pressures from Disney has created a bloated looking Phase 4.
The judgment will ultimately come once the releases hit full swing, and we start to see how high Marvel can keep its quality level in such a full agenda. With the pandemic there is also always the threat of delays, both to productions and cinema releases, so it’s likely that Phase 4’s output spans across more than the scheduled two years.
What The Fans Will Think
Ultimately for Marvel it is the fan opinion that is most important to them; Disney will be the one focussing on the profits. Although Kevin Feige himself made it clear that the key to success is knowing when and when not to listen to the fans, Marvel producers need to maintain an awareness of how the fans accept and perceive this next stage. Because the reaction to over-saturation more often than not is boredom, and with boredom fans will inevitably move on to new and more engaging content. As Kevin Feige himself put it: “never think you don’t have something to learn from an audience”.
What do you think of Phase 4? Are Marvel on the right or wrong path? Do you think fans might get overwhelmed? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.