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Stray Thoughts: The MCU's Phase 4 Problem

🦸 And 4, 4, 4 For My Headaches...

Even the most devoted MCU fanboy (read: me) has to admit that the content of Marvel's "Phase 4" has been lackluster. For a little context, I started this rant while I was writing up my critique of the Loki Disney+ series and it quickly became evident that I had too many digressions and needed to break this out into a separate post. But I think it's useful to keep Loki in mind when considering all of this because the problems plaguing the post-Infinity-Saga Marvel content are evident there in microcosm, from the re-arranged schedules to the inability to do anything interesting with a multiverse to the seeming lack of quality control especially in the scripting. Indeed, these problems started with Phase 4 and are continuing into whatever phase we're in now--5, I think?--but Loki was the first indication that the wheels were coming off the wagon.

So, with that table-setting out of the way, what are the problems with Phase 4?

To begin this story, we must first venture into the distant past and revisit an event known as The Streaming Wars. At the end of 2019, Disney launched Disney+, their online streaming service. Now, they've already got a tremendous back catalog to fill this thing out with. There's the entire Disney Vault (less Song of the South because they still to go great lengths to make that movie impossible to find but also refuse to ever apologize for it) and they've just secured exclusive rights to an original cast pro-shot of the Broadway juggernaut Hamilton. And yet, that's not enough. Because anyone can sign up for a month to binge their childhood. What really gets eyeballs is something that was pioneered by HBO with Game of Thrones: Appointment Streaming. You want a new show that you can drop an episode of every week that's technically available on demand but everyone wants to watch as soon as possible so the plot doesn't get spoiled for them on Facebook.

To facilitate this, Disney leveraged a couple of its newer acquisitions that also happen to be two of the biggest nerd-culture IPs on the planet: Star Wars and Marvel. They started with The Mandalorian and announced a whole slate of MCU-adjacent shows to launch in 2020. The plan seemed to be to use the TV shows to introduce characters who aren't probably well-known enough to justify an entire solo film--like US Agent, Kate Bishop, Ms. Marvel, or Photon who could then drop into the movies without preamble--and to play around with some of their more esoteric properties like What If...?, WandaVision, or Moon Knight. Not a bad plan... at least, on paper. In practice, there are a few problems.

One problem has to do with one of those poorly-kept secrets that's made the MCU as successful as it is. One of Kevin Feige's guiding principles with Marvel films has been that continuity should never get in the way of a good story. You should never have to have seen another movie in order to enjoy the one you're watching. It's a bit deceptive because the whole MCU is built on shared continuity, but what people don't realize is that the continuity is completely optional. All of those movies work as stand-alone films. Really. At the same time, because they're tied in with each other, it gives the viewer an artificial incentive to watch them all, but any individual movie can also serve as an entry point. This is, incidentally, something that has somewhat eluded the DCEU and was so misunderstood by Universal that it scuttled their entire Dark Universe franchise after one film. To paraphrase a critic I enjoy who goes by the monicker MovieBob: "A franchise doesn't sell you on the idea of good movies; good movies sell you on the idea of a franchise." But it should never feel like homework. And when Disney+ announced something like thirty hours of new and exclusive MCU content--over half the length of the total of all of the extant films--it was starting to feel like homework.

Which brings me to the other problem with the Disney+ rollout, at least as it was announced. These things don't always scale very cleanly. A studio that's been making three movies a year, or six hours of content, is now going to make three or four times that? The talent pool is only so deep, y'all. All of this needs to be written, produced, cast, filmed, scored, and special-effected. Quality was going to slip. And it might have been different if there had been some uniform messaging that this Disney+ stuff was non-essential if all you want to do is watch the movies. But no way in hell Disney is going to say that, right? No, indeed, they're incentivized to lean into shared continuity all-of-this-is-essential thinking because that's what drives eyeballs and water-cooler conversations. This is how you win the Streaming Wars!

But here's the thing about streaming: unless you're Netflix, streaming does not make money. Like, at all. This fact was not clear to the general public until very recently, when investors started to wise up to things and wonder if this was really a sound business model. Netflix's share price started dropping, and suddenly all of the services started pulling content in order to stanch the bleeding. And I want to repeat this again for the kids in the cheap seats: Despite its huge launch, Disney+ is not profitable. Neither is Apple+, or most of the +'s, as far as I know. Now, for Disney, this is less of an issue than it is for, say, HBO, because Disney is a theme park company that also happens to make movies, whereas AOL Time Warner is a clusterf**k. As far as Disney is concerned, it's okay if their streaming service is a loss-leader as long as it gets people to shell out for their rides and hotel experiences. And while I'm tempted to go on another rant about how huge multi-national conglomerates horizontally integrating everything is terrible, actually... that's a bit off topic. The point is, Disney's plan for Marvel was much better for Disney than it was for Marvel, or at least, it was as planned. It's hard to know how things would have actually played out, because a month after Disney+ launched, a novel SARS-CoV-2 respiratory virus was identified in Wuhan.

Oh yeah, COVID. That happened. The problems with Phase 4 can be categorized broadly as things that were someone's fault and things that were not. COVID was not anybody's fault, but hoo-boy did that throw a spanner in the works at Marvel Studios. Now, just to be very clear, I don't want to minimize the catastrophic loss of life and loss of quality-of-life that was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. There's some collective trauma there that we're all still dealing with. But, for the sake of arguments, within the context of Marvel Studios, we're going to focus on how it affected release schedules. Which even feels petty to be typing, but I'm committed now, so--deep breath--here we go.

When COVID hit Europe and then the US, basically all entertainment media paused their operations. For a lot of studios, this meant shuttering production for a while, but Marvel was in a weird position. That's because Marvel Studios is less of a movie studio than it is an MCU-content pipeline. From their dedicated second-unit stunt team to their house shooting style that's optimized for effects-heavy projects, it is a lean operation that had just been scaled up to accommodate multiple television shows and when things got halted, there was a bit of a scramble to figure out what to do. WandaVision, originally slated to be the fifth things released in Phase 4, got moved up to the first slot because it had wrapped on all of its metropolitan scenes weeks before lockdown started, and its backlots and exteriors were much easier to handle with COVID protocols compared to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which was shooting in Prague. Because even though things were halted, they needed to get product out the door to support their new money-losing streaming service :eye_roll_emoji:

This reshuffling becomes a problem when you have lots of interconnected stories that will drop teasers for each other in post-credit sequences and make oblique references to each other in dialogue. The movies may not require that you've seen previous installments, but it's generally a good idea to not tease things that have already happened or to make callback references to things that haven't happened yet. This resulted in a lot of hasty re-scripting. Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness was supposed to use America Chavez to introduce the concept of a multiverse before either Loki or Spider-Man: No Way Home, but it got delayed until after both. Supposedly it was seeing significant re-writes into production and even into post-production as Marvel tried to work out its schedule. The same allegedly happened with Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, and it really shows in the finished product; the resolution it arrives at does not feel like the resolution it was building to. Now, whether this was a result of re-shuffling or just overall lack of quality control is anybody's guess, but it's getting the multiverse era off to a rocky start. And speaking of the multiverse...

It's a bit confounding to me that the MCU has gone all-in on a multiverse saga because they don't seem to have any idea what to do with a multiverse in a long-running story. The best use by far comes from What If...? but that's an anthology show. Doctor Strange 2 has "multiverse" in its title, yet it spends the bulk of its runtime in a single fan-service-y universe (which is the least of the problems with that movie, but that's another post entirely). Spider-Man: No Way Home also uses its multiverse mostly for fan-service... and also to prove that it can do Spider-Man villains better than Sony... but not to tell a story where a multiverse has any kind of meaning. The whole premise of Loki was multiverse-hopping mischief, and it spends exactly one episode having any fun at all with the concept. There's just not much there there.

In the meantime, we've had two movies come out that did an amazing job with that same concept, one using Marvel's own characters and the other winning the Oscar for Best Picture. And coming from two guys best known for that Daniel-Radcliffe-farts-while-dead movie and a music video about an autonomous dancing penis, no less! While the MCU's been all gung-ho on the multiverse, they've been completely outclassed at using it as a storytelling device, and I gotta say, it's nobody's fault but their own. Okay, to be fair, nothing Marvel put out was ever going to be as mind-bendingly awesome as Everything Everywhere All At Once, but they needed to at least bring more to the table. As we've seen, a multiverse can be a poignant metaphor for wasted potential or the immigrant experience or any number of things where you are confronted by your choices, but the MCU isn't going to any of those places in any meaningful way. There's no vision here beyond "this is where Kang the Conqueror operates, so this is where we're going."

Which brings us to Kang.

So... he's not a bad choice of uber-villain in terms of scale and threat-level, but he's a confusing character with a confusing backstory and his treatment so far hasn't been great. The version of him that shows up in Loki was presented with such affect that he ended up just being annoying. The version in Quantumania was appropriately menacing but then he gets killed, which is just confusing if you're expecting him to be a long-running villain. It's only revealed in the stinger that the real threat is that there are an infinite number of him, and that makes him feel more like an Ultron than a Kang. And the controversy around Jonathan Majors doesn't help things at all. Just for clarity, he is a fantastic actor. He has depth and range, and brings not just menace but also joie de vivre to Kang. This could absolutely be a star-making role for him. It's just... he might also be an abuser? Marvel seems to be distancing themselves from him and I wouldn't be surprised to see a re-casting, and there's still a lot that is not known about the substance of allegations against him. If true, it's pretty bad and Marvel is doing the right thing by cutting ties. If not, then there's damage done. Either way, his presence is going to end up leaving a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

So, with all of that said... how are things moving forward?

Well for right now, it's not great. Secret Invasion is wrapping up this week and it's been... pretty bad. Lack of quality control, poor scripting, over-reliance on continuity (seriously, does the plot make sense at all if you haven't seen Iron Man 3?). It also feels very small, given the scope of the story its trying to tell. This is a global intrigue story that feels like it has maybe twenty extras on any given day. But! I have hope. A number of projects have been canceled, re-configured, or delayed, and that tells me that Marvel is trying to course-correct. Now that the Streaming Wars have cooled, I think there's less incentive to churn out Disney+ content. And I'm hoping this means we can get back to the other secret sauce of the MCU: a consistent minimum level of quality.

Because I realize that a lot of people are done with the MCU and superhero movies in general. And that's fine. But I still enjoy spending time in this world with these characters, and I want to continue to do so into the future. They just aren't making it very easy right now.

That's what I think, anyway,