Marvel's Phase of Future Past
We're getting more Marvel Studios than ever before. But is Hollywood's most successful franchise haunted by its own legacy?
The last time the Marvel Cinematic Universe took a two-year break from theaters, 2008's laughable The Incredible Hulk made way for 2010's prophetic Iron Man 2, in which a crowd-pleasing billionaire with poor impulse control rich-splains global security to Congress. The pandemic delayed Black Widow's arrival until July 9, two summers past Spider-Man: Far From Home. But some of the worst years in living memory were already the best years for Marvel Studios. COVID-19 depleted Hollywood's output in time for the Disney+ hit WandaVision to become the dominant fascination of the content desert. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier followed, and now Loki runs right into Widow's release. Reopened theaters will welcome near-bimonthly Marvel films until next July's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Even a skeptic bored of green screen banter has to admire the MCU's new dedication to diversity, a gratifying evolution from the White Guys Named Chris days. There aren't many skeptics. Billions have been grossed, and every studio wants its own linked megaseries (see: the Yellowstone universe). But there's an uncomfortable energy in the first three completed post-Endgame projects. Far From Home, WandaVision, and Falcon fixate on the past with a nostalgia that squashes new dramatic possibilities.
Far From Home is, nominally, a loopy getaway about Peter Parker (Tom Holland) on a European vacation. But it's mostly a story about people talking about Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and how great he was. The movie ripples Tony's galaxy-saving martyrdom everywhere: building-size murals, quickie prestige docs. "What is it like to take over from Tony Stark?" a reporter asks Spider-Man, who is tormented by visions of an Iron Zombie rising from the grave.
No journalist ever explicitly asks Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) what it's like to take over from Steve Rogers, but that's Falcon's whole dramatic arc. Chris Evans' star-spangled man reincarnates as an image co-opted by John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a pretender Cap who must be vanquished. On a macro level, the history of the absent Captain's America forces Sam to confront the complexity of Black heroism in a racist country. By the finale, that provocative foundation collapses into bad costumes, limp speeches, and a shockingly forgiving perspective on uniformed peacekeepers who execute people in broad daylight.
Falcon and Far From Home both overextend Endgame epilogues into awkward changing-of-the-guard reboots. They share a problem: Surely a new generation has to rebel against something? Falcon wants "Who Holds the Shield?" to be a political question, but its promotion of Steve Rogers into national sainthood halts any deconstruction. The message winds up being: "Captain America is a myth, except he was real and we love him." Tony Stark actually was a cad - 2021 would cancel his 2008 self - and Far From Home sanitizes his memory. A few characters bring up his faults; they are villains. When I reviewed the film in 2019, I compared Tony's spectral presence to Jesus. It's a flawed comparison, because religion is too modest. If I recall my Sunday school, Christ died alone before resurrecting into, like, an aspirational moral example. Who would worship that, when this cool guy went out resurrecting half the cosmos?
Also: No offense to the Gospels, but hasn't resurrection kind of been done to death? WandaVision earned raves for its playful sitcom structure, but what a mulch it makes of Paul Bettany's Vision. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) conjures a phantom of her android lover - and then indirectly reboots another Vision, who appears just long enough to get his memories back. Loki and Black Widow died on film too, which makes their spin-offs rather sweaty enterprises, even with enough prequelizing and alternate realities to fill 100 YouTube recap videos. Suddenly, new characters are all versions of old characters: Captain Americas with wings or a darker costume, Black Widow's sister in white, Vision in white. The admirable expansion of onscreen representation will get questionably dramatized as endless repetition: Lady Hawkeye, Lady Thor, enough Iron Men to start some Armor Wars.
If this is all beginning to feel like a greatest hits collection, remember that Loki literally requires the title character to watch his own clip reel. In an office beyond space and time, Tom Hiddleston's trickster god has to sit through choice moments from his movie appearances. Mobius (Owen Wilson) actually tells Loki the montage is "a sample of your greatest hits," as if anyone in any multiverse ever remotely enjoyed Thor: The Dark World. What a lazy way to conjure motivation, showing an established character all the cool stuff his other self already did. Surely the future of Marvel is more than "Previously On."
In fairness, I've only seen two of Loki's six episodes, and the show clearly wants to break its own mold. Mobius works for the Time Variance Authority, a macro-dimensional agency which keeps the history of everything moving along. "You ridiculous bureaucrats will not dictate how my story ends!" Loki says, which sounds like a mission statement. The series is already repeating one critical mistake, though. Ridiculous bureaucrats are making a big comeback lately. WandaVision suffers through those terrible cutaways to the S.W.O.R.D. compound. Falcon coughs up the Global Repatriation Council, a governing body so generic its most prominent character was Alphie Hyorth's unnamed Government Official. Far From Home brings S.H.I.E.L.D. blazing back to the center of Marvel cinema, with all the relentless exposition and the background computer guys unfrozen from 2012.
I know, I know: In Far From Home, the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are actually shapeshifting aliens! And after WandaVision, we're just one Surprise Skrull post-credits scene away from a trend. But you can't make a vaguely defined organization interesting just by turning their commanders green. S.H.I.E.L.D. for space, S.H.I.E.L.D. for time, S.H.I.E.L.D. but Skrulls, and don't forget about whatever counter-S.H.I.E.L.D. Julia Louis-Dreyfus teases in Falcon: It's starting to seem like every story depends on mysterious omni-Illuminati nudging people here and there. I might be more charitable if all these agencies didn't look so blah: Forever hallways full of plotgivers-in-suits, identifiable only by whether they grimace or smirk. (Loki's TVA has some promise, but that whole midcentury chrono-dystopic vibe was already overcooked by The Umbrella Academy's Temps Commission.)
Much of this comes from the source material; hell, She-Hulk has been around longer than I have. But fidelity is no excuse. Marvel Comics' actual bankruptcy in the '90s reflected an artistic bankruptcy hailing from the '80s. There's been good stuff since then, but are the movies just running low on quality adaptation fuel? U.S. Agent was terrible last century, and he's no better now.
These problems are only obvious because the last Phase solved them. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther share a common theme: Daddy lied, tear his legacy down. T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) face consequences left behind by the mistakes of their godlike elders. Black Panther takes his country in a new direction; Thor burns his world to the ground. And Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) kills the planet that is his father - a private Ragnarok that's also a righteous patricide. All this happened while S.H.I.E.L.D. got back-benched into its own plucky little TV show, while its Nova Corp ilk just disappeared. The rule-proving exception came in Black Panther. I'm sure there were crucial mega-franchise reasons for including Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), but I still think he was only around so Shuri (Letitia Wright) had an excuse to call a C.I.A. agent "colonizer."
This anti-establishment theme could advance in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the first MCU film where the hero already knows he hates his father in Act 1. But compare those earlier projects with the treatment of Tony Stark in Far From Home or Steve Rogers on Falcon: I shall honor your legacy, noble spirit-dad! Phase 3 overturned monuments before that was a mainstream mood. Is fabulous success spoiling Marvel toward self-fandom? Or was Phase 3 always a con? Thor lost his hammer, his eye, and his brother. Now the hammer is back, his new eye is cybernetic, and his brother lives on Disney+. Guardians 2, Ragnarok, and Black Panther promised a bold new direction. Maybe it was just a blip.