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Feminism, Black Culture & Cosmic Adventures: What Will the MCU Do to Remain Relevant?

With the dust settling on the performance of Avengers: Endgame, it’s safe to say that the all-conquering movie-machine of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proved its point. Where, then, does the MCU go from here? We know that at least some of the MCU is jetting off towards the stars, with the upcoming sequels to Captain Marvel and Guardians of the Galaxy opening the doors for further adventures set in deep space. Meanwhile, mutterings of multiverses in the trailers for Spider-Man: Far From Home signals towards potential gateways for introducing the likes of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, now that they’re under Disney’s ownership.

All stuff to look forward to for the average Marvel fan, but what about the rest of us? With Endgame signalling a very final end to the past decade’s worth of cinematic story-telling, what can the MCU do to maintain such colossal level of interest? How might it ensure that the next 10 years are as successful as the last?

Journey’s End

Even for the might of Marvel, this feels like an intensely tricky endeavour. So much of the MCU’s initial success came from the fact that there hadn’t been anything quite like it before on the movie landscape. The rock star attitude of Iron Man blew away the dominance of the angst-ridden characters that were dominating superhero movies at the time, i.e. Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men. No trauma of dead parents (well, not in the first Iron Man, anyway), no need to maintain a secret identity, Iron Man‘s reminder of how cool it is to be a superhero opened the floodgates for the rest of the MCU to follow.

What then, for the future? Is going into space enough to ensure continued success? It’s perhaps the worst-kept secret in the world that MCU movies have a tendency to blur together in terms of style and story, with critics noting how MCU movies aren’t the best place to go when searching for original ideas and concepts.

Surely we’ve reached a stage now where the authentic, crowd-pleasing antics of the MCU is enough to promise fans coming back for more, but fans always form a chunk of box office takings, rather than a whole. When I saw Avengers: Endgame at the cinema, it was packed. It was a enormous thrill to share in the communal enjoyment of the film, with everyone gasping as Steve picked up Mjolnir, and crying at the sight of Tony’s death. But had everyone there done their homework? Had they seen the past 20-odd films that Endgame concludes on? Did they recognise each point in time from the Avengers’ time heist? Probably not.

Prior to Endgame, the MCU recently achieved a creative, one-two knock-out punch with Captain Marvel and Black Panther. Both films simultaneously satisfied long-time fans with their expansions of pockets of lure within the MCU (Wakanda, Vibranium, Skrulls, Kree, etc), whilst at the same time enticing new viewers with their aesthetic separations from past superhero fare. The all-white, all-male dominance got shaken up with the feminist readings of Captain Marvel, and Black Panther‘s celebration of black culture. The upcoming Phase 4 film, Shang-Chi, Marvel’s first Asian-driven film, promises to continue this cultural ballooning of the MCU, straying further from the straight-forward tropes than audiences come to expect from superheroes.

These small leaps of progress could be what the MCU needs to continue doing to secure an aesthetic freshness in the minds of viewers, encouraging them to indulge in new shades of superhero fare. The past decade had also shown that just having the Marvel logo is enough to ensure the kinds of critical/commercial success other franchises can only dream of. If the comparatively low-key Ant-Man can stand toe-to-toe with the neon-soaked stylings of Thor: Ragnarok, the very fact that a Marvel film is a Marvel film is enough to generate a palpable level of interest.

Investment in Characters

As mentioned, the MCU may not be a fountain of original ideas, but it is at least smart enough to know when it’s exhausted certain plot strands and character types. With each Phase, the journey of the Infinity Stones increased in its layered form, as new heroes began being drip-fed into the MCU beyond the core team of Avengers. The sense of scale in the MCU increases, inviting a multitude of players into the mix.

How the audience will react to these players is perhaps another matter. Through a mixture of winning personalities and sublime casting, the MCU has been blessed with enjoyable characters to carry the rip-roaring action along, and with its two biggest heroes now exited from the franchise, some mighty big shoes have been left to be filled. The good faith built up from a decade’s worth of investment in characters that audiences care deeply about is no small act to replicate.

If the MCU wants to maintain its jovial zing, then its continued introduction of new superheroes has to come with an appreciation of its past by not simply giving us a carbon copy of heroes that have come before, even if the films themselves sometimes struggle to be more than copies of each other. Then again, if Guardians of the Galaxy made us care for a monosyllabic living tree, then the MCU’s overall skill in giving us entertaining characters for us to engage with and care for should be a slick manoeuvre by now. Likewise, the steady decline in box office takings for the Transformers films shows that big-budget, multi-entry franchise fatigue is something audiences aren’t immune to. It just hasn’t happened to the MCU (yet…).

Audiences who quickly grew fed up with Transformers‘ repeated garish formula suggests that the MCU’s adherence to colourful, charming characters remains a success. The MCU has endured its own trials in the past, but it’s yet to suffer the same fate the Transformers franchise did when 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight was released.

It’d be a huge shame if that momentum couldn’t be continued, for whatever reason. Some of the MCU’s greatest moments come in the form of neither large-scale action set pieces or acquisitions of superhero powers, but in the far more intimate moments shared between characters. It feels so natural and believable for Peter and Quill to wind up debating the pros and cons of 80s musical comedy-dramas, those little nuanced moments shared between these characters gives the other-worldly action set-pieces a dose of reality.

Properties, Assemble

Like the last 10 years however, there’s undoubtedly a new masterplan being tinkered away at as we speak. The MCU didn’t get this far without a sense of structure and pace, delivering expansive moments at specific points in the franchise whenever something close to a status quo was reached. It’s as difficult as it is amusing to try and predict what moves the MCU will make in the future, since it’s becoming harder to imagine a time when the MCU shall cease to function.

However, various productions currently being worked on hint at what the future may look like for the MCU. Perhaps encouraged by the success of Captain Marvel, we’re now within a tangible distance from the upcoming Black Widow movie, furthering the MCU’s growing roster of female-driven stories. Marvel’s overall evolution as a story-telling juggernaut continues unabated, with upcoming shows focusing on Loki, the Winter Solider, Falcon, Scarlet Witch and Vision for Disney+. Clearly, the demand is there to invest in characters that aren’t always the supposed stars of the films.

Avengers: Endgame opens as many doors as it closes. The stories and characters are there to keep the franchise going, as are the thematic differences, but it remains to be seen whether or not those stories and characters will be enough to get bums on seats, or whether superhero fatigue will finally start to seep into the franchise that defines the genre.

What moves do you think the Marvel Cinematic Universe needs to make to stay fresh and exciting? Let us know in the comments section below or send us a Tweet!

About the author

Fred McNamara