The Marvel Cinematic Universe has ruled Hollywood for more than a decade. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon, but it appears cracks are showing in the edifice. After being a no-show in 2020, it has had a mediocre (if you are being generous) year so far.
For me, at least, it is no longer a certainty that you will get your money’s worth if you take the trouble to watch an MCU movie or a show by going to a nearby theatre or log in to your Disney+ Hotstar account.
Earlier, even the worst MCU products — The Incredible Hulk and Thor: Dark World come to mind — had moments of fun despite messy plotting and dreadfully dull villains.
But this year, most of MCU’s releases were a chore to go through, and that’s something one does not normally say about this brand. In 2021, Marvel Studios, the company behind MCU, also forayed into television, with mixed to really bad results.
Let’s talk about that first.
Marvel Studios has a fixed formula for its movies. It goes something like: the hero acquires powers, goes through struggles that are usually of personal or of familial nature, overcomes them, and it all ends with a CGI, and special effects-driven whirlwind of a battle in the end — typical superhero stuff. Of course, there are significant departures like Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok and most recently, Eternals. But even in those, the usual MCU tropes — witty one-liners that often seem out of place, for instance — are very much present.
But the studio has no formula for its television shows, and perhaps for good reason. The medium is defined by its writers (as opposed to directors in movies). I don’t usually bat for studio interference, but in its TV shows, a greater supervision from Kevin Feige might have saved them.
WandaVision and Loki were the most interesting of the lot and they began really well. Both had some interesting ideas. But they squandered all that great buildup to provide atrocious (in case of WandaVision) and unsatisfying (in case of Loki) conclusions.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier opened with a superb, slick action scene that would not have looked out of place in a Mission: Impossible movie. And it all went downhill afterwards. Hawkeye was dud from the beginning and remains so. Perhaps the character was not very interesting to begin with. Hailee Steinfeld is good as Kate Bishop, though.
I am excluding What If…? from the conversation because as far we know, the alternate scenarios it presents will not have any ramifications in the main MCU timeline. Thus far, Marvel Studios’ experiment with television is mediocre.
Now, let’s come to the movies.
Scarlett Johansson-starrer Black Widow was originally meant to be released in summer of 2020, but of course the Covid-19 pandemic spoiled those plans. It was more grounded than most MCU films, but was anyway steeped in everything that makes MCU, well, MCU. Natasha Romanoff, who we are told is just a human, did not seem to get hurt even if she fell from multiple stories, was thrown into a wall, fell out of a car, and so on. Add to that, the plot was, to say it politely, standard superhero fare.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a worthy attempt in representation, but was again hobbled by the fact that it is in MCU. Another superhero with daddy issues? Simu Liu was great in the titular role, and so was Awkwafina. The action scenes were great, except the mess that was the final act in which one CGI monster fought another. Or something. But the movie needed more Tony Leung and a little bit less exoticisation of Chinese culture. The film clearly suffered because it was an MCU film, and had to follow a set of unwritten rules.
Ah, Eternals. The only MCU film to get a “rotten” Rotten Tomatoes score, this Chloe Zhao directorial had promised a fresh experience that was unlike anything we had seen before. And indeed, it has a leisurely pace, naturally-lit cinematography, lots of conversations. And the premise was certainly interesting — that a group of immortals have secretly been on the earth for millennia and live double lives. A capable director comfortable with popcorn cinema might have been a better choice. Zhao sadly wasted all the potential.
Spider-Man: No Way Home, the last MCU film this year, may just bring back that lost goodwill. The film has all the required ingredients. It has a huge, Avengers-level scale thanks to the introduction of multiverse with multiple characters crossing over from other MCU films and even previous Spider-Man movie series. It also has a sense of finality with it like Endgame had, as with this film Marvel and Sony’s contract to share the character expires.
And a lot of evidence, but not official promos, suggests that we will see Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield reprising Spidey too. Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, and Jamie Foxx, Thomas Haden Church, and Rhys Ifans will return as Green Goblin, Doctor Otto Octavius, Electro, Sandman, and Lizard, respectively. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange replaces Tony Stark as Peter Parker’s mentor.
Spider-Man No Way Home is slated for release on December 16.