A Solid Middle, but What Else?
Bad Writing and the MCU
What do we care about when we go to watch a movie? This isn't just about the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe., although we'll get to that, but I'm asking in general. What makes us care about a movie? What has us coming back again and again, to all the films that come after, when a first movie gives us the introduction we care about? It's character. It's someone in the film we can latch onto and care about. If we care about them, about their journey, then we get invested and want to keep going through all the various adventures they have after that.
When you go back and look at the rise of the MCU, it was built on the backs of the characters. We had strong introductions to those characters, learned who they were, what they were about, what made them flawed and human, and we celebrated as they grew and embraced the hero they were meant to be. They went on, naturally, a "Hero's Journey". Iron Man, Captain America, and even Thor gave us a character who grows, evolves, and changes, all while we understand and follow them on that journey.
The one film in Phase 1 that failed? The Incredible Hulk. For all its flaws, the biggest issue with that film is that the hero's journey happens before we even get to the character. Because The Incredible Hulk had been preceded by 2003's Hulk, the decision was made not to redo the hero's introduction (even though the origins of these two versions of Hulk are very different). We effectively jump into act two of his journey and never get the character development we need to latch onto him as a person. Who is Bruce Banner? Why should we care? The eventual crossover, The Avengers, does more to build him as a person and flesh out his character than his solo outing ever did.
I think on this because character is one of the things I feel was really lacking from Phase 4 (which, I think eventually, is going to be known as "Marvel's Forgotten Phase"). As most commentators Online will note, Phase 4 of the MCU was the weakest of the cinematic universe's run so far. Blame it on whatever you want (COVID was a factor, but I think not having a villain to build towards, clearly, was its own issue) but the fourth major chapter of the MCU was marked by a lot of films and shows that were hard to care about, many exacerbated by characters we never got a strong connection to. And that, in large part, is because Marvel has been rushing their characters.
One of the things people appreciate about Phase 1 is that it built to something. If you watched the five films that led to The Avengers, each took pains to build up each character so that, when they all met up, we cared about them. There was meat in that crossover so that each character could do something, could have an arc, and it built on who they were from their own movies. If the studio had just slapped a bunch of people we didn't really know into a crossover we would have had, well, Justice League (there are clear reasons why that movie failed). But if you go back and look at Phase 4 (which started with WandaVision and ended with The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special) what did it actually do?
Arguably, the biggest point of Phase 4 was to introduce the concept of "The Multiverse". This was alluded to, actually, in the last film of Phase 3: Spider-man: Far From Home. That film had a villain, Mysterio, who said he was from out in the multiverse. He was lying, but that little seed was planted. Which, really, makes this SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002. sequel feel more like a Phase 4 film, but that's not how Marvel groups it. Okay, fine. The multiverse!
Of the works in Phase 4, we had Loki, What If...?, Spider-man: No Way Home, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness dedicated to the multiverse. We could also throw in Moon Knight if you want to count it's narrative diversions as "multiversal". That's five (or six) works out of a total of 17 that actually address the multiverse, and not all of them really explored it in depth. One could argue that the rules governing the multiverse in Spider-man and Moon Knight were different from Loki, What If, and Doctor Strange. Its arc, from a narrative perspective, really didn't support its goal.
And if the multiverse was the goal -- establishing it, showing how it worked, and giving us our first view into all that could be -- what did it build to? Not an AvengersMarvel's answer to DC's Justice League, this team features many of Marvel's biggest superheroes working together to protect the world and avenge its evils. movie, or anything like it's ilk. This was the first chapter in the whole MCU that didn't build to a big crossover. Arguably the most "Avengers-like" crossover we got was in What If when all of its episodes built to a larger crossover episode. That was great, but it also came five works (out of 17) into the phase. The universe didn't build to it. We realistically built not to a crossover but to another phase. This was all setup.
That might have been okay, even if it did all feel like table setting, if the characters within the phase had been established properly. Black Widow is all about Natasha learning a dark truth of her past and going off to right a wrong. Except most of the film is padding about her family, who the film doesn't work hard enough to establish properly, while the villain is relegated to the last act which has to reveal him, establish him as a person that exists in Natasha's past, and give us every single plot point the film didn't show us because it was too busy with action sequences instead. And this is an issue with a lot of the works in this phase.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (which is great, despite itself), rushes the characters introduction, burying a lot of his important details in flashbacks while not even showing us key, pivotal moments from his past that would have fleshed him out as a person (it tells, not shows, which weakens the character building). Hawkeye introduces Kate Bishop, who is played fantastically by Hailee Steinfeld, but her character's past is rushed so we can get her in with the first Hawkeye, Clint Barton, and get to the action. Key moments from her life are zoomed past when we really needed them to make her work as a character. Moon Knight's hero, America in Doctor Strange 2, and the werewolf in Werewolf By Night all suffer from being thrown into the action before their characters are ready, with their important details relegated to flashbacks later, or never shown at all.
This is only compounded, of course, by Marvel's "Third Act Problem". We all know this one: Marvel movies follow a formula, and they always build to the same kind of bombastic action sequences that stand in for character drama and real catharsis. Why have a deep moment between hero and villain when we can do CGI and punching instead? This has been an issue since the very first film, Iron Man, and only a few of the films in the series have the kind of truly great ending that make you crave watching the films over and over again. I enjoy the MCU greatly but even I know their third acts are generally their weakest parts. I remember the character building; I'm fuzzier on the bombast. And when you couple a weak third act (which is sometimes really weak when drawn out in the various mini-series over on Disney+Disney's answer in the streaming service game, Disney+ features the studio's (nearly) full back catalog, plus new movies and shows from the likes of the MCU and Star Wars.) with the poor character building we're getting now, we end up with very hollow films and shows.
Of the 17 works in this phase I can count the number of them I truly loved on one hand. WandaVision, Loki, Spider-man: No Way Home, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. Of those, four were for established characters, two were (effectively) direct sequels, and only one was an original new part of the franchise. That would be She-Hulk and even that one, arguably, built a lot of good will off the characters of the Hulk and Daredevil, both of whom showed up. She-Hulk got her own series, which is great, but it was closely tied into established characters.
Of the new works, I can't think of one that wasn't flawed in some way. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is just bland, through and through. Shag-Chi rushes its character's backstory and then has a weak third act. What If...? was amazingly uneven if its episode quality (although I did enjoy the series overall). Moon Knight was a confused mess. Ms. Marvel was far more interesting before she gained super powers. And while I enjoyed Werewolf By Night and what it went for, it was pretty shallow when it came to story. That's a lot of misses on the docket for one phase.
Among the various flaws in the Marvel formula, and this is the thing that I think kills its third acts, is that the CGI production starts well before the actors are on set. Marvel writes towards its endings, and the CGI sequences (which aren't usually overseen by the film's director) are stitched in at the action beats for the films. This is how Marvel admits they do it, and it's why it's so hard to change direction on a story as it's being filmed. Movies change a lot in production, with stories being tweaked as things are filmed. If something doesn't work, you adjust it. But you can't do that for the end of a film if the CGI is already in production. Your ending is locked, sometimes before the script is even fully done.
As a writer I can attest that this isn't a great way to script a film. You have scenes you write, things the characters do, and suddenly a story you thought was going to go one way takes a narrative diversion. It's good for the story, and the characters, and it makes the script more engaging. You can have an ending in mind but you also have to let the story dictate its own direction. Marvel, though, can't do that. The formula is rigid, the CGI is locked, and the film is happening exactly as the outline dictates, no matter what.
And that was fine enough, for the most part, so long as the two acts that came before were good. But Marvel has lost its way on its character introductions leading to a weak first act often enough, and weaker third acts in most of its works. That leaves us with, what? A bunch of middles? Only The Kids in the Hall could pull that off, and it was still very silly. What we need from Marvel are better character introductions (whether or not we accept weak third acts as well). Without that, their works are going to continue to feel flabby as we move into Phase 5.