Now that Marvel Studios has wrapped up 11 years of superhero storytelling with Avengers: Endgame, which has made more money than any other movie in the history of cinema, the company finally felt comfortable telling people what’s next. At last week’s San Diego Comic-Con, the studio announced and/or confirmed its next nine movies, including new heroes, expected sequels, and a few surprises. But the biggest surprise is that the new, Avenger-less Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t make much sense.
To be fair, Marvel Studios is in a bit of a trap, even if it’s one of its own making. Two of its three founding characters are gone, thanks to the exits of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans — which also means the Avengers movies are done, at least for the time being. These are shoes that require several billion dollars to fill, so it makes sense that the studio would need to try some creative ways to do so. But that said, the choices Marvel has made for its upcoming slate are… unexpected. Here are the three biggest questions raised by the next phase of the biggest superhero movies in the world.
1) Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe really becoming a multiverse?
Apparently so, since the Doctor Strange sequel is titled Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. A multiverse seemed kind of inevitable when the Avengers smashed the normal MCU timeline with hammers in Endgame, despite the movie (very strangely) going out of its way to point out it was an enormous problem. Still, when the existence of the multiverse was seemingly confirmed in Spider-Man: Far From Home, I sighed with relief when Mysterio’s parallel Earth origins were revealed as a lie. Obviously, I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.
Here’s the problem with a multiverse: It means some of the stories we’re going to see don’t count. If Doctor Strange visits a new universe and helps save the day there, it’s not nearly as compelling as him saving the universe audiences have already been invested in for over a decade. This is an enormous problem for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the greatest strength of which has always been its continuity, how every movie connects in order to build to a stunning, epic climax like Endgame. Worse, giving non-nerds multiple Earths and timelines and versions of characters to keep track of could very easily make the simplicity of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe a convoluted mess that could turn off part of the audience.
As best as I can figure it, the only benefit Marvel gets by introducing the multiverse is that it affords the possibility — eventually — of bringing in a new Iron Man and Captain America, with “being from a different universe” being offered as an explanation for why different actors will be taking the roles made iconic by Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. Otherwise, the potential problems raised by this choice seem to far outweigh any benefits it might bring.
2) Why the hell is Marvel making an Eternals movie?
It’s a bit surprising that Marvel is making Shang-Chi its next superhero, because 1) he’s not a superhero, he’s just good at martial arts, and 2) he’s only been an occasional supporting character in the comics since his own series ended in 1983 (after a 10-year run). However, as the movie is giving the Marvel Cinematic Universe its first franchise headlined by a character of Asian descent, that’s more than enough reason to be happy that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings is on its way.
It’s the planned Eternals movie that really makes zero sense. It may have been a long, long time since Shang-Chi’s heyday, but at least he had a heyday. Marvel has literally made less than 60 Eternals comics since their debut in 1976, and the longest series lasted only 19 issues. Comic book fans have consistently shown they neither want nor care for the Eternals characters, and yet now, somehow, they’re headlining what is presumably going to be the grandest, most epic film in the MCU’s upcoming slate.
Explaining who the Eternals are is immensely difficult, which is a large part of the reason why making a movie about them is so bizarre. Here’s a shot:, they’re gods on Earth made by much bigger, more powerful gods called the Celestials in order to protect Earth from the Deviants, whom the Celestials also made for some reason. Now, the Eternals aren’t like Thor and the characters of Marvel’s Norse mythology, who are really just long-lived, hardier-than-normal superheroes with reasonably defined magic powers. The Eternals are much closer to being genuine gods on Earth, because they live millions of years, are close to omnipotent, and can somehow merge together to form a collective consciousness called the Uni-Mind. They are out there.
More importantly, their only contribution to the Marvel comics universe — their only stories — have been as a conduit to the Marvel’s theological cosmology, which includes the Celestials, but also personified entities like Eternity, Death, and a whole host of gods and divine forces and beings and horrors created at the dawn of the universe that are an unbelievable mess. Even a streamlined version seems like it would be so off-putting to mass audiences that it makes a multiverse seem like a fantastic idea in comparison.
Getting metaphysically spiritual is an area the Marvel Cinematic Universe has not explored, and I sincerely doubt it should. The only reason I can think of that Marvel Studios would make an Eternals movie is because it desperately wants to make an Inhumans movie but can’t, after the truly garbage TV miniseries made them the company’s most toxic live-action property. Basically, the Eternals are weirder, less comprehensible knockoffs of the Inhumans, who were already weirder, less comprehensible knockoffs of the X-Men. (Fun fact: The Eternals are such essential characters in the comics that they all recently committed suicide off-panel of the current Avengers series.)
Of course, the Eternals film was in the works long before the Fox acquisition, so even though Marvel has the X-Men movie rights back now, they’re stuck with it. I know everything Marvel Studios touches has turned to gold, and sheer momentum will likely get audiences in seats… but it also has a very good chance of being the MCU’s first major misfire (not involving Ed Norton’s Hulk).
3) What’s Marvel’s big plan?
As mentioned above, Avengers: Endgame was the culmination of 11 years of cinematic storytelling, with almost every movie used to build an overarching storyline with an all-encompassing final act so epic it needed two movies to tell. Also as mentioned above, this is the power and the allure of the MCU: All the movies matter. This is what gets audiences to come to not just a few movies, but every single one of them, because they know they need to see them to truly comprehend the full story. It’s such an effective tactic that other studios have been trying to replicate it for years. Marvel Studios isn’t going to suddenly start free-styling their films now.
That said, I cannot fathom how these movies could possibly tie together to make a single story.
The final film on the docket is Thor: Love and Thunder, which will feature Natalie Portman as the titular thunder god alongside Chris Hemsworth, for which I couldn’t be more excited.
It’s not anything like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, who just needed to be put in a room together and given a common enemy to fight. The upcoming films are wildly different. First up is a Black Widow spy movie set in the past (a necessity because of the character’s death in Endgame), followed by the ever-baffling quasi-divine nonsense of Eternals. Then Shang-Chi will be a martial arts flick, potentially with magic, thanks to its antagonist the Mandarin. That magic connection could tie into the second Doctor Strange film, except Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness really makes it sound like he’s going to be hanging out with heroes from a different Earth entirely. The final film on the docket is Thor: Love and Thunder, which will feature Natalie Portman as the titular thunder god alongside Chris Hemsworth, for which I couldn’t be more excited.
Those are all of Marvel’s scheduled movies scheduled through 2020 and 2021, but Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige confirmed two other films that we all knew were coming: Black Panther 2, which, if it matches the first movie, will be heavily focused on the Earth-bound nation of Wakanda and its future-tech, and the Captain Marvel sequel, which will no doubt primarily be an interstellar science fiction film. Then there are the two films people didn’t know were coming: The return of Blade — now starring Mahershala Ali as the vampire hunter — along with Marvel’s attempt to finally make a Fantastic Four movie that works.
I can envision a second, Endgame-level movie in another 11 years in which the threat is a godlike cosmic entity on the level of the planet-eating Galactus. This raises the stakes on Thanos, but more importantly the Fantastic Four deal with these things — Galactus in particular — on the regular. The cosmic aspect ropes in Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, Thor, and Black Panther (thanks to being king of the world’s most technologically advanced nation), but I have a very hard time envisioning what Shang-Chi and Blade bring to this party. (Black Widow will still be dead, presumably.) I guess the Eternals could help set this up, but it’s still impossible for me to see them mesh in any sensible way with any other characters, if only because they’re so powerful they make all the other heroes basically redundant. And how in the hell could introducing the multiverse improve an overarching story instead of muddying it?
Obviously, just because I can’t imagine all this working doesn’t mean that Marvel doesn’t have a plan, and based on their track record, odds are it’s a pretty good one. Even if there isn’t, there’s a lot to like about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s future, primarily its increased diversity. And that’s not counting those five direct-from-the movies Disney+ shows on the way, starring Loki, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and others.
Still, for the very first time ever, I can’t even imagine what Marvel Studios is thinking. In a way, that’s extremely exciting. But there’s still a small, tiny voice in my head that’s worried we may be about to witness an 11-year-long sophomore superhero slump.