With the news dominated by seemingly omniscient beings refusing to act against the greatest challenge facing planet Earth, what better time for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to introduce its cosmic counterparts? Indeed, this weekend the Eternals – a celestial race of supers who have hidden away for thousands of years – will emerge on to cinema screens across the world to take on their evil counterparts, the Deviants.
So far, so Marvel, but initial reaction to the film has been curiously muted. Though a reliably unreliable metric, the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score has dropped to 53%, the lowest of any film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though, it should be noted, nowhere near as low as other Marvel and wider comic-book fare).
It’s by no means a washout, but the film has been criticised for its dense plotting and patchy CGI and, despite the efforts of Chloé Zhao in the director’s chair, it has seemingly been hampered by the idiosyncratic hallmarks of the MCU.
Marvel is very far from crisis stations, but its “fourth phase” has proven fickle. Notwithstanding the impact of the pandemic, the response to its films and TV properties has been uneven, with the Multiverse-shaped way ahead promising to make the universe ever more complex. This suggests a huge amount of confidence, but the MCU is in danger of fluffing its creative lines.
While films such as Iron Man 3 and Thor: Ragnarok were comedic riffs on the parameters that the MCU so clearly defined, its latest offerings have balked at the chance to deliver something new, and suffered for it. Cate Shortland’s Black Widow felt as if it was forced from above to quip its way out of a much darker, frankly more interesting tone. It’s a film, too, that was released years too late. Set after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, the film lacked meaningful stakes, given that Marvel fans already knew the eventual fate of the super-assassin.
The studio’s TV offerings have been similarly patchy. WandaVision began with an intriguing set of sitcom vignettes, before descending into a final episode replete with bland CGI superheroism. Elements of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier provided the solid narrative and action-based beats we have come to expect from Marvel, but the series as a whole struggled to find its tone.
The same is true with the studio’s foray into animation with What If…?. Though designed to be varied in tone, and predicated on the butterfly effect that one small change could have had on the MCU, the results have been erratic. Even the studio’s strongest offering, Loki, fundamentally altered the inner mechanics of the MCU, an issue that may hamper its future accessibility for the casual observer.
The box-office takings have remained healthy, and this is of course an important bottom line. More so, the longevity of the genre does surely rely on it taking wider narrative and thematic swings. Introducing creators such as Zhao is fundamentally a good thing for the richness of the MCU, even if her subtle sensibilities may have been blotted out on a superheroic canvas.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings thrived with a crackling cast and thundering score, but also introduced wuxia-inflected action and new, refreshing layers of mythos to the MCU. Despite this, its final fight is staged within the confines of the superhero structure, and Marvel arguably needs to begin challenging the framework that it has proved so critical in popularising.
It is through the Multiverse, a concept steeped in comic-book lore, that it is looking to redefine the superhero story. In an interview with Empire, director Jon Watts described the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home as “Spider-Man: Endgame”. As such, the intention is clear: use this cosmic quirk to fill the screen with as many pre-loved characters as possible. Alfred Molina’s Doc Oc, first seen in Sam Raimi’s 2004 Spider-Man 2, will appear, and is likely to be joined by previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield.
While said glibly, using one MCU film to describe another is symptomatic of the wider creative problems the studio is facing. In 2022, Benedict Cumberbatch will return as the titular hero in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, where he is due to come up against Scarlet Witch. What’s more, Thor will be making an appearance in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy 3. Tying all these characters together is a fanboy’s dream, but it also risks bamboozling those who aren’t fully up to date.
Just like the comic books it is derived from, the MCU has spun a wide-ranging mythology. For so long, this has been the foundation of the universe’s strength, with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame capping off this strategy in a swirl of bombast. Yet Marvel’s concerted attempts to bring this cinematic universe together risk creating an impenetrable narrative web worthy of Spider-Man himself.