This year has been experimental for Marvel. After no major releases in 2020, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has branched out into new, fully integrated TV shows and hybrid blockbuster releases to stay close to its main movie offerings. Much of it has received praise and adoration, but recent releases have failed to capture the imagination in the same way as previous fan favorites.
From the summer highs of Loki and What If… ?, the MCU is on a downward trajectory like never before. Black Widow and Shang-Chi are burdened by two dozen other films that weigh on them, without feeling completely comfortable starting their own direction. Eternals, which at least tries to offer something more mentally and emotionally challenging, suffers from being too detailed and slow.
This meekness is reflected in the box office, which, even if it allows a global pandemic, is frustrating. For the first time since 2014, no MCU releases have entered the top six highest grossing films of the year worldwide, with No Time to Die, Fast & Furious 9 and Godzilla vs Kong sitting comfortably above them. In fact, the most successful movie of the year with the Marvel brand – Venom: Let There Be Carnage – is not even a MCU entry.
Things are not much better on the small screen. Hawkeye, focusing on the mildest avenger of all, has reported the lowest viewing figures any live MCU Disney + series so far. The franchise the future may still look exciting, but critically and commercially, the MCU is more on the ropes than ever.
Hopefully Spider-Man: No Way Home can be hovering to remind everyone what these movies can do. The campaign for Tom Holland’s third release as the most iconic of all Marvel heroes (at least before the MCU) surpasses any other release this year. And it desperately needs to offer.
This is the eighth Spider-Man movie in the last two decades. No Way Home will enjoy this, using the multiverse as an excuse to bring back the bad guys from Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s movies, from Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin to Jamie Foxx’s Electro. While this is a cause for excitement, it raises a difficult question: is the MCU so uncertain about itself that it feels the need to enjoy nostalgia so obviously? This is not an exercise in creative freedom. Instead, it looks like a nervous breakdown of a studio worrying about its continued success. In this way, the MCU risks shooting itself in the foot, prioritizing fleeting emotions and dramatic character returns in the place of a story that realizes how much less can be more.
The plot structure behind MCU movies, for so much of their success, also threatens to burden No Way Home. The arrival of Dr Strange presents Peter Parker once again with a pseudo-father figure to get rid of his personal insecurities and engage in witty jokes. After Vulture in Homecoming and Mysterio in Far From Home, this is the third time this story has been played. Even in the trailers there are unwelcome indications that this is not a role that will suit Strange (“let Scooby-Doo this crap” is just a terrible line). If you’ve been able to watch No Way Home with a checklist, noting clichés like the possible sacrifice of a loved one, a malicious line of thugs, and some awkward attempts at humor, you know something is wrong.
As the MCU has grown, so does the need to dive into the cult of previous films, in this case to transcend the common common universe itself. In Shang-Chi, the re-introduction of Trevor Slattery does little to make the story any better. With the Eternals, discussions about the Avengers and Thanos feel compelled. They could have been removed completely and the movie would not have been worse for that. Becoming part of an overwhelmingly intertwined series of movies and TV shows means that every new movie or series struggles to stand on its own two feet. There is a lot going on in Spider-Man’s latest release to bring the MCU back to solid ground, but there is no guarantee it will.
Hopefully, No Way Home will revitalize a franchise that means so much to so many people. It may be a great success, allaying fears about the quality of the MCU’s future. But if it does not, it could prove to be a serious blow. Almost all the other releases this year were partly experimental, introducing new characters and stories. No Way Home is a return to a tried and tested fan favorite – or at least that’s the plan. Why if a movie starring one of the most iconic superheroes of all time fails to rekindle the MCU fire, what will it do?
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