An exhausting rant about Marvel Cinematic Universe fatigue

The+MCU+has+been+around+for+well+over+a+decade%3B+how+much+longer+will+it+take+before+it+wears+off%3F

Marvel Studios

The MCU has been around for well over a decade; how much longer will it take before it wears off?

Jake Panek, Staff Writer

Warning: the following words are my opinion. If you disagree, just keep that to yourself and know that you are a terrible person for disagreeing with me.

One of the earliest and most vivid memories I have of being in a movie theater was seeing “The Avengers” during its opening weekend. I had definitely seen Marvel movies up until that point—Robert Downey Jr. stumbling around on the verge of death in “Iron Man” was a terrifying scene that was quickly ingrained into my young mind—but that was the first time I had seen something on a scale that epic in a theater. Sure, my elementary school brain couldn’t comprehend what was going on beyond the bare minimum plot points, but what could’ve been cooler than watching a bunch of people fight massive aliens that were destroying New York City? At the time, I would likely say nothing. 

Flash forward around four and a half years to Christmas of 2017. For whatever reason—my best guess was that I saw its high rating on Rotten Tomatoes (way before realizing that those numbers mean basically nothing) or that this pretty big film critic guy Roger Ebert said it was a great movie—I had recorded “2001: A Space Odyssey” on Turner Classic Movies a week or two earlier and decided to watch it after the party winded down, and it’s hard to articulate just how momentous and formative that experience was. Here was a film that was almost fifty years older than me with long stretches where not much happened and dialogue was replaced with ambient noise or classical music, a seemingly scattershot sequence of events, vague philosophical themes and mind-boggling imagery—and yet, something deep down inside of me clicked. It was the first time I looked at film not as mere entertainment, but actual art. I immediately knew that film was my passion, and I started looking everywhere for classic, international and/or experimental films.

I wasn’t an insufferable, pretentious film nerd, though—not yet, at least. I went to see the new Marvel movies whenever they came out, but something started to feel… off. I still enjoyed these movies, sure, but the more movies I watched outside of the MCU, the harder it became to avoid the feeling that maybe I was outgrowing it or maybe it was outgrowing me. It’s now been almost over a decade since I first watched “The Avengers,” and it’s finally hit me: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is just exhausting.

I’ll just get this out of the way before I go any further, and this will make everything that I’m about to say make me seem like a contrarian: I actually enjoy most of the movies in the MCU. Some of them are genuinely great—if anything, I think there are more underrated Marvel movies than truly bad ones. So why, then, am I going to write an unnecessary amount of words criticizing something that I say I like? I like to look at it like this: McDonald’s is obviously not the best food, but it can hit the spot when you don’t want to have to put a ton of work into making a whole meal. It’s cheap and (usually) consistent, so it comes with no surprise that most people will agree that it’s not bad. But there are some people who eat from nowhere other than McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants, and that’s a problem. On top of being objectively unhealthy, only eating one type of food will lead some people to think of it as the only food there is. There are countless types of food from every style and country imaginable that most people will never bother to try because they’ve been conditioned to like the one thing that’s in their comfort zone and nothing more.

It’s frustrating, but not the least bit surprising. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the dominating force in film for over a decade now and will continue its reign for the foreseeable future, and while the massive amounts of people that consume such a popular franchise are directly responsible, what’s arguably both more important and interesting is how these movies are produced in what’s essentially a factory. The rigid plotting, hit-or-miss one-liners and overuse of CGI prevalent in nearly every movie, makes how they’re created seem no different than an assembly line that ticks all of the consumer-tested, scientifically approved boxes deemed necessary by the corporate overlords. Yes, there will occasionally be someone who’s truly exceptional at working in that factory, can have some fun and maybe even elevate whatever they’re making to a higher level—James Gunn, Shane Black, Ryan Coogler, etc.—but no matter how good-looking and well crafted the final product is, it’s still a product. 

Martin Scorsese may have inadvertently started a war with his words—as well as give interviewers the truly inspired idea of asking seemingly every indie filmmaker questions about their thoughts on the largest blockbuster entity instead of actual questions about filmmaking—but he was right from the start: Marvel movies are the film equivalent of theme park rides. It’s fun to be one of the first in line for a brand new roller coaster with a group of people that are out-of-their-mind hyped to experience what’s more or less the same track with different theming. But with each new ride, it’s starting to feel like something that I do just so I can ride it before everyone else and get to experience it while the excitement is still at its peak. It’s going on these rides on my own later, after every surprise and detail in them has been revealed and scrutinized to death and everybody has calmed down, where I realize that I’m not cherishing the ride itself so much as I am the memories of an enthusiastic crowd cheering over a character they recognize or that character doing a cool thing. To abruptly end this analogy, a truly great film shouldn’t need to be an event that you can only get maximum enjoyment from by experiencing it on opening night in a packed theater. Obviously every movie benefits from being seen in a theater, but the MCU’s continual emphasis on those cheer-worthy reveals is a decision that definitely won’t backfire the second those movies are watched outside of a theater—watching Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire’s reveals in “No Way Home” on my TV at home will probably feel like those videos of sitcoms with the laugh tracks removed.

Probably the biggest factor in the onset of my MCU fatigue, though, came with the advent of Disney+. I had heard of “Daredevil” and… those other Marvel shows that exist during their time on Netflix, but I never really had much of an interest in watching an entire series, especially ones that didn’t even tie into the ever-expanding web of a timeline that Kevin Feige had cooked up. Enter “WandaVision,” a venture into a new format and (at least according to the marketing) a new style for the MCU. I was genuinely intrigued by the mystery it promised, and for the first three episodes, I was convinced that it was one of the greatest things Marvel had done… and then it immediately delved back into the exact same formula that they always used and ended in the most frustratingly underwhelming way possible. The big issue here, though, isn’t that “WandaVision” hinted at greater potential for the universe before running too far on its leash and getting yanked onto its back, but that before I had any time to really process it, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” was released not even two weeks after its finale. A little over two weeks after “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” ended, “Loki” premiered. Four weeks after “Loki” ended, “What If…?” premiered. Seven weeks after “What If…?” ended, “Hawkeye” premiered. Fourteen weeks after “Hawkeye” ended, “Moon Knight,” premiered. For those of you counting at home, that is six shows all in a span of less than two years—not counting “Ms. Marvel” and “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law,” which are slated to be released in June and August of 2022.

These shows themselves aren’t problematic; again, I think some of them are great—“Loki” is the furthest an MCU entry has gone in a new direction while also maintaining a strong story, and “Hawkeye”’s unabashedly cheesy and festive tone is what every one of these movies and shows should strive for. (I guess those two are the only great ones, but still) And in terms of business, anyone with a brain could tell you that the MCU canon expanding to TV was inevitable, especially with a shiny new streaming service to release all of their shows on. In theory, it seems beneficial: smaller characters and their stories that would never even be considered for the big screen get told and the fans get more content in-between the big event movies. Win-win, right? Well, if viewers are willing to sacrifice quality for quantity, maybe. That’s really what most of it comes back to, those factory conditions that Marvel so strictly enforces. Having two or three major features be released a year is already a lot for a team of overworked and underpaid VFX artists and editors, but throwing in almost double the amount of shows is a recipe for disaster. It’s impossible to balance a workload like that and not slack on multiple projects, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes evident—it may not even be that long, what with the reactions that the “She-Hulk” trailer has been getting.

So, what am I really getting at with all of this? I can babble on for as long as I like, but is there a definitive answer to the biggest, most unnecessarily tiring pop culture war in our modern cinematic landscape? Is the MCU the peak of epic blockbuster filmmaking? Is it the nadir of a bleak corporate monopoly that has the film industry and movie theaters in a chokehold? Well, for one, just slow down. If movies like “Multiverse of Madness” are supposed to be major events, maybe don’t release them while there are still theaters showing “No Way Home.” Maybe don’t treat your shows like padding in-between the films, either; TV is a much smaller medium, but maybe if you space things apart, you can showcase the full potential that these shows have.

Also, maybe—and I know that this is a truly wild idea—take a risk or two. I may not have loved “Multiverse of Madness” because of how it failed to balance Raimi’s style and the standard filter that Marvel tried to put over it, but it’s one of the only films in the entire MCU with some levels of gore and horror-like elements. The formula that’s been employed for nearly the entire lifespan of these movies works, clearly, but its expiration date will come eventually. (Right?) 

Neither of those are solutions that A.) have any real chance of happening or B.) apply to common viewers. So for those of you reading this who love Marvel movies and hate the people who don’t like them, here’s some advice, and take it from someone who has seen so many useless debates over nothing on the internet. It’s perfectly alright to like the MCU, but why should someone criticizing something you say you enjoy make you enjoy that thing any less, especially when that thing is quite literally the largest film franchise in the entire world that the majority of people like? All that means in my eyes is that you just aren’t confident in your own opinion, that you’ve just gone along with the wave of popular opinion and never critically thought about what it is that you’re consuming—I mean, I’ve clearly been there. Let people enjoy things, sure, but that also means that you have to let people not enjoy things. 

The only real thing that we can do as an audience—other than bicker with one another, at least—is just sit and wait. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has come along at a point where the medium of moving pictures itself hasn’t even been around for two centuries, and it’ll be interesting to see just how long it can last for—or how prolonged its death will be. One thing is for sure, though: I should probably take a break from it for a while.