Marvel is Changing. Here’s How (and Why).

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SPOILERS for each project in Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe below their respective subheadings. SPOILERS for Phases 1, 2, and 3 of Marvel throughout.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is changing. Since its gargantuan climax of character and spectacle, Avengers: Endgame, released in 2019, the interconnected world of comic book heroes and villains has progressed towards a massive shift in tone and diversity of tone. After such an epic finale, the question Marvel executives were asking was, “where do we go from here?” They asked themselves: our goal being expanded viewership, how should our universe’s content contrast to what we have established? Their answer is what has defined the past phase of projects Marvel has released, and has gradually shifted the consensus of general audience members and devout Marvel fans alike from, “how is Marvel going to improve on Endgame” to “Marvel is incapable of improving on Endgame.” MBHS sophomore Peyton Moon has been to “every single Marvel movie, went to the very first Avengers movie and loved it, and [it] was great.” That is, until Phase Four began – “that’s when it started getting really horrible.” Look no further than the average Rotten Tomatoes score of Phase Four films – about 74.8 – compared to the average scores of the other three phases – 80, 81, and 89.1 – to solidify this consensus as fact. Incorporating the opinions of Morro Bay students, this reporter sought to build a comprehensive opinion on the Marvel projects of new… and how they seem to be getting worse.

WandaVision | Composite Score: 80.43

The first project of Phase Four, WandaVision promised an incredibly high bar. An intriguing mystery styled after sitcoms from various decades, the show follows Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff. Each episode features a theme song, sets, and costumes in the style of a different decade’s situational comedy: I Love Lucy, for instance, in the 50s episode. Each week, rapt viewers tuned in to this genre-bending, thrilling series, with sophomore Mia Bennett professing that she “was intrigued the whole time, wondering ‘Oh my God, is this person gonna die?’” The show reveals that Wanda is the mythically powerful Scarlet Witch, mentally enslaving a town and reanimating her dead husband Vision to live out a perfect, made-for-television life. She has become a monster, willing to hurt others in order to allay her own grief.

Elizabeth Olsen received enormous acclaim for her tragic role, even receiving a surprise Emmy nomination for her layered and brilliant work. The final third of the show seems to have been what largely prevented WandaVision from reaching rave status – Bennett said that she was “a little less intrigued… until we found out the final stuff.” The Marvel formula had finally encroached upon the show, forcing it to fill an episode with the typical action fare that the show had done such an excellent job straying away from. The Daily Beast praised WandaVision for “manag[ing] to put a fresh (and small-scale) spin on what has become a world-conquering franchise behemoth,” with Decider remarking that the show paid heartfelt tribute to the sitcom format.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier | Composite Score: 69.71

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Phase Four’s sophomore series, was met with unenthusiastic yet favorable reactions: in a nutshell, very few people disliked the show, but even fewer loved it. The show follows Sam Wilson (the Falcon) and Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier) after the death of their mentor and friend, Captain America. They must grudgingly work together against a terrorist group of super soldiers known as the Flag Smashers, discovering the moral ramifications of their mission and encountering John Walker, the new government-sponsored Captain America. Falcon’s empathic deconstruction of its characters via performances from Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, and Wyatt Russell. The ending to the fourth episode in particular has stuck with this writer due to Russell’s furiously excellent acting.

However, the show’s lazy sense of pacing made it dramatically worse – some scenes so quick that they become an uncertain blur of conflicting motivations, others so slow that half their dialogue could be cut. The focus on Bucky and Sam’s emotional responses was also overindulgent, with Mia Bennett exclaiming that the show was “focusing way too much on the fact that Captain America is dead. Yes, he’s dead. OK, cool. He died like 4 or 5 movies ago. We all know!” Nonetheless, Mia did enjoy the show, saying “it got good once they actually started putting the bad guy in it… the villain actually had a good origin story and you could actually empathize with the characters.” IndieWire described the show as “a buddy flick mostly running on autopilot,” while Consequence remarked that it has “something winsome, if slightly average, in store for our heroes.”

Loki | Composite Score: 83.71

Perhaps the only Phase Four project not to be responded to with any major complaint, Loki can only be described as a monumental smash hit. The series bests WandaVision’s composite score, in part thanks to this writer, who absolutely adored the show’s enthralling antics. Though Thor’s mischievous adopted brother Loki met his untimely demise in Infinity War, the time-altering events of Endgame caused him to pick up the Tesseract, resulting in his immediate arrest by the Time Variance Authority, a bureaucratic organization that polices the “Sacred Timeline.” Thanks to immersive production design, scrupulous special effects, and one of television’s great scores composed by Natalie Holt, Loki pulls the viewer into a reality that is at once hilarious, cerebral, surrealist and Kafkaesque. The show continually falls in on itself, introducing new layers of trickery that culminate in, thus far, the moment with the most ramifications in all of Phase 4.

With its perplexing plot points, unhinged characters, and overall erudite attitude, Loki was probably intended to be a niche show, likely targeted at audience members who don’t desire a straightforward story. However, Loki is so excellent that it appeals universally. Junior Anthony Frere opined that “it had a pretty good plot and the timeline stuff was extremely interesting,” and his fellow 11th grader Thomas Standridge remarked “I don’t know. I can’t think of anything that I disliked.” The Gazette called Loki “clever, bold, and flat out fascinating” and Collider exclaimed that the show’s “most exciting [twist] is its deep investment in understanding its central character at his best and worst, asking some truly tough questions against the backdrop of a time travel lark.”

Black Widow | Composite Score: 66.85

Phase Four’s cinematic selection started off not with a bang, but with a small pail of lukewarm water that is Black Widow the least profitable Marvel film since Captain America: The First Avenger. The film follows Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff in the period of time after Captain America: Civil War, returning to her Russian home and allying with her adopted family to take down the oppressive Soviet training program, the Red Room, in which she was raised. However, the film also seemed to garner a consensus response of “too little, too late.” The bewildering decision to give Natasha a standalone movie after she was killed off during Endgame, after denying her one for so long, was bewildering. 

Nevertheless, the film was mostly well-received, with Thomas Standridge commenting that he “liked the family aspect… they brought in her dad and sister, and I like that reunion… [it was] fun to watch.” And indeed, the family elements are without a doubt the best part of Black Widow, with David Harbour and Florence Pugh – playing Natasha’s father and sister respectively – being so memorable and charismatic that they easily remedy even the film’s most generic moments. SlashFilm thought that “Black Widow is at its best when it’s a wacky family drama… but Marvel films can’t content themselves with staying small, and Black Widow falls victim to [an overabundance of action scenes],” with the Los Angeles Times also noting the terrific family dynamic yet calling out the subpar, action-packed third act.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings | Composite Score: 74.14

The first project of Phase Four to introduce a new hero as its main character, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a mitigating step up from Black Widow, outdoing it commercially and critically. The film follows Shang-Chi as he is brought back to his home in China where his father Wenwu, leader of the clandestine organization the Ten Rings, is called by a mysterious voice to bring his late wife back to life with the titular rings. However, the voice is more sinister than he believes, so Shang must confront his past in order to prevent his father from inadvertently destroying their realm. Audiences were in overwhelming agreement about Shang-Chi‘s family dynamics – Hong Kong movie star Tony Leung, and Marvel newcomer Simu Liu, were praised for their roles as father and son, their final confrontation carrying genuine emotional weight. 

The first two acts are a briskly paced journey with phenomenal martial arts choreography, but issues lie in the film’s third act, which replaces this choreography with utterly useless computer-generated shenanigans. It is revealed that the Dweller-in-Darkness, an imprisoned soul-sucking demon, is calling to Wenwu so it can be set free. These world-shattering stakes come as sudden and unwelcome antitheses to the film thus far – the ensuing battle is nothing but unequivocally unnecessary CGI nonsense. Junior student Brody reflects, “I liked the action of [Shang-Chi], but the villain was kinda weird – it was his dad, but also a demon or something?” The critical response was equally confused, with Variety calling the final act “brain-numbing supernatural mayhem” and USA Today’s positive review nonetheless criticizing the act’s “involved mythology.”

Eternals | Composite Score: 58.71

Unfortunately for Marvel’s Phase Four, its worst film yet was about to release, After her independent drama Nomadland, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Director, Chloé Zhao was picked up by Marvel to direct Eternals, to dismaying results. Despite a 200 million dollar budget (40 times the size of Nomadland), Eternals – which features a group of cosmic individuals tasked with saving humanity – is an unprecedented mess, a 157-minute film that feels twice as long and a ten-person ensemble that feels twice as crowded. Though undoubtedly a convoluted film, whether or not Eternals is as bad as some say is debatable. Peyton Moon laughs that, “I enjoyed my time, even though I was making fun of it.” Many critics admired Zhao’s visual style, her directorial chops shining through like sunlight through a frosted window. Two characters in the grandiose ensemble also stand out as complex and richly performed.

Be that as it may, these positive aspects do not save Eternals from mediocrity. There is no relief from the film’s staid, lumbering pace other than pretty colors. A great deal of the film is mere setup, a “let’s get the team back together” sentiment that lingers until the film’s finale, where a lack of action fails to inject any momentum whatsoever. Zhao stays with the characters of Sersi and Icarus, inwardly focused slabs of moist cardboard who do excellent jobs serving as pretty faces, but horrendous ones at showing genuine emotion. Their character arcs are as unremarkable at the film’s end as at its beginning. Mia Bennett called Eternals “good at best,” The Globe and Mail “shockingly, depressingly lifeless,” and the Associated Press “repetitive… and often stilted.”

Hawkeye | Composite Score: 75.29

A welcome break from lackluster computer-generated spectacle, Hawkeye did not make an attempt at wowing audiences, but instead, put genuine effort into engaging them. Hawkeye, or Clint Barton, has long been the laughably scorned Avenger, a hero whose greatest ability is merely handiness with a bow and arrow. His show plays to his strengths, oft-pointing out his comical premise against the backdrop of a New York crime farce. Joining Jeremy Renner’s Clint is the determinedly giddy Kate Bishop, a fellow archery prodigy played by Hailee Steinfeld, who idolizes Clint and wants to confront the show’s antagonists with him. Hawkeye is made great by these two characters, who serve as flawless comedic foils. Without the pair’s amiable sensibilities, all that would have been left is a fairly generic mafia tale. 

Hawkeye proves to be a zany adventure, adding amusement to every stage of its story. Mafia members in tracksuits ask Bishop for dating advice as they tie and gag her, Bishop’s stepfather Jack ends up being a red herring villain – a mere mischievous goofball handy with a sword. And the guest appearance of Black Widow’s Yelena Belova only further establishes Florence Pugh as the best actor working for Marvel. MBHS junior Ben Cervantes remarks that “I liked Kate Bishop’s character. I thought she was really interesting. And [the show] also expanded more on Hawkeye himself. Until this show, I always thought he was a pretty boring character.” The Atlantic assents to this point of view: “an idealistic newcomer [and] practical veteran debate whether they should work to live or live to work. That’s a delightfully human question to explore.” 

Spider-Man: No Way Home | Composite Score: 83.14

Swinging into theaters, crushing box office records, evoking mass elation in fans of the character, there was nothing that Spider-Man: No Way Home couldn’t do upon its release. Saying that No Way Home is beloved is an understatement, juggling a 93% Tomatometer and an $804 million domestic gross, the third highest gross of all time, behind only Endgame and fellow Disney juggernaut The Force Awakens. The movie, via multiversal hijinks, unites Tobey Maguire’s 2004 iteration of Peter Parker with Andrew Garfield’s 2012 Amazing Spider-Man rendition and, of course, the current Spider-Man, Tom Holland. The three’s chemistry is legendary, a dynamic of brotherhood and hilarious antics that sells the film entirely. No Way Home works on a thematic level, as well, forcing Peter to come into his own when he must sacrifice all memory of him in order to fix the dimensional delirium. It is comic book storytelling at its most enjoyable.

The positive consensus for Spider-Man: No Way Home is remarkable. Though the passion for Loki and the intrigue of WandaVision may surpass it for some, the unison of positivity for No Way Home is eerie, and somewhat similar to the recent hit Top Gun: Maverick. 11th grader Brody said “I basically liked everything about it,” exclaiming that “Spider-Man’s my favorite superhero,” with sophomore Dustin Que sharing this sentiment. Additionally, Mia Bennett felt that “the cast [seems] super close, so you can tell that chemistry… translated into the movie.” The praise for the universal crossover is widespread; Entertainment Weekly writes that “the way [No Way Home] bridges these multiplicities and pulls them into focus [is] ingenious,” and BBC pronounces “the film’s endearing performances” as “its real superpowers.”

Moon Knight | Composite Score: 70.14

Moon Knight, the first show to feature an unestablished title character, was a minor hit with a few notable downsides. The show follows a man with dissociative identity disorder who identifies both as Marc Spector, avatar to the Egyptian moon god Khonsu, and Steven Grant, a mild-mannered artifacts expert. The show gained instant praise for Oscar Isaac, who plays Spector and Grant with rare versatility, as well as Ethan Hawke for his ominous and intimidating role as cultish zealot Arthur Harrow. May Calamawy also received acclaim. However, Moon Knight stumbled in terms of its world-building and pacing: what started out really great, audiences said, devolved into something wholly mediocre and disappointing.

The fantastical mystery format, with brief bouts of action sprinkled in, worked very well for the first half of Moon Knight, but the second half is simply too strange – a host of computer-generated nonsense that is supposed to guide you through an ingenious supernatural realm, but instead comes off as a poorly constructed theme park ride. The lack of action or narrative drive is noticeable, and the final fight scene is utter nonsense, as senior student Mars will attest: “Moon Knight [felt] more like a horror mystery show, so a big fight scene didn’t really work.” Mars also calls the final two episodes rushed, expressing her wish for “one more episode to wrap things up.” CNN said Moon Knight “starts well enough but becomes messier and more convoluted with each hour, leaving interest waning when it should be waxing.”

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness | Composite Score: 63.28

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the sequel to the already middling Doctor Strange, feels like such a phoned-in, lacking entry that the script seems as if written by a defunct artificial intelligence. The story is generic and expected while the character arcs are practically nonexistent. Multiverse of Madness follows Strange’s partnership with a girl with the power to travel between universes – America Chavez – in order to defeat Wanda Maximoff, who has succumbed to her role as the Scarlet Witch since the events of WandaVision. Olsen did not receive the same level of praise that she did for WandaVision, but nonetheless was a standout element of the film. The flashy direction proved to be somewhat redeeming, though Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Spider-Man) alienated senior student Michael Carbajal: “I didn’t like the weird shots and angles in the movie, because I knew right away that it was directed by Sam Raimi.” 

A common thread between the middling reactions to Multiverse of Madness is its lack of connection to the characters or plot. Mars explained, “in Doctor Strange, they definitely could have gone more in depth with America Chavez since she was a vital part of the plot,” while The New Yorker found the juxtaposition between Raimi’s colorful direction and the paltry, graying screenplay to be especially notable. A scenario wherein a red light means ‘go’ instead of ‘stop’ is the best wacky multiverse idea the screenwriters can think of. “It’s a somewhat engaging mess, but a mess all the same,” says Variety. This seems to be the consensus formed around Multiverse of Madness, a gray screenplay made interesting by its director and primary antagonist – yet not made much better.

Ms. Marvel | Composite Score: 67.29

The composite score for Ms. Marvel is somewhat bogged down by the metrics of the IMDb and Metacritic audience score due to prejudiced online trolls, however, this score still hovers around 74 when these metrics are removed, an indication that the consensus on Ms. Marvel is rather good, but not that of a top-tier television show. Following the voracious superhero fan Kamala Khan, a young Pakistani girl who obtains superpowers from a family amulet, Ms. Marvel is indeed a good show during the first two episodes, as well as its finale. In the other three, not so much. The premise – a high school girl navigates superheroes – is more than entertaining, and one that could easily have sustained six episodes thanks to Iman Vellani’s immensely magnetic performance and her character’s quirky, visually active style that fills the screen with cheerful scribbles. 

And yet, it spans only two. The remainder of the show is spent in Pakistan, where Kamala travels with her family to discover the origins of her bracelet. This is an entirely worthwhile storyline in its own right, but completely destroys the momentum and tone of the show, essentially starting from square one as Kamala navigates a new globe-trotting plot. A subplot regarding sloppily written antagonists also drags these episodes down. Mia Bennett says this makes Ms. Marvel feel like a subpar Disney Channel show, which is disappointing when you consider The Guardian’s review of the first episodes: “The whole thing is full of charm… wit, warmth, brio and truth.”

Thor: Love and Thunder | Composite Score: 55.86

Widely considered to be Phase Four’s weakest cinematic entry, Thor: Love and Thunder toed the line between mediocrity and total irredeemability. Taika Waititi’s follow-up to his hit entry Thor: Ragnarok, Love and Thunder follows Thor on a journey of self-discovery (which he’s embarked on for several installments now), stopping the ruthless villain Gorr amidst the backdrop of a screwball comedy. This juxtaposition with the overall tone of Love and Thunder ends up being a rotten choice, with Christian Bale’s masterful performance as Gorr drowned out by an incessant usage of cheap comedy. The quarter-hour opening sequence alone is filled with hundreds of atrocious jokes – only sheer mathematical inevitability prevents the totality of the film’s humor from being bad. It’s disheartening for joke after joke to fail, with no story worth noting to back them up.

Taika Waititi is not a bad filmmaker, not only director and writer of the successfully bombastic Ragnarok, but also the creator of Oscar-winning Holocaust satire Jojo Rabbit, as well as the more obscure coming-of-age story Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s difficult to pinpoint what went wrong with his film in this case, but it’s clear he had absolutely no regard for its quality. Michael Carbajal said about Love and Thunder, “it was way too comical and it doesn’t really take anything seriously at all. I thought that Christian Bale did a really great job in his role, but the problem was that it was forcing itself to try to be funny.” Slant agreed: Thanks to Waititi, they said, “A war against the gods feels like an afterthought to a bad rom-com.”

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law | Composite Score: 54.42

The worst received project of Phase Four, however, is its most recent show She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Though its composite score is slightly impacted by trolls, even when adjusting the metrics that were adjusted for Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk – which follows district attorney Jennifer Walters, whose blood is transfused with her cousin Bruce Banner, granting her the powers of the Hulk – has a score that is wholly unsatisfactory. The plot is paper-thin, the comedy is an acquired taste, and the CGI is abysmal. Mia Bennett exclaimed that “Hulk doesn’t look normal, [but] they tried to make She-Hulk look normal… so it looks really wrong!” The show’s writing is similarly clunky, with character growth standing out as a complete nonentity.

Only a quirky situational comedy format remains for She-Hulk to tackle, and while the “meta,” fourth-wall breaking humor has been enough for many, others find it insufficient to fill the void that the poor writing creates. One agreed-upon standout is the actress playing Walters, Tatiana Maslany, lauded as a hilarious force of invigoration for an otherwise lackluster series. Mars said “they went in too much with the fourth wall breaking at times… but I like Jennifer as a character a lot.” CNN was less friendly, saying “the mix of sitcom-style tropes and gamma-irradiated powers yields a series that’s too weak to smash much of anything.”

Werewolf by Night | Composite Score: 75.43

Marvel’s first ever television special, Werewolf by Night can best be described as experimental, heavily evoking the classical Universal monster films of the 1940s in its tone and visual style. The special – about the length of a slightly extended episode of television, clocking in at 55 minutes including credits – has garnered enough critical acclaim in spite of its lackluster viewership for Marvel to label its experiment a success. Simple and bare-bones though it may be, Werewolf by Night showcases a model that Marvel will soon utilize for products such as the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. Mars offered her thoughts on the visuals of the Werewolf by Night trailer: “The design and aesthetic with the black and white looks super cool.” CNN echoed this sentiment, calling the “black-and-white homage” enticing. 

As for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the somber conclusion to Phase Four, a full review will be coming soon on the Spyglass website breaking down this writer’s opinion of its quality, as well as a breakdown of its overall consensus. Continue to check the site for this article and others, written by the students of MBHS.

It is the overwhelming consensus of students, fans, and professional critics alike that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gone downhill since the monumentally successful release of Avengers: Endgame. Marvel’s head honchos have opted to pump out projects two, three times as fast as before, diversifying the target audiences of some shows (WandaVision, Ms. Marvel) and leaning heavily into genre filmmaking for many of their movies (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness). The result has been incredibly mixed, a hodge-podge of rushed and overly niche projects. Marvel is not failing by all accounts, as evidenced by Phase Four’s average composite score, which hovers just below a 70, suggesting that most of their outings have been fairly positive. Indeed, streaks of average to above-average content from Marvel have not been difficult to find lately, as evidenced by the first five live-action shows of Phase Four, all of which were well-liked.

However, as with all things in life, what really matters is optics, and the disdain for Marvel’s slate grows larger by the day. Nearly every student interviewed – nearly a dozen – have agreed in one way or another with Michael Carbajal’s weary claim. “You can tell why people have been saying quantity over quality… honestly, Marvel has just been lacking a lot, ever since Endgame.” This begs the question, what can Marvel do to foster their universe back to the days of old, where every one of its viewers were fans of their content, and praise from audiences was all but an inevitability? One can hesitate a guess, for what has truly changed between then and now is consistency. Marvel has lost a base of dedicated subscription because their content is no longer seen as invariably satisfactory, only incessantly released. A more suitable model for Marvel is to abandon the speed they are releasing their movies and shows in order to give the remaining projects more room to breathe, providing them with more spectacle and more space in the public consciousness. It is only then when fans of Marvel will begin to say to each other once more: “Hey, the new Marvel thing is out, let’s watch it!”

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He/him | Freshman | Writer for the MB Spyglass

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