Marvel's Phase IV could see MCU become the millennial’s Star Wars — with space operas like The Eternals
The Skywalker saga is wrapping up soon and the Marvel just wrapped up its Infinity Saga. Can MCU match up to the Star Wars phenomenon over the next decade?
Kevin Feige has been watching a lot of Steve Jobs’s product launch videos, it seems. Much like the late Apple boss was a master of the product launch, the Marvel chief has grown to become an absolute dab hand at whetting audience appetites. The events of the recent San Diego Comic-Con are a case in point — the Internet went wild after Feige confirmed a whole bunch of films that’ll be part of the MCU’s (Marvel Cinematic Universe’s) Phase Four. Feige also announced several new TV shows that will be available on Disney’s upcoming streaming service, Disney+.
Among the projects confirmed by Feige at the Comic-Con were Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Thor: Love and Thunder, the untitled Captain Marvel sequel, and The Eternals. The Eternals, starring Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek and Kumail Nanjiani among others, follows a race of immortal aliens sent to protect earth by the all-powerful, space-dwelling ‘Celestials’. These four projects all point towards the fact that the MCU is investing in space operas in a big way — given the sheer number of these films, don’t be surprised if the next big crossover Marvel film is set mostly in space (the Avengers movies had about 20 minutes of action scenes set in space, like the scene in Infinity War where Spider-Man and Iron Man kill Ebony Maw).
All of which begs the question — is the MCU ready to become the millennial’s Star Wars? George Lucas’s iconic film franchise was, after all, what made the space opera such a fan favorite genre; even though Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek TV series had premiered more than a decade before the Skywalker saga began with 1977’s A New Hope.
The term ‘space opera’ was a tongue-in-cheek reference to an older pejorative used for run-of-the-mill cowboy movies—‘horse operas’. So a good space opera, like Star Wars, would feature cowboy-like gunfights in space, outlaws with hearts of gold (Han Solo, anyone?), advanced technology (blasters), idiosyncratic aliens (Jabba the Hutt, Jar Jar Binks etc) and so on. (A bad space opera, of course, could mean stuff like Space Cowboys or Armageddon — worthwhile to remember that these were both blockbusters nevertheless).
How to build a (cinematic) universe
Lucas and co. were brilliant at building an engaging, vibrant universe — this is one of the biggest reasons why Star Wars is the cultural phenomenon it is. The films themselves introduced us to so many different worlds, each with their distinctive species. Put two Star Wars fans in an UberPool and odds are they’ll be quizzing each other on aliens within minutes. Which race of aliens attacked Luke on Tattooine? (Tusken raiders) How did Han and co. escape the Ewoks? (by tricking them into believing the droid C3PO was actually a God) Which species did Greedo, killed by Han in one of the most famous scenes of the series, belong to? (Rodian, Duh!)
The point is, within the Star Wars universe — and this was backed up by things like in-universe, Lucas-approved novels — there’s a seemingly bottomless pit of invention, of cool alien battles in dangerous and exciting planets. And it’s not all smoke and mirrors, either. The geographical and political peculiarities of places like Alderaan (destroyed by the Death Star in A New Hope, as punishment for backing the Rebel Alliance) or Coruscant (the planet-city from The Phantom Menace) play a crucial role in plot development. That means very real payoffs for diehard fans who’ve been following the minutest things avidly.
Can the MCU match up? We know that Marvel’s already shooting for lateral expansion as well as escalating its blockbuster game further — the MCU TV shows lined up for a Disney+ release in November are a big hint as to the way things are going to be, moving forward. These shows — WandaVision, Loki, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and so on — will fulfill the same function, narrative-wise, that the Star Wars novels did. Or what the Animatrix did for the Matrix franchise. They’ll cover the storytelling gaps and leaps of logic that inevitably happen in big, crossover products like the Avengers films. They’ll also help whip up anticipation for the next batch of MCU movies.
The politics of the MCU
Another crucial aspect of universe-building is that while your universe doesn’t have to be realist in the traditional sense of the word (the audience could’ve watched the new Scorsese movie next door for that), it does need to talk about real-world stuff within its allegories. It’s well-known, for instance, what Lucas was thinking about in terms of politics, when he created the first Star Wars film.
“It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where (President Richard) Nixon was trying to run for a (second) term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away,” he said in a 2005 interview. The “given away” part is apparent in the way Emperor Palpatine is handed emergency powers unanimously by the Senators.
By the time we got to the prequel trilogy, of course, George W. Bush was the quote-unquote leader of the free world. And his warmongering was reflected by Anakin Skywalker (who would go on to become Darth Vader, the franchise’s Big Bad), who channelised Bush by saying “If you are not with me, you are my enemy”. Similarly, young Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver), one of the new trilogy’s primary characters, is such an effective cautionary tale. Here’s a talented young man, born into galactic royalty, who feels unloved and unwanted still. His discomfort with what he perceives as the complacence of his elders causes him to fall for Supreme Leader Snoke’s radicalising spiel. This perfectly mirrors how hundreds of thousands of young, white men in America are speaking the language of white supremacists.
In this area, at least, Marvel already scores reasonably well, especially of late — we all felt Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel’s pain and frustration when yet another man told her to “control her emotions”, because that’s precisely the kind of crap women deal with all the time in professional spaces. When we see the Kree Empire embarking on a well-planned genocide against the Skrulls, we see the wet dreams of every xenophobic government in action.
Moreover, the MCU has learned that it needs to throw its weight behind identity politics — remember the kerfuffle around Tilda Swinton playing the Ancient One in Doctor Strange? Feige and co. have come a long way since then. Yes, Black Panther did, eventually, become the story of a centrist monarchy beating a revolutionary for “the greater good”. But its massive success also led to a surge of interest in Afrofuturism, one of the most important genre F/SF genres in the world right now — its exponents include the writer NK Jemisin, for example, who won a hat-trick of Hugo Awards from 2016-2018, the only person ever to achieve this.
Avengers: Endgame saw director Joe Russo playing the MCU’s first queer character himself. And while a one-scene cameo isn’t saying much circa 2019, it’s still a big deal when you consider that this was literally the bestselling film of all time — think about the messaging power that bestows upon the makers. And we now know that Thor: Love and Thunder will confirm Valkyrie’s hitherto hinted-at queerness.
Yes, this is all make-believe at the end of the day. And yes, wokeness is now very much a business strategy too. But the MCU’s power over young, impressionable audiences cannot simply be wished away — what would you say to a little black girl who sees Lashana Lynch blowing up enemy ships in Captain Marvel? Maybe that’s the first time she has seen someone who looks like her playing the hero who saves the day. Can we really assess the worth of a cathartic moment like that?
Star Wars definitely invented the Hollywood ‘summer blockbuster’ playbook. A New Hope (1977) and Jaws are, in fact, widely credited for this practice becoming a Hollywood staple. And that’s just one of the business/marketing lessons Star Wars has taught the MCU — and the rest of Hollywood.
Where did Hollywood learn how to build a franchise? Star Wars. Who realised, for the first time, that licensed merchandise would make so much more money than the films ever could? George Lucas.
Moreover, both franchises — Star Wars and the MCU — are now owned by the same behemoth, namely the Walt Disney Corporation. They bought Marvel in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012. Clearly, a wise old witch at Disney realised that these are the two biggest entertainment properties in the world right now. This is another reason why the next 4-5 years are going to be fascinating for fans of the two franchises. The Star Wars story, or at least the Skywalker saga, is wrapping up soon, while the MCU just wrapped up its inaugural batch of storylines featuring the old superheroes — Tony Stark, Thor, Steve Rogers and so on. Feige, Russo and co. will hope that their baby matches up to the Star Wars phenomenon over the next decade.
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