Post Avengers: Endgame, Marvel needs to sidestep superhero fatigue and breathe new life into Phase 4
Will Marvel be able to sustain a world of superheroes without the aid of the original Avengers, who changed the landscape of comic book-based movies.
Avengers: Endgame left us all broken. By the end of the movie, as the entire Marvel superhero crew bid farewell to Tony Stark — the original Avenger who started it all — in a way, it was also us, the moviegoer, who were also bidding farewell not just to an iconic character, but to a decade of movies that all of us have literally grown up watching.
But now that Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will officially come to an end with the release of Spiderman: Far From Home in July, an event already signalled by Endgame, it is time to both look back and, at the same time, look forward. Endgame saw not only the death of Tony Stark, but also the retirement of Steve Rogers, with the mantle of Captain America being passed onto to the Falcon. Essentially MCU’s Phase 4, as and when it is announced, would look considerably different from the MCU we have been grown up watching. And that begs a very important question. As the mantle of saving our universe passes on to a new breed of superheroes, with Spiderman, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel leading the way, much like Tony Stark-Steve Rogers-Thor-Hulk-Black Widow led the way in the first three phases, the question in the minds of the audience now is will the new Avengers be as successful in pulling the crowd to the cineplexes as the original Avengers did?
Because cumulatively, the first decade of MCU movies, from Iron Man down to Endgame, have become the most profitable film franchises in cinematic history, with Endgame well on its way to beat Avatar and claim its position as the highest grosser in film history. What was it that made the original Avengers such a massive crowd puller? What contributed in making them household names across the world, especially among the non-comic book crowd?
To begin with, for those who have been comic book nerds, characters like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk and Spiderman are household names, and have been so long before MCU became a reality on the silver screen. What Marvel did in the first three phases, was to cull out story arcs from various comic books and reinvent them altogether, to a point where it bore only superficial similarity to the source materials. Therefore, the first three phases being overtly centred around the Infinity Stones with Thanos as the big bad supervillain, were taken from the Infinity Saga storyline in the comic books, and yet when the two source material are compared, they bore no outward similarity as such. But, perhaps, where Marvel really innovated is in grounding these superheroes in an all too familiar real world, making them relatable. And they did this not only by infusing copious doses of humour.
The character of Thor in Endgame, for example, has been turned upside down. This new alcoholic, overblown superhero has more similarities with the character of The Dude in The Big Lebowski than any conventional comic book-based movie. And yes, a lot of humour in that movie, despite its very grim premise, comes at the cost of Thor. What this kind of humour did is not only to humanise the characters, endearing them further, but also made the concept of a comic book movie more entertaining, which is what comic books have always been known for.
This is exactly where DC failed. Except Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the new DC Universe has failed to take off because the makers have been unsure about the characters themselves, plus they have played it safe and took themselves way too seriously. On the contrary, from the very first Iron Man in 2006, Marvel has consistently pushed the envelope further, reinventing the characters, subverting existing cinematic tropes and freely mixing genres. Therefore, the mass success of the original Avengers were not because there was something intrinsically unique about the characters, but more about the way Marvel approached them, cinematically. It just made superheroes cool, relatable and broke the myth that for a successful comic book-based movie, it does not have to be melancholic and brooding. It is true that if you were to compare, Batman is more recognisable and iconic in the public consciousness than Iron Man, to a point where even a non-comic book person would have at least know who Bruce Wayne really is. But post-2006, you cannot say the same and Tony Stark has truly earned a place in our collective memory.
Going Forward with Phase 4
But this was Phase 3. Does that mean Marvel would use the same formula also going into the new phases? It seems unlikely. Except the character of Spiderman, the other new leaders in Avengers are still relatively unknown. Yes Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Doctor Strange have become popular, following their introduction in Phase 3. But for them to truly take the place of the original Avengers, the MCU writers and filmmakers — whoever they will be then — need to cull out interesting story arcs from the vast library of comic books that are in existence. More than anything else, Marvel also needs to understand that their formula, which worked for the first three phases, might not work in Phase 4, for the simple reason that a superhero fatigue might set in. And if Marvel manages to allow that fatigue to appear, these new Avengers would have to, unfortunately, bear the brunt.
In order to sidestep that fatigue, Marvel needs to go full throttle in innovating and subverting even their own formulas, which by now have begun to be cast in stone. More than fun, they need to take even bolder risks. Captain Marvel, for example, was such a risk, and it paid off. Even though the movie and Brie Larson had to bear the brunt of certain toxic fandom criticism, yet the fact that Marvel went ahead, is in itself such a heartening thing to witness. Marvel needs to understand that it is not always possible to please the fans and the new movies should never fall prey to fan service. If there was one thing the first decade did, was that it stayed one step ahead of the fans, never letting the fan expectation to cave in. Fan expectation can, at times, be overwhelming, and also frankly, stupid. And yet, the first decade showed us that these movies can exist solely unto itself, while at the same time serve as connecting tissues for something larger. Which is exactly what made the original Avengers so popular, and which is why half the population of the earth are still in mourning over the death of Tony Stark.
In our opinion, MCU is in safe hands with the new characters. Spiderman movies have established a place for itself in the public consciousness and Tom Holland has managed to endear himself, by rooting Spiderman well within the world of high school and the world of teenagers, something Toby Macguire did not do. Captain Marvel, similarly, has earned her place in the MCU with a very subversive film, which truly brought out the concerns of being a female superhero in a predominantly male-centric world. Black Panther too turned racial stereotypes on its head, and one is left curious as to the newer dimensions the character would proceed in the next batch of films. Perhaps, the weakest link in this all is Doctor Strange. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent, no doubt about that. But his titular movie failed to impress many fans simply because it did nothing unpredictable. It would be interesting to see what Marvel does with this character.
Going forward, it does seem that Marvel knows the dangers that lie ahead and which is why they have not yet announced any concrete plans for the future. Whether these new Avengers manage to become crowd-pullers, or whether they succumb to a superhero fatigue, now only time will tell. But it is safe to assume that they are all in safe hands.
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