By Sammy Bovitz
Note major spoilers below for Loki.
Marvel Studios is one of the most prolific production companies in the history of film. Ever since their release of Iron Man in 2008 through their most recent release, Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings in September, a slate totaling 25 feature films and four series, the studio has generated over 23 billion dollars at the box office and countless more through merchandise and Disney+ subscriptions– all without a major critical or commercial flop to date. It’s almost inconceivable that in the span of just 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has on its own become one of the highest-grossing media franchises in history, passing titans like definitive video game character Mario and merchandise juggernaut Transformers. Avengers: Endgame was likely the biggest media event of the decade, a huge feat for a studio who had just two feature films under its belt entering the 2010s.
It’s easy to draw narratives about this saga, considering Marvel themselves have broken it up into “phases.” Phase One began with the surprise hit of Iron Man, and ended with a promise that seemed impossible at the time– a full-length Avengers movie. Phase Two began with the relatively experimental Iron Man 3 grossing over $1 billion, and the theme of surprise hits continued with films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, making those characters household names in the public eye. Phase Three began with Captain America: Civil War, making clear that crossovers would become a common event for fans to lose their minds over, and of course, Avengers: Endgame, as well as its predecessor Infinity War, became global events in and of themselves.
But after this ridiculous amount of success, where do you go? Clearly, Marvel did not want to slow down. This was clear in Phase Three closer Spider-Man: Far From Home, which initially seemed like a fun, low-stakes sequel until Marvel’s famous streak of bonkers midcredits scenes reared its head once again. And at Comic-Con 2019, Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige released an incredibly ambitious slate for Phase Four, confirming the studio’s expansion into television series, announcing five of them, as well as announcing six feature films– sequels for Thor and Doctor Strange, one prequel film for Black Widow, and three new franchises in Eternals, Shang-Chi, and Blade. He also confirmed that Black Panther and Captain Marvel sequels were in development, and made sure to mention Disney’s recent purchase of 21st Century Fox, and with it, the Fantastic Four and X-Men.
Of course, the pandemic brought an unintended (and to this writer, much-needed) break from the Marvel universe, but 2021’s slate more than made up for lost time. In just nine months, Marvel Studios has released four television series and two movies, with one more series and two more movies slated before year’s end. In 2022, the studio will keep its foot on the gas, with four new movies, four shows, one holiday special, and possibly even more– anthology series What If…? may become an annual occurrence, and many other Marvel series are currently undated. Even 2023 looks packed, with two movies already locked into dates and three more release dates staked for unannounced films. On top of that, Marvel Studios has five films, four series, one special, and two series continuations in development but without release windows– a total of 12 projects that will likely grow in the next couple months.
All of this is to say, isn’t this a bit much? I love Marvel and have been baited by their winning formula for interconnected action romps– I haven’t missed a release since 2018– but merely looking at this release lineup exhausts me. Many expressed feelings of being “done with the MCU” after Endgame’s intentionally conclusive feel, but clearly this group has had no effect on the endless Internet hype train.
Every single project released so far in 2021 has been a runaway success for Marvel. WandaVision was a smash hit and the talk of the Internet for a couple months, even getting some Emmys to go with it. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was successful enough to greenlight a fourth Captain America film. Loki was commonly cited as single-handedly reviving interest in the MCU for many longtime fans and pushed Disney+ releases to Wednesdays all by itself. Black Widow raked in tens of millions from both the box office and streaming and successfully set up Florence Pugh as the secret agent’s successor. What If…? has rather surprisingly sustained a following and opened the door for more animated Marvel Studios projects. Shang-Chi is the latest surprise smash hit in Marvel’s deep pool of them. In case that wasn’t enough, original Avenger Hawkeye is getting his own self-titled series in November, and the final two films slated for release this year are Eternals, directed by 2021 Oscar winner Chloe Zhao, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, whose trailer got a ridiculous 355.5 million views in just 24 hours, destroying Internet records. It’s clear that fandom has not died down, but this onslaught of Marvel content is only going to balloon over time.
And yet, excitement for 2022 Marvel projects is already bubbling. Spider-Man is only adding to the hype for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, whose title character is set to have a big role in No Way Home. If that wasn’t enough, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch will join Benedict Cumberbatch and company, following directly from the events of WandaVision. Thor: Love and Thunder is a sequel to the massively popular Thor: Ragnarok with a returning Taika Waititi in the director’s chair. That alone would be enough, but the film also boasts a ridiculous amount of star power, with a returning Natalie Portman and newcomer Christian Bale joining Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. The kicker? These films will be released within five weeks of each other.
Marvel’s overwhelming success–and whether they can sustain it– is a hugely telling barometer for the movie industry as a whole. As much as I’ve been talking about the overwhelming nature of the schedule, I can’t help but be excited for Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3, a movie that won’t even premiere until May 2023. It’s also clear that whatever story Marvel’s building is just getting started. Loki’s finale and Shang-Chi’s post-credits scene are the only hints we’ve really gotten at Marvel’s long-term plan, and while No Way Home should reveal more of said plan, the fact that a hypothetical Avengers 5 is not even being discussed right now makes it clear that the next Infinity War-level “event film” is probably several years away. But… is it? It’s clear that No Way Home is going to be a massively important movie in the Marvel timeline, and the introduction of the multiverse alone in Loki’s season finale sets up limitless possibilities for the studio’s interconnected projects, especially with Loki finale showstopper Jonathan Majors’ Kang the Conqueror set for 2023’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
The real question, then, is this: what happens after the next major crossover event? Does Marvel just reset and do it all again? And if so, how do they even go about doing it? It can’t be as simple as introducing one big bad, a central team of heroes, and one terrifying galactic threat over and over again. Loki launches us into a reality where the once-essential Infinity Stones are irrelevant, but how many times can Marvel hit the reset button?
The MCU is still relatively young, but it’s still intriguing to wonder what Phase Ten or Twenty or Fifty may bring, if they ever happen at all. Financially, I don’t see any reason why Disney and Marvel would ever stop making these movies and series– they make a ridiculous amount of money and drive up hype which leads to more fan loyalty and even more money. As long as movies with the Marvel logo slapped on them make money, Disney will keep making them, and it’s likely that they won’t reach that point for several decades.
But at a certain point, you have to wonder how many times they can reboot everything and start over while keeping the same fans who were there for Phase One. Sure, I don’t think Marvel will ever run out of fans, but they may have to continue to replace them with the younger generations. In fact, the Marvel Comics themselves are a great example of this. Those that read Marvel comics religiously in the 1940s and 1950s have most likely moved on to other things in the several decades since. But Marvel Comics continuity allows for so many alternate universes, characters, and entire storylines. In fact, the mere existence of What If…? is a worthy insight into Marvel’s long-term plan. The show is (for the most part) an anthology series, exploring alternate universes and answering questions to the surprise and delight of many fans while also keeping them invested in these characters and storylines just enough to keep buying in– just like the original comics. The show will likely continue running for a long time, and is the most clear sign yet that Marvel knows they are in it for the long haul– other than, of course, the introduction of a new Captain America in Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson.
It’s true that many iconic Marvel characters have not yet appeared in their sprawling cinematic universe, but there will eventually be a point where there will be so few characters and storylines to adapt that the universe may just run out of gas, sputter, and end abruptly. But Marvel Studios is always looking long-term. It will just be a matter of whether we’ll keep waiting to see how the story continues. But when a studio has a multibillion dollar formula, one can’t help but acknowledge that it works, and likely will work for the foreseeable future.