By Sammy Bovitz
Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was very different, and yet, exactly the same. Their house style of big lasers, bigger punches, and full-throttle interconnectivity didn’t slow down one bit, even under the most scrutiny the House of Superpowered Mouse had seen so far. A little over a year ago, I asked how much longer we’d be watching Marvel movies. It looks like that was a very stupid question.
But the very presence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a place that is not the cinema changes everything. Putting the biggest movie franchise in the world on television is an obvious money-maker for Disney, but whether it produces quality is a totally different question. So I watched every Phase Four television series and found the source of my recent headache problem.
Let’s break the Marvel Studios TV shows down into three categories.
First, the “dramas.” The Falcon and the Winter Soldier picks up a plot thread from Avengers: Endgame that had already been resolved– Sam Wilson becoming Captain America– and drags out his uncertainty over taking the mantle for six mind-numbing hours that didn’t need to exist. On the other end of the spectrum, Loki was a solid crime thriller in which a goofy group of characters explore alternate dimensions and kill the god of time. That said, the love story featured in the show is bizarre and does a whole lot more telling than showing. It’s an uneven show that alternates between brilliant and disappointing at an alarming rate.
Second, “comedies.” They should be Marvel’s sweet spot, especially with all of them being origin stories. But none of them are truly great. Hailee Steinfeld is endearing in Hawkeye, but that show could have been a 90-minute or 2-hour movie. Same story with Ms. Marvel and Iman Vellani. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law fares a bit better with an inventive premise and fun guest stars, but not all episodes are created equal, and it would have actually benefited from more episodes to flesh out its supporting cast.
Marvel didn’t turn out a single “bad” comedy, but if “solid” is the formula, that formula is getting stale.
But wait! There were a few shows that changed the Marvel formula forever, and we should be grateful for those.
Now, we must talk about the three Marvel shows that are the most difficult to categorize, not necessarily falling into the category of drama or comedy. Let’s go from worst to best.
First, don’t let anyone fool you: Moon Knight is not worth your time. I love stories that ignore the larger Marvel universe in favor of telling self-contained stories– take Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as a great example. But it all comes down to execution, and this show just doesn’t execute. I dislike both personalities of the title character: Steven Grant is annoying, and Marc Spector is smug while having the proudly Jewish part of his comics identity wiped completely and disgustingly clean. The plot is poorly paced, the main villain gets increasingly annoying as time goes on, and the show screams “wasted potential” throughout its entire runtime. Engaging directing choices and passionate performances always give way to a weak story after a while, and this show is no exception.
Sitting in the middle of the road is What-If, Marvel’s first foray into the world of animation. As an anthology series about alternate universes, it had by far the most creative leeway, and yet just like Phase Four itself, lives up to only a tiny bit of that potential. Wild episodes like a romantic tragedy starring Doctor Strange are contrasted with filler like a maddeningly uncreative gender-bend of the first Captain America film. It all culminates in a crossover against a souped-up villain that is at times creative, but mostly quite boring. It’s a fun show – kind of.
Finally, WandaVision. To me, this show represents Phase Four’s biggest success and failure at once. The first three episodes are an intriguing combination of the superhero, sitcom, and surreal genres that keep you hooked. Then the show decides to pull back the curtain, and with this shift comes an increasingly uneven series. Still, figuring out the mystery with the side characters is fun enough, and the twist villain is genuinely surprising and entertaining to watch. Through the first eight episodes, I considered the show to be a very good one. More importantly, it seemed to be a sign that Marvel was going to seriously evolve and improve going forward, giving audiences a reason to care post-Endgame.
Then I watched the series finale, and it was one of the worst TV episodes I’ve ever seen. The finale of WandaVision was when I first thought that something was wrong with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And now, I’ve figured it out.
It’s not rocket science, and I’m not the first person to have figured this out. Still, it has to be said: The Marvel Cinematic Universe is too big, and suffers from a lack of quality to back that quantity up.
Phase Three of the MCU was a series of 11 superhero films over the course of three and a half years. Phase Four, on the other hand, has comprised seven films, eight television series, a series of short films, and two television specials over the course of just two years. That’s 18 unique projects, and at least a dozen have disappointed critics, fans, or both. Marvel’s business model has become “watch them all and you, too, can be fully caught up with our universe.” It’s a model that has worked like a charm on me for the past five years. No more.
The Marvel Studios TV series have singlehandedly driven me to take a long break from the Marvel universe, with only a couple potential exceptions. I’ll go see Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3– but only because I love James Gunn’s work, not because it’s a numbered Marvel sequel. A new season of Daredevil is a very exciting prospect as well, but I’ll be sure to check the reviews first. Other than that, I’m going to start 2023 by treating myself to the smorgasbord of movies and TV I’ve shoved to the side for so long.
Watching the MCU makes me feel like I’m in a parasitic friendship. I pour time, energy, and maybe a bit of money into someone that’s nice enough, but rarely shows up when it truly matters. At what point do you throw your hands in the air and leave? For more people than ever, that time is now.
It’s going to be genuinely tough to move away from Marvel. Watching their stuff has become an odd sort of comfort zone for me, and to just stop will feel quite strange. But to watch out of habit instead of genuine investment is simply not worth it for that sense of blind “comfort.”
Phase Four, especially its television series, has soured more people on the universe than ever before. It won’t change the fact that Marvel is still making money, but it is a damning sign for the creative future of the largest entertainment franchise in the world.