Say what you will about the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and there are plenty who bash it — but it accomplished something we’ve never seen in cinema on this scale: A multi-phase, cohesive story told through many successful blockbuster films that make up The Infinity Saga.
Many studios have tried to create similar cinematic universes, but all have failed in one way or another. Marvel’s cinematic universe has come at a cost — many of its films feel overly formulaic and all of its standalone franchises require viewing of outside films in the MCU in order for you to understand what’s going on. But what it has accomplished is magnificent, giving Marvel impossible momentum that only a worldwide pandemic could blunt.
COVID has undoubtedly slowed Marvel down a bit, as is evident by the lackluster box office returns of its early pandemic films “Black Widow” and “Eternals,” which weren’t huge losses for the studio, but also didn’t give it sizable gains. Now, with the likes of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” raking in huge sums, the MCU seems to have returned to its gold standard of profitability.
There’s just one problem, and that is with its overarching villain of its post-Infinity Saga films: Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors). The overall cohesion and strength of Phases 4 and 5 of the MCU have also paled in comparison to their predecessors.
Kang originally debuted at the end of the first season of “Loki,” which is a critical show to watch in order to understand the multiverse shenanigans the MCU is up to. He was met with critical praise and Majors played him well. However, he had a much larger role in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” which is where his character started to derail.
Kang has multiple versions of himself across the multiverse called variants, and we saw two separate ones in “Loki” and “Ant-Man” 3. This also means that Kang can die an almost infinite amount of times and still come back. Presumably, this means that the character can recover from a lackluster version of himself appearing on screen, which is exactly what happened in “Quantumania.”
In my review, I said that I felt like his portrayal was middling, mostly due to the surprising lack of restraint Majors had when playing the villain in certain scenes, which made him seem like a cartoon villain. Kang works when he is cold and calculated, like Thanos, whom he is replacing; he doesn’t work when he is unhinged, screaming and unleashing CGI-energy across the screen.
Majors has the chops to play a villain equal to Thanos, as is evident by his “Loki” performance and his extensive portfolio of non-Marvel roles. “Quantumania” suffered from a clear direction problem; clearly the studio was asking Peyton Reed to do too much in that film, as its focus and balance was muddy at best.
Perhaps the worst thing “Quantumania” did was blunt Kang’s momentum, as he was treated as a one-off villain. He can always come back due to the variant thing, but for those who did not see “Loki,” their first introduction to the next big bad of the MCU was seeing him as a joke, which greatly contrasts to how Thanos was built up to.
Thanos was always in the background of the MCU starting out; it was very careful to allude to his strength and atrocities (such as through the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies when we learned what he did to his daughters, Gamora and Nebula), but it never showed us too much of him. The first time he served as a major character was in “Avengers: Infinity War,” when he brought the Avengers to their knees. The MCU could and should have done the same with Kang, who by all means was gaining the upper hand against our heroes in “Quantumania,” until plot armor saved them in order to preserve an unearned happy ending.
If Thanos was handed a humiliating defeat the first time we saw him, audiences would not take him anywhere as seriously as they did, as what made him so effective is that he was a villain who won in a franchise where, up to that point, the heroes always did. And unlike other complicated villain schemes in the MCU, his was not completely negated; while the people he snapped out of existence did eventually come back in “Endgame,” they were gone for five years and his actions left lasting scars on the MCU.
There’s also the legal matters that plague Majors, of which I think it’s wise to wait and let them play out in court before doling out judgement. If he is guilty of what he is accused of, it is clear that Marvel needs to recast him. If not, then he remains to be their guy, albeit with blunted momentum thanks to “Ant-Man.”
Still, Marvel did lose a step thanks to the pandemic, and so far, Kang and Majors aren’t helping. The villains of the “Avengers” films — Loki, Ultron, Thanos and now Kang — are so important to the connective tissue of these movies. So far, Phase 4 and 5 of the MCU has been a mess of almost completely unrelated TV shows and films that lack the magic of the Infinity Saga. The central issue with the Multiverse Saga (what films starting with Phase 4 are a part of) is by introducing the infinite possibilities of the multiverse, it throws focus and stakes out the window.
The MCU is the perfect example of when a moneymaking franchise isn’t allowed to quite when it’s ahead. “Endgame” had the perfect ending point for the MCU, but it remained to be a massive storytelling machine that could not be grounded. The cinematic universe now finds itself in an increasingly difficult game of one-upping itself, to the point where the cosmic, multiverse-defining stakes of its current films almost have no meaning to modern audiences.
I think that there are ways for the MCU to tell interesting stories going forward, but it needs to focus on smaller, character-driven stakes than attempting to outdo the massive consequences of “Infinity War” and “Endgame” every other film. And it needs to not be afraid to pull punches — almost nobody ever dies in these films anymore, at least if they’re a “good guy,” which needs to change. Marvel is willing to completely rewrite the laws of how its universe functions for a one-off film, but it is unwilling to kill of a minor protagonist whose story is over and has nothing to do any more.
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