The Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it will conclude with this spring’s Avengers: Endgame. The mammoth superhero crossover will sunset 11 years of MCU storytelling, the single most impressive stretch in Hollywood history. Never before has the film industry seen a series garner such consistent critical and commercial success. While fans and the industry are understandably swept up in the anticipation, they’re plagued by one nagging question: Can Marvel continue to trot out bankable and beloved blockbusters without its core heroes?
“Marvel has raised the audience’s expectations when seeing a film,” said Kendall Phillips, a professor of Communications and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts who teaches Rhetoric of Film: Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Viewers no longer expect a single 90-minute story—they expect a larger universe with other films, video games, TV shows and novels, all connected. Marvel has established itself as the studio that can tell a story across multiple mediums.”
The MCU will obviously carry on after Endgame. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man: Far From Home arrives just a few weeks after the epic epilogue, and Marvel Studios has a handful of films dated through 2021. But the major cast members, such as Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr., will see their Marvel contracts expire with Endgame. While everyone can negotiate additional starring roles and appearances, Chris Evans has already publicly bid adieu to his part as Captain America, and others are expected to follow suit. After a decade, Marvel’s greatest strength—the long-term interconnectedness of its universe—may prove to be its greatest roadblock in Phase IV and beyond.
“The downside to Marvel’s shared universe is that it may be its Achilles’ heel,” Phillips said. “It might eventually wear down the MCU because expectations are so big, it becomes more difficult to tell small and intimate stories. In my view, what made Marvel work was the audience’s connection to individual characters.”
It’s true that the MCU has always been more concerned with character than plot. It painstakingly built the audience’s relationships with multiple heroes before really diving into crossover territory. Tony Stark’s arrogant charm, Steve Rogers’ unfaltering nobility, Thor’s innate power—establishing these character traits were the Phase I priorities. Marvel wanted to elicit feeling before it segued into blockbuster team-ups. But the danger of a shared universe’s natural progression is that the grander it gets, the more of a burden it becomes to create new and personal stories within it.
Glass filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan touched on this notion recently while discussing why he didn’t include the Horde from Split in its predecessor, Unbreakable. “Whenever you raise the stakes, you can’t unraise them,” he told Vulture.
Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, Holland’s Spider-Man (barring interference from Sony) and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange are expected to form the core roster of the Avengers in Phase IV and beyond. But as Marvel continues to introduce new characters, it should consider resetting its expectations a bit. Not every blockbuster can be a billion-dollar bonanza of universal praise, especially as the MCU, at least in certain regards, moves back to square one. “If Captain Marvel doesn’t have the same type of success, you might sense a bit of anxiety,” Phillips said.
The good news for the studio? With the Mouse House’s streaming service, Disney+, launching later this year—complete with big-budget Marvel limited series featuring familiar MCU faces—studio head Kevin Feige may have a valuable new opportunity to play around with.
“My guess would be that the cinematic universe will stay with the bigger stories and use the Disney streaming service to tell the smaller stories,” Phillips said. “It could use limited series to tell more intimate stories and use that to build excitement—much like [ABC] tried to do with Agents of SHIELD—and synergy between the small stories and the greater universe.”
We’ll get a clearer picture of the MCU’s future soon enough—Avengers: Endgame hits theaters April 26.