Timing is everything. It’s what allows the Marvel Cinematic Universe to dictate which flavor of the week audiences enjoy without getting too addicted to a single scoop. Since the MCU’s inception, its idea of expansion has been to add more and more characters while gradually broadening the scope of possibility.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe now revolves around galaxy-spanning despots, alternate dimensions, parallel realities, and time travel. Mortal earthlings have given way to immortal beings, powerful aliens, and omnipotent gods. Between Captain America: Civil War and the Avengers films, we’ve seen practically every major name share the screen at one point or another. Now, given the further ascension of the franchise’s power scale punctuated by Disney+’s Loki, which rewrites the MCU hierarchy in an instant, it’s fair to question how Marvel can ever again tell a low-stakes human story. Or, as I similarly asked a few years ago: can Marvel afford to go small after growing to such gargantuan heights? It’s a question particularly worth asking after Episode 3 of Loki, “Lamentis,” sets the stage for a further reevaluation of the grand scheme.
The answer, based on track record, is yes because studio head Kevin Feige understands the importance of placement and timing. At the time of release, Avengers: Infinity War was the single-biggest entry in the MCU in terms of scope, scale and ambition (and don’t forget budget). The franchise had been building toward Thanos ever since a post-credits scene in 2012’s The Avengers. The character’s introduction proved monumental on a universe-spanning scale—a Big Bad to threaten and unify a decade-long series.
Sometimes you need a superheroic breather
Rather than let down audiences after such blockbuster grandeur, Ant-Man and the Wasp, which arrived just three months later, worked like a palate cleanser. Its comparatively low-stakes narrative didn’t detract from Infinity War‘s cosmic destruction. It helped the Marvel machine reset expectations and bridge the gap between monolithic franchise-defining entries. Ant-Man and the Wasp was a necessary recalibration that earned more money ($623 million worldwide vs. $519 million) and a higher Rotten Tomatoes score (87% vs. 83%) than its predecessor.
It’s no accident that the original Ant-Man, a solo film revolving around an innocuous heist, also directly followed Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015. Modulating the intensity levels helps audiences better feel the highest of highs and lowest of lows. What good is a roller coaster without some twists and turns, right?
Similarly, Spider-Man: Far From Home served as an epilogue to the Infinity Saga three months after Avengers: Endgame. It was a scaled-down and quieter final chapter to the 11 years of MCU storytelling that preceded it. Wrestling with Tony Stark’s death, Peter Parker served as an audience surrogate while allowing us to move on from the past.
Marvel’s Disney+ shows are even more flexible
More recently, Marvel sandwiched The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in between WandaVision and Loki. WandaVision explored Wanda’s ability to manipulate realities and opened the door to potentially new dimensions. It is the first act in the MCU’s new focus on the multiverse, which will continue with Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Though we’re only halfway through Loki, it’s apparent that the Time Variance Authority will have far-reaching influence. Feige himself said the series will have “more impact on the MCU than any of the shows thus far” and Loki himself asks if what he’s stumbled into is the “greatest power in the universe,” last week. Episode 3 brings us to another apocalyptic event while revealing that the entire TVA is made up of variants. It’s a quietly integral reveal that sets the stage for further entropy within Marvel’s pecking order. An exclamation point amid a series of question marks.
By comparison, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier may look small with its earth-bound characters squabbling over issues that don’t span solar systems or multiple realities. But in truth, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s thematic messages about race in America and the ways in which we grapple with legacy are arguably the most potent the MCU has produced in years. The show’s placement doesn’t leave it overshadowed by its more wide-spanning sci-fi compatriots. Instead, it enhances our connections to everyday humanity due to its contrast with the omnipotence and inexplicable displayed by its sibling series.
Timing has not always been Marvel’s forte. Prior to Feige being put in charge of all Marvel television, Agents of SHIELD was forced to reboot itself on the fly multiple times. The ABC procedural was designed as connective tissue between major MCU events, yet wound up falling out of step with the greater happenings. A similar sentiment can be cast over Netflix’s Marvel series, which all felt strangely disconnected from the MCU proper. And the less said about Inhumans the better. The Disney+ offerings indicate that the pieces to the over-arching narrative are now more strategically aligned than they have been in the past.
Expect to see more timing synergy, not less
As we look ahead at Phase IV, the starry eyes of Marvel are apparent. Chloe Zhao’s Eternals will introduce a race of immortal celestial creations while Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings brings mysticism into the MCU. Disney+’s What If…? explores alternate realities where anything can happen. But at the same time, Black Widow will serve as a prequel sendoff for a non-superpowered fan favorite and upcoming 2021 Disney+ series like Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel will be decidedly grounded as well.
The grand lynchpins of reality that affect trillions across the cosmos slot in comfortably next to the everyday heroics hoping to save just one life. Marvel has figured out when and where it can pivot focus on a dime and still maintain rabid levels of audience affection.