SPOILER WARNING: This article will be talking about plot elements of the all the entries of Marvel’s Phase four to date. If you are not up to speed on your Marvel Cinematic Universe watching – And really, how dare you? – you might want to proceed with caution.
The term “Jumping the Shark,” in case you didn’t know, refers back to the TV show Happy Days. Back in 1977, the show was the #1 show in the country, with its spin-off Laverne & Shirleynot far behind it. For the 1977 season opener, ABC did a three-parter where Fonzie, Richie and the gang went to Hollywood. Fonzie is challenged to do a stunt where he has to jump over a shark cage while water skiing. TV critics pinpoint that episode as the start of the show’s decline. Even though it went on for seven more years, critics point to that episode where Happy Days started its slow descent from high quality and massive popularity into mediocrity and eventual cancellation.
Eventually, the point where successful shows and franchises hit their apex begin their inevitable downfall is call their “Jumping the Shark” point. There have been many websites and opinion pieces that argue when a particular series of film franchise “jumped the shark”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe seemed prime for a “jumping the shark” moment. For ten years, the Marvel films have been on top of the mountain. Each one was a hit, many massive ones, and more often than not received sterling reviews. It was like the films could do no wrong.
But the films were heading into some uncertain times after Avengers: Endgame. That film seemed like a big culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe up to that point, and the next phase offered an uncertain future without Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man and Chris Evans as Captain America.
With two of the franchise’s biggest money earners off the table, a few stumbles could have the film series putting on the water skis and doing a Fonzie.
And it seems like it might be happening now. The four offerings in Marvel’s Phase 4–three Disney+ series and one feature film–have received more criticism from fans and critics than Marvel’s offerings typically get. It seems like people are finding things wrong with everything Marvel offers nowadays. Does this mean that the bloom is off the rose? Is the honeymoon over? Is the MCU jumping the shark?
No. Yes. Maybe. Could be? Let’s examine the situation and find out together, shall we?
How I am going to approach this is to go through the major recurring complaints from each of the MCU’s Phase 4 offerings that I can find and address them to see if they are valid and if they will led to the MCU’s doom. I’m not going to touch on gripes like “They should have released all the Disney+ episodes all at once” because, well, have you forgotten how TV shows work? Instead, we are going to talk about criticisms that have damned other franchises before and new problems that could be fatal in the long run.
Let’s start with the MCU’s first Disney+ offering.
The first entry into Marvel’s Phase 4 started off with a bang. Finally we would have an episodic series delivering on the promise of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.–a TV show that ties directly into the movies. WandaVision also gave hope that the MCU creators would be getting experimental with their story telling for Phase 4.
The series started off boldly. It started off as a homage to the sitcoms of the 1950s, with Wanda and Vision in the Lucy and Ricky Ricardo/Laura and Rob Petrie roles. However, soon weird happenings occur that disrupt the idyllic sitcom reality. We discover that Wanda created a new reality based on classic sitcoms she grew up watching as a way to deal with the grief of losing Vision during Avengers: Infinity War. The bad part is she imprisoned an entire town in New Jersey to do it.
One of the criticisms about the show from the very beginning was a longtime criticism of of the comic book source material–one of accessibility. Critics asked how many movies would they have to watch for the series to make sense. If you want to drive yourself crazy, here’s a list:
- Iron Man, Iron Man 2, & Iron Man 3: Introduced Paul Bettany as J.A.R.V.I.S., the artificial intelligence Tony Stark uses to run his technology.
- Avengers: Age of Ultron: Introduces Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda, her brother Pietro (portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), gave J.A.R.V.I.S. physical form as Vision, and where Pietro dies.
- Thor & Thor: Dark World: Introduced Kat Denning’s Darcy Lewis.
- Captain America: Civil War: Wanda and Vision relationship begins and Sokovia accords enacted.
- Ant-Man and the Wasp: Introduces Randall Park’s Jimmy Woo.
- Captain Marvel: Introduced Teyonah Parris’ Monica Rambeau as a child (where she was portrayed by Akira Akbar)
- Avengers: Infinity War: More on Vision and Wanda’s relationship, Vision is destroyed by Thanos, Wanda is “dusted” by Thanos.
- Avengers: Endgame: Wanda returns to life, seeks vengeance against Thanos.
- X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse, & X-Men: Dark Phoenix: Introduces Evan Peters’ version of Pietro/Quicksilver.
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Season 4 & Runaways, Season 2: Not movies, true, but where a version of the Darkhold first appeared.
Now, do you HAVE to watch all these entries to know what is going on? No. And with the last two X-Men films, it would be a punishment to force you to. But if you just stuck with the Avengers films that’s almost 8 hours of viewing right there. It’s a full day’s work!
But all of those films and TV shows would enhance your viewing of WandaVision. The same goes for every entry in Phase 4. They all have a list of previous MCU films they draw on. Now, you might say that the Marvel films have been the most popular film franchise of the last 10 years. Everybody and their brother has already seen most of them, and if they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t be interested in WandaVision anyway.
But new viewers might find all that homework daunting. And the way any franchise stays alive is by bring fresh eyes in. If you alienate new viewers with your massively deep back story, that could turn out to be a death sentence.
Another criticism aired about WandaVision, one which I talked about back in March, is the “bait and switch” they did during the series. I’m not going to rehash that except to say that teasing your hardcore fans with character appearances and plot points and not carrying through with it leads to bad feelings among your core audience. The only thing that would make it worse is you made the fans feel like idiots for falling for your ruse. Like I said above, Marvel Studios should be trying to get new people to watch their output, not try to chase away their loyal fans.
Another criticism that abounded with WandaVision was the finale. For as inventive and daring as series began, the ending devolved into your typical Marvel fisticuffs where the heroes faced off against villains with the same powers as themselves. Pop quiz: What Phase 4 entry didn’t have the heroes face off against a version of themselves? Answer: None. All of them had that ending. Heck, Loki took it to a new level by having Loki literally fight a version of himself from another dimension.
Marvel seems to be leaning heavily into the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” maxim. If fans want a slugfest, let’s give them one. But “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” can turn into “going to the well one too many times” very quick. WandaVision was the ideal place to try a new type of finale, one that matched its inventive beginning. Marvel Studios dropped the ball with that one.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
The second Disney+ show brings us back into a more traditional narrative, one we’ve come to expect from the MCU.
The series deals with a world dealing with the aftermath of two world changing events–the retirement of Steve Rogers as Captain America and the return of billions of people who were erased during Thanos’ snap. Sam Wilson is wrestling with Cap’s legacy after Steve gave him his shield at the end of Endgame and decides to donate the shield to the Smithsonian as he is not prepared to take on the mantle. Bucky/Winter Soldier/White Wolf is none to happy with Sam, and become even less so when the government gives the shield to a decorated war veteran named John Walker so he can become a Captain America they can control. Before that can be addressed, Sam and Bucky become embroiled with the Flag Smashers, a terrorist organization unhappy with how the world governments are shoving the people who survived the Snap aside in favor of those that returned from the dead.
One vocal criticism of this show was it was too heavy handed, politically. Yes, there are people out there who want their Captain America stories to be non-political.
Most of these critiques come from people who are less upset that the show was politically preachy but rather that the show wasn’t preaching the politics they subscribe to. The demographic in my informal perusal of the Internet was that sites chiming in with this criticism range all the way from the right to the the lunatic fringe. The “Marvel is too woke” criticism is nothing new to the franchise. Take a look at the response in some circles when Captain Marvel came out. But that kind of criticism doesn’t affect the film or TV show’s financial success. Marvel will face that criticism more in the future as its diverse slate of films and shows roll out. It will not affect the MCU’s survival.
What might is other criticisms from more serious critics about the show. Falcon and Winter Soldier was called out for being too formulaic, not having well defined characters and villains and engaging in “telling, not showing,” pointing out specifically Sam’s speech at in the finale. These complaints are nothing new to the MCU. This has been a failing of their output before and, as we’ll see, it will be again. But the fact that they don’t seem interested in fixing these issues might come back and bite them.
I mean, think about it. If you are a novice screenwriter, writing a superhero script on spec, and you have in the climax one of the main characters giving a soliloquy on the value of empathy for five minutes, your script would sail right over the slush pile and into the waste bin. I believed in the message and even I thought that speech went on a bit too long.
It was not easy for the Black Widow to get her own film. People have been trying since 2004, not only six years before the character made her MCU debut in Iron Man 2 but also four years before there was an MCU at all. The bad luck continued even after the film was green lit as the pandemic caused it to be move several times away from its original release date of May 1, 2020. Even when it hit theaters, it didn’t fully hit theaters. It received a streaming debut–at a premium price–on Disney+ the same day it was released to theaters–July 9, 2021.
The film picks up after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Natasha Romanov has gone into hiding due to her part in aiding Cap in that film, as is just about to settle into a life safely off the grid. However, a package from her surrogate sister Yelena Belova alerts her to something quite disturbing: The Red Room, the Russian program that molded her and Belova into Black Widows, is still active and the man in charge of it, a man named Dreykov–someone Natasha thought she killed, is still alive and running it. Natasha decides to come out of hiding to free the current Black Widows and put an end to The Red Room once and for all.
The main criticism of the fans of the film was the portrayal of the Taskmaster. The character in the film was greatly changed from the way it was portrayed in the comic books. In the comics, Taskmaster is Tony Masters, a man gifted with photographic reflexes. This means he can instantly copy the natural abilities and fighting styles of anyone he watches. Fighting him is like fight Captain America, Daredevil and Spider-Man at the same time. He uses these abilities to train all the henchmen other villains hire to fight these heroes.
In the film, Taskmaster is Antonia Dreykov, daughter of the big bad who got caught as collateral damage in the bomb meant to assassinate her father. Dreykov saved her life and brainwashed her into becoming his personal security guard and operative. She does have the same photographic reflexes as the comic character, although they appear to cybernetic enhancements more than a natural ability.
In the interest of fairness, Taskmaster is one of my favorite Marvel villains. As a matter of fact, I have a Taskmaster Funko Pop bobble head staring at me from my desk as I write this. All that being said, I can’t say I’m all that upset about the change. For one, I knew from the first trailer that the character would never be properly developed in the film. It was a tier-2 baddie, they always get the short shrift. But at least the change was used to enhance the plot of the film (Natasha is haunted by the fact that she might have killed Antonia in the assassination attempt. Her still being alive adds to Natasha’s redemption arc).
Which is not to say that we should discount the criticisms outright. It is easy to, as some of the voices in the choir are from the “he-man woman haters” subsection of comic fandom that has an aversion to all things female. But Marvel’s treatment of the Taskmaster falls into the “plug and play” trend that helped doom other comic book film franchises. This is where popular characters from the comics are plugged into the film essentially just to have them in the film. Not much effort is made to recreate what made them so interesting in the comics, they are basically taking up space on the screen. Some examples include Bane in Batman & Robin, Juggernaut, Madrox and Calisto in X-Men: The Last Stand and Psylocke in X-Men: Apocalypse. All three are on the list of the worst comic book films, in case you didn’t know.
Marvel Studios is usually good about bring their comic book characters to the screen. In their 13 years of operation, the Taskmaster is only the second character to generate this kind of controversy (the first? Mandarin in Iron Man 3, but they are fixing that as we speak). The characters might not match up exactly, but the film versions were true to the spirit of the comic book version. If they move away from this, they are bound to lose fans.
Speaking of alienating fans, let us talk about Black Widow screenwriter Eric Pearson’s response to the Taskmaster controversy. Pearson was speaking with the Phase Zero podcast when the Taskmaster backlash came up. This was how he opened his comments (Tip of the hat to LRM Media):
“I made the mistake of looking in direct message requests, and someone said, ‘I don’t mean to be out of line, but Taskmaster was the biggest betrayal of my life.’ And I was just like, I got mad for a second and then I was like, well you’ve had a pretty good life then. If that’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, then you should be psyched, cause like, you know. Someone in a movie wasn’t who you wanted them to be?”
Listen, I know that there are a lot of yahoos in the comic book film community. Trust me, I know. But not every fan is. You can love a comic book character, be disappointed in how they are portrayed and not be an asshole. And if you think that everyone who has a complaint like this one is an asshole, you are going to be sorry in the long run.
Pearson’s response seems to be another example of a new, antagonistic attitude Marvel Studios is having towards its fans. This, added to the “Bait and Switch” I mentioned above gives the impression that Marvel is sick and tired of dealing with some of its fans. Even Kevin Feige got into the act, using the same “Made the mistake” line when referring to looking at negative internet comments aimed at Wyatt Russell’s John Walker in The Falcon and Winter Soldier. Perhaps Marvel is aiming at only a specific type of fan, the type that takes things too far–is abusive, racist or misogynistic–but the strafing hits the rabidly enthusiastic fans as well. Maybe they think that the MCU has grown beyond the need for the devoted comic book fan. we’ll see if that is true.
Another tidbit that might have gone unnoticed by Pearson’s interview is where he said that Marvel told him the Taskmaster was going to be in the film, and he was challenged with trying to fit the character in. This proves that the heavy hand the Marvel Studios was rumored to have in the creative process. This amount of micromanagement hampers the creative energy of the screenwriters and directors hired. Any of these type of talent must be able and willing to play withing these constraints. This limits the type of creators Marvel can get in these projects.
Almost as concerning, however, is the tone of the film. Black Widow, as is stands, is a fun movie. It has great action scenes, inventive stunts, a lot of humor, great acting (David Harbour is a national treasure, and I’d say that even if my wife’s family didn’t know his). But in my opinion, it could have been better served as a gritty revenge thriller that a lighter spy flick. My reasoning deals with The Red Room as part of Natasha’s back story.
The Red Room is one of the darkest elements to be introduced into the MCU. Little orphan girls as young as five are placed into the secret Russia program where they undergo constant brutal training in order to become spies. Firearms training involves killing human beings. Combat training often leads to the better fighter killing the lesser one. If you are tough enough to make it through you get a graduation present–a forced hysterectomy. The Russians want absolutely nothing to get in the way of their female assassins’ work.
This part of Black Widow’s origin stuck out like a sore thumb to me when it was introduced back in Avengers: Age of Ultron. But, not getting into the controversy around it at the time, if you are building your Black Widow movie around her taking down The Red Room, I believe the film would have played better as a visceral payback film. I’m not saying make it rated R, because unlike certain studios (~cough, cough~ Warner Brothers ~cough, cough~), I don’t believe making a film rated R for the sake of the rating makes a film better. But the film deserves a harder edge.
But Marvel Studios would never do that. It has to stick to the formula. It needs to stock the shelves for future installments. And most importantly, it has to sell toys (the irony of which is that most of the film tie-in toys hit stores over a year before and were either all sold out or consigned to the remainder bins when the film was actually released). Playing it safe and not exploring new ways to tell your story will lead to stagnation and drive fans away.
Due to its finale arriving after the Black Widow premiere, we are going to consider Loki the last entry in the first stage of Phase 4. That fits because the show has a an “end of the beginning” feel about it.
The series starts right after Loki uses the Tesseract to make his escape in Avengers: Endgame. As any fan of the MCU knows, this wasn’t supposed to happen. As such, the escape catches the attention of the Time Variance Authority. See, Loki’s escape caused an alternate reality to branch off from the main universe, and the escaped Loki became a time variant. This is a big no-no to the TVA, who like only one timeline and for it to be squeaky clean. When branches occur-their creation is called “Nexus Events”–the TVA springs into action and scrubs the timeline from existence and prunes the variant from all realities.
Loki is spared this fate when the TVA makes him an offer. He’ll be allowed to live if he helps the TVA chase down a pesky variant that has escaped and is interfering with TVA business. Loki is the perfect man for the job because the trouble making variant is a female version of himself from and alternate reality.
The main thru line in the show’s negative reviews is that the show is too talky. Superhero movies are typically exposition heavy, as they need to introduce whole world and a large number of superheroes all with different superpowers. Loki is further hampered by being about time travel, a topic that needs a whole lot of explaining in order for it to make sense. But for some critics it was too much explaining, especially in the finale, which one critic dropped the nuclear bomb of critical comparisons on it–that it reminded him of the ending of The Matrix Reloaded.
Let’s bring back that imaginary screenwriter from a few paragraphs back. They are back with another spec script for a series. The finale they wrote features the two protagonist finally coming face to face with the antagonist, someone who has endangered their lives constantly and has through nigh insurmountable obstacles in their way. They track down the bad guy in his citadel, find him in his study and then….sit down and have a twenty-minute philosophical discussion with him.The producer wouldn’t even bother with the trash can. He’d call in his assistant and have them immediately shred the script so no one could ever look upon it ever again.
If you read any book on screenwriting, heck any book on dramatic writing, and you find the cardinal rule is “Show, don’t tell.” It is a visual medium after all. If you get to wordy in a visual medium, your audience is likely to get bored, is what we were taught. Marvel Studios has set out to break this rule in just about every entry in Phase 4.
Maybe they think that there audience is more literate and cultured than the norm, and they would love having three incredible actors sitting around and talking for a half hour as a rousing finale. However, considering they tacked on a knife fight between Loki and Sylvie, they probably knew the scene needed some kind of action.
Evidence of Jumping the Shark
There is plenty of evidence in the previous paragraphs that the glory days for the Marvel Cinematic Universe are over and it is set for a steep decline. Let’s do a quick recap of the things that I think might spell the MCU’s doom:
- The MCU’s history makes it inaccessible to new viewers: With 23 films and 15 TV series, there is a ton of backstory that might be too daunting for new viewers.
- Marvel Studios is too slavishly devoted to its formula to allow the franchise grow and evolve: The studio will only allow original concepts to go so far in its franchise. Inventive creators are handicapped by being forced to honor what came before, set up what will come in the future, and presenting the tropes of the franchise.
- Marvel Studios overly talkative narrative style will bore audiences: The studio’s exposition-heavy films are further complicated by finales built around conversations and speeches. Their “talk, don’t show” philosophy might eventually alienate the audience they have and make it harder for them to get new viewers.
- Going with “plug and play” versions of the character that bear no resemblance to the comic book version: The Marvel Cinematic Universe was built on the fact that there would be verisimilitude between the comics and what you see on screen. Plugging a character that is not at the very least true to the spirit to the original character has been historically proven to help torpedo franchises.
- An arrogant or aggressive attitude towards their fans: The MCU became as popular as it did by celebrating its fans. It’s yearly San Diego Comic Con presentation was like one big love letter to faithful. But when you do bait and switches or demean criticisms your followers make–even if your intended targets are the more negative elements of fandom–you are bound to lose the normal people who have supported you all this time.
Evidence of Not Jumping the Shark.
For all the words I just used to clang the chimes of doom, there are a lot of reasons why the MCU is safe and sound. Here are some of them, in my opinion:
- The negative critical response listed here is still in the minority: While I believe most of the flaws pointed out by theses naysayers is legitimate, we must realize that a majority of critics gave these four entries positive reviews. All of them score highe than 80% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, WandaVision was nominated for 20 Emmys and The Falcon and Winter Soldier nominated for 5.
- Fans are still excited about their output: MCU fans have come to know to either stay off social media or get up as soon as the Disney+ shows went up on the platform if they wanted to avoid spoilers. Black Widow opened to $219 million global with the Disney+ premium added in, and that’s in a world where where COVID-19 is still a concern and people are still hesitant to return to theaters. So, demand is still there.
- The MCU is not going anywhere for a while: Marvel Studios has 8 films and 5 TV series either filming or in post-production. There will be content all the way into 2023. Unless there is an absolutely catastrophic collapse, the end of the MCU won’t be hitting before 2024 at the earliest.
- The Fantastic Four and X-Men are still on the way: Ever since Disney bought out Fox, people have been chomping at the bit to see Marvel Studios’ take on the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. An FF film is in development. I’m sure something involving the X-Men is in the works. When these projects hit, they could keep the MCU going for several more decades.
As unsatisfying as it may be, the answer might be “too soon to tell.” I doubt Happy Days knew it was jumping the shark when Fonzie was jumping the shark. There are a lot of real issues raised by these critics. But there is time for them to be addressed. But there is also time for them to continue on until fans are sick of them. Who is to say what the future will bring? But just mark this date down in case it all starts to go down hill.