The MCU Problem

By | Monday, May 02, 2022 Leave a Comment
I finally watched Spider-Man: No Way Home over the weekend. (Spoiler warning; I will be mentioning several plot points about the movie here.) It wasn't my favorite film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or, for that matter, even my favorite MCU Spider-Man film, but I liked it well enough. But while I was watching it, I was very much struck how it wasn't really even a Spider-Man movie. Sure, Spider-Man was the main character and the story was told from his perspective. And the characterization felt very much on point for Tom Holland's, Andrew Garfield's, and Tobey Maguire's versions of the character. But the premise of the film -- the reason for its existence -- didn't feel like it was meant to further develop the character at all, but to address the MCU's broader continuity, some of the issues around that (current and potential), and act as a reset for the franchise. It (and, from what I can tell from the trailers) and the upcoming Dr. Strange, Multiverse of Madness are the MCU's version of Crisis on Infinite Earths: a line-wide reboot to address everything they hadn't considered when they started making these films.

Spider-Man, broadly speaking, works in part because he's an everyman character. He struggles with issues like paying the rent, juggling work/life balance, and doing the right thing even when the media says otherwise. Most of the characters in the MCU don't have those issues either because they've got personal wealth and/or they're being sponsored by some government agency. So when Marvel introduced Holland's Spider-Man as a Tony Stark protégé, they side-stepped much of his everyman history -- literally in his first appearance, Stark gave him a high-tech suit so he could help capture Captain America and half the Avengers. All of the Spidey's appearances since then have very much revolved around being thrust into this world of bleeding edge technologies and government-sponsored missions. Even with the loss of Stark as a sponsor, it's hard to justify Spider-Man not continuing to remain in that world. As we see in No Way Home, he could knock on Happy Hogan's door and still have access to a tech lab that impresses even the likes of Norman Osborn and Otto Octavius.

But that's still a Spider-Man specific problem and, while No Way Home addresses that, that's not the point of the movie as I said. The probem they're trying to address is: how do they keep making superhero movies within a single franchise that don't keep getting further and further removed from reality? There have been extended movie franchises before the MCU, of course. I was talking just last week about how they made 28 Blondie & Dagwood movies between 1938 and 1950 -- most of that time running concurrently with a weekly, half-hour radio program! And... and they largely shared continuity with the daily comic strip! (Not specific storylines since they were mostly just a series of one-off gags but as the actors aged, so did the characters in the strip! Admittedly, timing between the two lagged considerably, given production schedules.) But those were all small, slice-of-life pictures with no appreciable consequences outside the Bumstead family. The MCU franchise has lots of advanced ideas and concepts that are literally world-changing, and become harder to ignore as these movies progress.

While the sliding timescale used in Marvel Comics presents some of its own problems (most notably, topical references that no longer work -- how could Reed Richards have served in WWII and Frank Castle serve in Vietnam if they're both canonically less than ten years apart in age?) one advantage that it does have is that the slower timescale means that technological advances in the real world are better able to keep up with the fictional ones. There's also enough distance between the stories and reality by virtue of format itself that any disconnects can be dismissed by readers fairly easily. There's an inherent static-ness to the world of the comics since the characters effectively don't age that allows readers to forgo questioning the long-term social impact of half of the universe being blipped out of existence.

That's a much more difficult line to walk in movies for a number of reasons. First, the actors visibly age. Holland was 20 years old presenting as 16 when he first portrayed Spider-Man. When No Way Home came out, he was 25, passing himself off as 17. Chris Evans was 30 when he first portrayed Captain America and, while he still looks good, he does look noticably older now. That gets increasingly harder to work around from a practical perspective -- you wind up with something like The Amazing Spider-Man where a 29-year-old Garfield was trying to be passed off as a high school student. (Garfield turned in a good performance, mind you, but at no point did he not look like a grown-ass adult!) To the audience, this grounds the movies in reality more than an illustration because they can't not see the effects of time passing from movie to movie.

Second, the effects are increasingly realistic. We're well past gluing some crude spikes on an iguana and doing a rear-screen projection of that behind some actors; we're seeing effects that are sometimes so credible that you don't even realize they're effects. So now when the screen shows an army of aliens wrecking New York City, you can maybe assume that there's some computers and green screen work involved, but you can't say which is which. When you see a landmark you recognize blow up, you can't tell it's not real. It makes sense, in light of the broader MCU storyline, that they'd modify the Statue of Liberty to hold Captain America's shield... but it's rendered so realistically that you wind up with a disconnect between reality and how you see reality portrayed in the movies.

Third, the audience itself is much, much larger. There were over one million people who saw No Way Home in an AMC theater on its first day. There were 38 million who saw it in theaters during its run, and now that it's available for streaming, I expect the number of viewers has grown exponentially. Any given issue of the Amzing Spider-Man comic sells around 100,000 physical copies and, while I'm sure the number of readers of those stories doubles or triples when you factor in digital and the nigh-inevitable trade paperback collections, that's still less than half of the movie's first day audience at a single theater chain. That means there's a HUGE increase in the number of people you have to convince to suspend their disbelief. Including many people who aren't predisposed to buying into all of the genre conceits. Reading is a solitary experience; a comic's audience is people who want to read that specific comic. Watching a movie is, as often as not, a communal experience; someone going to the movie with you might only be going to be with you and doesn't care about the content of the movie itself.

What all this has to do with how No Way Home not being a Spider-Man movie is that they're using it as a soft reset for the entire MCU. The movie explicitly erases everybody's knowledge of Spider-Man being Peter Parker, which impacts literally every movie Holland's version of the character appears in. While this doesn't change the actual continuity according to Dr. Strange, it changes everyone's memory of it. (Although that means there's news footage archives from multiple outlets expressly saying Parker is Spider-Man, not to mention loads of SHIELD records, and who knows how many cell phone videos, so I'm not sure how -- or even if -- that gets reconciled.) The story also explicitly shows Spider-Man saving the lives of previous villains. This not only is an express retcon by both tying those other movies to this continuity but also changing the outcomes of them. So we've now also changed the rules of engagement in the MCU -- death is very much not final. The heartstrings that got pulled on in, say, Endgame are tempered because, well, maybe we can bring Black Widow and Iron Man back after all without even god-level intervention like Moon Knight recevies via Khonshu. It just takes knowing a bit of science.

Endgame was the culmination of everything the MCU had been heading towards, which was some impressive storytelling, but it left the universe in a state that's too far removed to still be your backyard, which was always part of the appeal of Marvel. No Way Home and Multiverse of Madness (again, from the looks of the trailers) look to be resetting the MCU back to something more recognizeable. The scene where the shield gets knocked off the Statue of Liberty is symbolic of that return to what we know in real life. Spider-Man was a hook to hang these ideas off, and it commercially makes sense as people are still able to recall the Maguire and Garfield movies that were clearly set outside the MCU. They could've done the same thing with Ed Norton, Eric Bana, and maybe Lou Ferrigno. The point being that it's more about establishing a new MCU that doesn't have Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, and rolling back some of the power expansion viewers saw over the past decade. (This was also done, to a lesser degree, in Falcon & the Winter Soldier.)

No Way Home had several boxes it had to check. It was, as I said, a soft reset on the MCU. It had put a final coda on the effects of "the snap." It had to definitively confirm the TV shows are part of the same continuity. (That's literally the only reason to include the scene with Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock. The plot point he delivers could've been anyone's dialogue or even just a news headline.) It had to establish a means of allowing any/all prior movies featuring Marvel properties to be "valid." (Will Peter Hooten get a cameo in Multiverse of Madness?) It had to introduce the multiverse concept to movie-going-but-not-TV-watching audiences in a practical way -- what does it mean to have multiple versions of the same character? -- in advance of the next Dr. Strange movie and simultaneously explain that there's not necessarily a 1:1 relationship from person to person. (There's that whole conversation about who are the Avengers -- are they some kind of band?) It had to resolve the deaths of several major villains from non-Marvel-Studios movies, and show that death is not a permanent state in the Marvel Universe. And, once they got Garfield signed on, they had to give him a chance to redeem his Spider-Man for failing to save Gwen. Add in a bit of old school fan service -- the discussion of Maguire's organic web shooters and his having back problems -- and you've got two hours of screen time without even really getting to furthering character development.

The movie is close to a new origin for Holland's Spider-Man (May's death standing in for Ben's) but it's really an origin for the MCU Phase Four. And potentially whatever they're thinking about for Phases Five and Six. The MCU we see that's focused on the second generation of heroes (Nakia, Ironheart, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, War Machine, etc.) who were launched/inspired/mentored by the Phase One heroes. And that's ultimately what the problem/challenge of the MCU will be -- having to find a way to reset the whole thing every 10-15 years. While there's certainly plenty of templates for that within the comics already, and there's no shortage of ideas along those lines, executing them well over an extended period will have to be handled much more deftly that they've been in the comics. Because, again, we're talking several orders of magntitude larger an audience and the accompanying budgets mean there's MUCH more to lose if any one of them doesn't lead to what the audience considers a successful payoff. Doable, certainly, but there's much more at stake than any of the (often crap) reboots we see in the comics!
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