Apart from Spider-Man: No Way Home, Marvel’s outings since the conclusion of Phase Three have been niche films with reviews that ranged from lukewarm to outright negative. This was inevitable. As evidenced by Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the transition from one blockbuster storyline to another is a difficult one. Without the major characters who are easily recognizable even by non-fans — Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Spider-Man — and without A-list stars as attractions for ancillary characters like Ant-Man, Marvel is essentially in a retool mode where it is simply trying to bridge one phase to the next without alienating its hard-core “I’ll watch anything Marvel produces” fan.
Those who are responding negatively to Quantumania have lamented its relentless CGI, characters brought from the back to the front, difficult to follow narratives and absence of clear-cut resolution. Bluntly, those who enjoy Marvel and know these characters will take affront at the criticism, but looking at it from a different perspective gives clarity to the negativity.
I have never seen one episode of Game of Thrones. If you dropped me in the middle of season three, episode five (this is random; don’t look it up to nitpick), I would mock the sets, the script and that I have no clue who any of those people are, nor do I care about them. The same can be said for any long-term, interlocked project where the minutiae is a large part of the entertainment in recognizing minor characters. This is what Marvel has relied on since it started the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man in 2008.
The films and television shows of Phase Four have been gateway films to the next phase. This is where Marvel needs to regain its footing or run the risk of hitting a wall from which it cannot recover its lost luster. In the long run, small Easter eggs that were dropped in Black Widow, Shang-Chi, Eternals, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder and Wakanda Forever were the entire purpose of the films. Had they not been part of the MCU with a guaranteed, built-in audience even if the film itself was objectively atrocious, they might not have been made as standalone films at all, let alone at the massive budgets allotted.
Marvel’s current predicament can be compared to a sports dynasty that is moving on from its core group of players and integrating newly developed talent to the roster without burning it to the ground. Comparing what Marvel is doing with how erstwhile Marvel star director James Gunn is rebooting DC and making difficult decisions such as removing Henry Cavill from his role as Superman, apparently moving on from Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and torching Zack Snyder’s beautiful cinematography and ponderous plots for the greater good. DC is tearing it down to expansion team-level status while Marvel is trying to remain competitive until it gets to the next phase of star-level characters ninety-five percent of the planet recognizes by name.
Quantumania is entertaining. The characters and actors are likable, but they’re basically furniture — there to complete the decor. Jonathan Majors’ introduction as Kang shows a charismatic, weirdly likable and profoundly dangerous antagonist who will be a key who Fantastic Four, X-Men and the new roster of the Avengers (however it is comprised) must confront. Still, the criticism — when looked at on its own merits — is fully justified as viewers who parachute in without prior knowledge of the comic books and an intermittent interest in the prior films wonder why there are so many characters that look like rejects from the Star Wars cantina scene, the Terminator, Ed Wood and a really bad acid trip.
As Marvel moves forward with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, The Marvels, Captain America: New World Order (apparently without Steve Rogers/Chris Evans), Thunderbolts and Blade, it must-must-must make sure that it nails Phase Six starting with Deadpool 3 and Hugh Jackman entering the MCU as Wolverine in what one would hope is more than a brief cameo. To ensure Marvel returns to its glory, the studio cannot miss as it finally gets its hands on Fantastic Four and has the opportunity to reboot the cornerstone team that was a critical piece of Marvel Comics from its early days. Next come the Avengers taking on Kang and a highly-anticipated big screen version of Secret Wars.
Like many worthwhile destinations, getting there is the problem.
Phase Five has not been a disaster. It does show hallmarks of Marvel fatigue predominately because the backups are being asked to carry the team and have run into the catch-22 of showing precisely why they were backups to begin with.