The once invincible Marvel Cinematic Universe suddenly seems a little, well, wounded. Eternals -- its biggest and most expensive endeavor since Avengers: Endgame -- received worse-than-expected reviews, and the studio pushed back all of its 2022 and 2023 releases by months to a year. And while that was in part due to on-set accidents and production delays, there are likely broader reasons. Hollywood has long wondered if and when superhero fatigue would set in, and after 13 years and 26 feature films, it's starting to feel like it finally has. But if the MCU's momentum has slowed, it's not entirely Marvel Studios' fault.
The Start of Phase 4 Was Always Going to be Rough
Avengers: Endgame is the MCU's crowning achievement -- and its own worst enemy. The climax oof Phase 3 was such an effective capstone to everything that came before it, as it not only made films like Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron seem better in retrospect but also made everything that's come after it feel like small potatoes by comparison. Even if Eternals' stakes are higher in-world, they aren't nearly as high narratively speaking. Not to mention, in Endgame, fans said goodbye to original Avengers Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff. Sure, the MCU isn't quite starting over from scratch and there are unfinished stories left to tell and still plenty of characters that fans are invested in (some yet to make their MCU debut), but the transition between what was and what's to come was always going to feel like rebuilding.
The Pandemic Left Phase 4 Hanging
In the grand scheme of things, the delay of a film's release isn't remotely the worst problem caused by a global pandemic. But by 2020, movies had almost become synonymous with the MCU, and COVID-19 had an outsized effect on Marvel Studios. Fans had become accustomed to seeing MCU titles two or three times a year, usually in packed theaters on opening weekend. Marvel movies weren't just individual events -- they'd become a collective pastime. Then, Black Widow was postponed and was eventually released more than a year later and on Disney+, which felt anti-climatic.
The public's routine was broken and MCU movies just weren't as much a part of the zeitgeist as they used to be. Legos, Funko figurines and T-shirts for unseen movies sat on shelves. Black Widow's reviews and box-office were below average. Shang-Chi's were strong, but both movies came and went without the usual cultural saturation and fanfare. Disney probably couldn't have handled the pandemic much better than it did, but, like all of us, the MCU will take a while to bounce back from a difficult 18+ months.
Chadwick Boseman's Death Was a Tragic Blow
The death of Chadwick Boseman in August of 2020 was an unthinkably tragic outcome for the actor's friends and family. It was also a tragedy for Marvel fans. Yes, Boseman's passing affected the production of the Black Panther sequel and the trajectory of the MCU's future, but that's not the point. His embodiment of the character was roundly beloved, and countless kids lost someone who was, for them, a real superhero. The news of his death was so unexpected and sad, it tore through the veil between the real world and the one fans escaped to on-screen. Despite all of the MCU's gods, monsters, sky beams and explosions, it was a place in which everyone knew that, at the end of the day, everything was going to be okay. But the loss of Boseman was a difficult-to-process reminder that, in our universe, that's not always true, and the MCU has felt a little like playing pretend ever since.
The Focus Switched to TV
Though Marvel's migration to its corporate overlord's new streaming service was in the works long before March of 2020, the lack of MCU movies in theaters meant living rooms were the only place for fans to get their fix. All three live-action Disney+ series were hits, and all three got to experiment with form and tone in ways that aren't usually afforded to the feature films, which bear the heavy burden of those box office numbers. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, for example, just had to earn Disney a new demographic of subscribers. WandaVision received more critical acclaim and awards attention than any MCU movie.
Audiences, too, seemed to enjoying tuning in at the same time, same place every week. It encouraged fan theorizing and watercooler-type conversation in a way that movies spaced months or years apart can't match. Now fans and critics wonder aloud if every new Marvel feature would've made a better TV show. To be clear, the success of Marvel on Disney+ isn't a net negative. It just makes the MCU feel more fractured, kind of like a cinematic multiverse.
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