This has been a year of experimentation for Marvel. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has expanded into new, fully integrated television programs and hybrid blockbuster releases to complement its primary movie offerings after no major releases in 2020.
Much of it has been lauded and adored, but newer releases have failed to captivate audiences in the same way that prior fan favorites did.
Since the summer highs of Loki and What If…?, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been on a never-before-seen downward spiral. The weight of two dozen previous films is crushing down on Black Widow and Shang-Chi, and neither feels totally at peace striking off in their own way.
Eternals suffers from being extremely detailed and sluggish, despite the fact that it strives to give something more intellectually and emotionally difficult.
This meekness is mirrored at the box office, which is poor even accounting for a worldwide epidemic. No MCU film has cracked into the top six highest-grossing films of the year for the first time since 2014, with No Time to Die, Fast & Furious 9, and Godzilla vs. Kong comfortably ahead of them. In fact, the year’s most profitable Marvel-branded picture, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, isn’t even a part of the MCU.
On the little screen, things aren’t much better. Hawkeye, which focuses on the most uninteresting of the Avengers, has had the lowest ratings of any live-action MCU Disney+ series so far. The MCU’s future may seem to be bright, but critically and financially, it is in worse shape than it has ever been.
Hopefully, Spider-Man: No Way Home will serve as a reminder of what these flicks are capable of. Tom Holland’s third appearance as the most famous of all Marvel characters (pre-MCU at least) has surpassed all other releases this year in terms of anticipation. And it has a lot of pressure on it to produce.
This is Spider-ninth Man’s film in the last two decades. No Way Home will embrace the opportunity to bring back adversaries from the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield period flicks, from Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin to Jamie Foxx’s Electro, thanks to the multiverse. While this is exciting news, it begs an important question: is the MCU so insecure that it feels compelled to pander to nostalgia so openly?
This isn’t an exercise in artistic freedom. Instead, it comes across as a twitchy backup plan from a studio concerned about its future success. In doing so, the MCU risks shooting itself in the foot by putting a premium on quick thrills and dramatic character returns over a tale that understands how less can be more.
The story framework of MCU films, which has been a big part of their popularity for a long time, is also threatening to drag No Way Home down. Dr Strange’s presence provides Peter Parker with yet another pseudo-father figure with whom he can vent his inner fears and indulge in clever banter.
This is the third time this narrative card has been used, after the Vulture in Homecoming and Mysterio in Far From Home. Even in the trailers, there are unwanted hints that Strange is not the right fit for this character (“let’s Scooby-Doo this crap”) Something is extremely wrong when you can sit through No Way Home with a checklist, crossing off tropes like the possible sacrifice of a loved one, a clichéd villain line, and some badly delivered efforts at comedy.
As the MCU has developed, so has the desire to delve into the backstories of earlier films, which in this instance extends outside the one common reality. The return of Trevor Slattery in Shang-Chi serves nothing to advance the plot.
Discussions about the Avengers and Thanos in Eternals felt forced. They may have been completely deleted and the film would not have suffered as a result.
As part of an enormously interconnected series of films and television programs, each new picture or series must struggle to stand on its own two feet. There’s a lot riding on Spider-newest Man’s adventure to get the MCU back on track, but there’s no guarantee it’ll happen.
No Way Home, perhaps, will breathe new life into a brand that means so much to so many people. Perhaps it will be a huge success, assuaging any concerns about the MCU’s future quality.
But if it doesn’t, this might be a major setback. Almost every other release this year has been experimental in some way, offering new characters and tales.
No Way Home is, at least in theory, a return to a tried-and-true fan favorite. What will reignite the MCU’s fire if a film featuring one of the most renowned superheroes of all time fails?