A little over a week ago at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios, announced their plans for Phase Four of its Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The plan includes a combination of ten movies and TV series over the next couple years. It began with Spider-Man: Far From Home, and continues with Black Widow (May 1st, 2020), Falcon and the Winter Soldier (TV – Fall 2020), The Eternals (November 6th, 2020), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (February 12, 2021), WandaVision (TV – Spring 2021), Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (May 7th, 2021), Loki (TV – Spring 2021), What If…?(animated series – Summer 2021), Hawkeye (Fall 2021), and Thor: Love and Thunder (November 5th, 2021).
When this was announced, I should have been excited. After all, I was hyped for the announcements for other phases. I’ve loved almost every MCU movie so far. But this time, I looked at the announcement, went over the chart of the movies and shows, and shrugged. I was overcome by a feeling I wasn’t really familiar with when I looked at Marvel plans – a sense of indifference for almost the whole thing. Even items that I should have loved seeing and been fired up to see, like Black Widow, Doctor Strange and Loki, didn’t evoke anything other than a hopeful interest.
Once it sunk in that this was the way I felt, I began to wonder why? Why didn’t I seem to care at all about Marvel’s Phase Four? Was it the fact that I was completely unfamiliar with the Eternals or Shang-Chi? I doubted it, since I’d given Marvel the benefit of the doubt with unknown characters after the first Guardians of the Galaxy turned out to be so good. Was it that the movies were about so many minor characters? I didn’t think that was it either. After all, many of my favourite comic book characters tend to be the minor ones, like Black Widow, Longshot, and Psylocke. Was it because half of it was TV series? Definitely not. In many cases, I prefer TV to movies because it allows for longer term plot and character development. So what was my issue?
And then it struck me. All the problems that I had with how the MCU unfolded after Avengers: Endgame were strongly impacting my level of interest in future Marvel projects, even ones involving my favourite characters. Now don’t get me wrong. I loved Endgame. I saw it twice, and enjoyed it both times. The Tony Stark story arc was one of the best arcs I’ve seen for a character on screen. However, there was enough wrong with how they handled certain characters that I simply couldn’t call the movie amazing. When I really started to look at the problems, I realized they went much deeper than simply Endgame. They had been developing for some time in the MCU, and they all seriously affected my love of the franchise. Let me explain, beginning with one of my all-time favourite Marvel characters, Thor.
Thor: God of Clowns
I’ve always loved Thor. When I was a kid, I read a number of his comics and loved them. I’ve been drawn to Norse mythology since I was very young, so it was only natural that comics based around it would appeal to me. When the first Thor movie was announced, I was super excited, and I wasn’t disappointed when I saw it. It remains one of my favourite MCU movies to date. Chris Hemsworth played Thor with a perfect balance of humour and seriousness, never mind how amazing Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki was. They both continued to do an excellent job in the first Avengers movie, and later in Dark World, another movie I really enjoyed (even though I’ve been subject to relentless badgering from some of my friends for liking that movie).
Then came Ragnarok, which was aptly titled since it marked the end of my love of the MCU portrayal of Thor (and Hulk, but I’ll get to that in a bit). This was a movie about the destruction of Thor’s homeland, Asgard, an event that starts with the release of Thor’s sister Hela from her prison upon Odin’s death. This plot is made for drama, for intense scenes between brother and sister, for Thor to grapple with his attempts to stop fate and prevent destruction of his homeland. This could have been Thor’s Winter Soldier (still my favourite Marvel movie), but instead, what do we get? We get Thor spending the whole movie cracking jokes while being nowhere near Asgard for half of it. Heimdall seemed to get all the drama while Thor played a clown. This was the movie where masturbation jokes were made about Thor’s hammer’s ability to fly, and where Thor stuttered stupidly over his admiration of Valkyries. Then we get Thor forming a team called ‘The Revengers’ to take back Asgard from Hela with such wonderful exchanges as:
Valkyrie: Yeah. So, I’m saying that I want to be on the team. Has it got a name?
Thor: Yeah, it’s called the Revengers.
Thor: Because I’m getting revenge. You’re getting revenge. Do you want revenge?
Valkyrie: I’m undecided.
Ha ha ha. And that’s just one example. Every time this movie could have been dramatic, it broke into stupid jokes and humourous exchanges. What we were left with was a movie I’ve heard almost everyone who likes it describe as “fun.” Yeah, it was fun, and there is no problem with some humour being in serious movies. You see humour used effectively in so many dramatic epic movies like Lord of the Rings. But Frodo wasn’t cracking jokes as he overlooked the fires of Mount Doom. Aragorn wasn’t being all witty as defended Helm’s Deep. You had some humour with Gimli and Legolas, but never so much that it overrode the drama. In Ragnarok, humour is all there is. Ragnarok should really have been called “Thor does Guardians of the Galaxy” because the humour that was used felt more like it belonged in that franchise. You never once get a sense that the destruction of Asgard was really that big of a deal, because Thor doesn’t treat it like it’s a big deal. He became a caricature of his former self, all jokes and no real substance. He’s a clown now.
We get a brief reprive from Clown Thor in Infinity War, where we see Thor finally become the true God of Thunder. From the beginning of the movie, where he’s back to being a serious character as Thanos destroys the Asgardian refuges, to the end in one of the most epic scenes in any MCU movie to date, with Thor coming down on the battlefield in a bolt of lightning and laying waste to his foes. We see Thor as I felt he was always meant to be: a heroic thunder god, a leader, and a force to be reckoned with. He’s so powerful, he almost killed Thanos. I thought perhaps Thor had been redeemed after the mess that was Ragnarok. Maybe the third Thor movie was just an exception. I was wrong.
In Endgame we find Thor depressed about losing against Thanos, and the destruction of his homeworld. Once again, we have the opportunity for a serious exploration of human (Asgardian?) emotion, dealing with real problems like depression and grief. But instead we get jokes, jokes and more jokes! Hey, Thor is fat now, so he’s told to eat a salad, he has Cheez Whiz in his veins, and he looks like melted ice cream! Hilarious. His drinking problem is made into a joke. He shares one semi-serious moment with his mother, and that’s about it. Ragnarok Thor is back in full force! We get such epic moments as Thor claiming he’s going to have a panic attack and Thor dealing with video game bullies. Even his crying is a joke, such as that terrible exchange he has with Rocket about those who died (if you don’t remember the scene, go back and find it. It’s embarrassingly bad for how it treats such serious issues). His interactions with the Guardians of the Galaxy are actually really funny, but this is because he basically is one of them now, and he fits in perfectly. At the end of the movie, it’s appropriate that he leaves rulership of his people to Valkyrie so he can fly off with the Guardians. As he boards their ship, he even comments that they’re the “Asgardians of the Galaxy”. Thor has found his place among the non-stop fun and humour of the Guardians, with none of the epic God of Thunder left. Is it any wonder I have no interest in the next Thor movie, especially since it’s being directed by Taika Waititi, the same director responsible for the trash that is Ragnarok? Trash that also ruined the Hulk?
The Hulk is another Marvel character I’ve always loved. His fights with Wolverine, the Abomination and Absorbing Man were always great. I especially liked his run as the grey hulk, the intelligent Mr. Fixit running an underworld mob. So I was excited for the Incredible Hulk in 2008, and I wasn’t disappointed. I enjoyed it. It wasn’t the greatest movie ever, but it wasn’t terrible, and I have a soft spot for the Abomination as a villain. I thought Edward Norton did a good job portraying Bruce Banner, making him seem haunted by the beast that lives in his head.
We didn’t see the Hulk again in the MCU until the first Avengers movie four years later, with Mark Ruffalo playing Bruce Banner now. The character had become slightly more humour-oriented, but it still worked for the movie. Banner became friends with Tony Stark and the Hulk found a home with the Avengers. In Age of Ultron, he’s still a serious scientist working with Tony Stark, even though I strongly disliked his relationship with Black Widow.
And then along came Ragnarok. Not only did that movie destroy Thor, it simultaneously turned the Hulk into the jester to Thor’s clown. Like Thor, he’s all humour, all the time. The perfect example is the lovely exchange the Hulk has with Thor over Thor being angry about losing his father and hammer. It degenerates into banter ten-year-olds everywhere would be proud to use on playgrounds, including such witty moments as Thor saying, “We call you the stupid Avenger” and Hulk’s ever-profound retort of “You tiny Avenger”. Angry Hulk has become a stupid, childish, whining, pouting moron. I’ve gone on about Ragnarok enough in this article already, so let’s just leave it at ‘Ragnarok did almost as much damage to the Hulk as it did to Thor.’
Once again, we get a slight reprieve for the Hulk with Infinity War, as we find a Bruce Banner unable to become the Hulk. It was fine. I had no complaints, although not much about Banner stood out to me in that movie. And then along comes Endgame. I hated the Hulk in this movie. From his silly selfies with kids, to his joking around about the possible effects of testing time travel on his friends, I found the character incredibly annoying. Any tension between the Hulk and Banner was gone. They resolved all their differences somehow and now just inhabit the Hulk’s body together. We’re never told how this happened, really. Long gone are the days of the tortured Banner from the Incredible Hulk. We’re left with happy-fun-times Professor Hulk. Yay. If I never have to see this character again, it will be too soon. And I know I’m going to get him in more Marvel movies. Queue up another source of my lackadaisical attitude towards Marvel Phase Four. They ruined Thor. They ruined the Hulk. Who’s Next?
There I sit watching Endgame for the first time. Yes, I have jokey Thor and Professor Hulk, but hey, Black Widow is awesome! She’s finally getting the character development she’s deserved all along. She’s the leader of the Avengers after they kill Thanos the first time, and she’s thriving. She’s dealing with the loss of half the population of the universe the best way she can, by continuing to fight against the evil in the world. It’s like a perfect culmination of a character I’ve watched grow and develop since Iron Man 2, and I’ve enjoyed almost every step, with the exception of her romance with Bruce Banner. One of my favourite comic book characters is getting her due!
And there I sit in the theatre, with Hawkeye and her going after the soul stone. But wait, one of them has to die. It’s going to be Hawkeye, right? Right? They’ve done almost nothing with his character anyway, so it makes more sense. After all, they’re grooming Black Widow as a leader! She’s just getting started! She’s getting her own solo movie! They can’t kill her. And then she falls off the cliff and dies… I sit there staring at the screen in shocked silence. They actually killed her off. Her death at least meant something, since she sacrificed herself to save the universe. But even still, one of my favourite characters, dead without any chance of coming back, while I’m stuck with jokey Thor and Professor Hulk. Why couldn’t one of them have died there?
I was so excited about Black Widow’s solo movie. I really was. They originally announced it in 2018. I felt that it was long overdue. One of my favourite characters was getting her own movie. But now she’s dead. The solo movie can only fill in gaps in her history. I’ll still go and see it of course, but I can’t believe she’s dead. Marvel gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Sadly, they also took away most of my excitement for the movie.
Cap Gets His Dance
Speaking of excitement and movies, one of the most epic moments of Captain America: The First Avenger is at the end, when Steve Rogers decides he has to crash the plane full of bombs into the arctic ocean to prevent disaster to New York. He spends his last moments talking with his love, Peggy Carter. In particular he talks about needing a raincheck on the dance they said they were going to have together after he got back from this mission. The conversation ends with Steve saying he doesn’t know how to dance as the ice fields below him get closer and closer. Peggy tells him she’ll show him how. “Just be there.” Steve replies, “We’ll have the band play something slow. I’d hate to step on your…” And then there’s nothing but static. We see Peggy in the control room, on the verge of tears, knowing the static means he’s gone. When I first saw it, I teared up. What a moment! Of course, we know he doesn’t die. He ends up frozen in the ice, but Peggy doesn’t know that. All she knows is that Captain America gave up his life to save New York. They would never get their dance. Even when Steve Rogers is brought out of his long deep freeze, it’s too late. Peggy is old now, and has dementia. She finally dies in her sleep in Civil War.
So along comes Endgame. The movie ends with Captain America going back in time to return the infinity stones to their proper places in the timeline. Next time we see him, he’s old. He lived a full life the way he had wanted to. The film closes with a flashback of Steve Rogers dancing in a living room with Peggy Carter. They got their dance at last. The scene has been described as a tearjerker, and as a fitting and well-deserved ending for the Captain America character in the MCU. They couldn’t be more wrong. Captain America’s character is defined by personal sacrifice for the greater good, as evidenced by his decision to crash the plane at the end of The First Avenger and make the ultimate sacrifice. Even though he didn’t lose his life in the end, he still gave up so much, including the love of his life. Except now we know he never really sacrifices anything. Endgame makes sure Captain America gets his cake and eats it too. He can make all the decisions as a hero, but in the end, he still gets everything. He’s sacrificed nothing. I can never watch the scene at the end of the First Avenger again without thinking, “Hey! This doesn’t matter. Don’t worry, Peggy. You’re getting your dance. Steve will be there when you get home.” The best moment in that movie has been ruined for the sake of “giving Cap what he deserved”.
Giving heroes all the rewards is not how true heroes work if you want to tell a good story. Look at Tony Stark in Endgame as an example. He sacrifices his life just as he’s finally achieved his dream life, with his wife and child. “I love you 3000” will always remind us of the sacrifice Tony made. And then there’s Frodo in Lord of the Rings. He sacrificed a quiet, happy life to save the world. The sorrow on Gandalf’s face in Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo agrees to carry the ring to Mordor says it all. It’s poignant because we know what awaits Frodo on his journey, and the effect this will have on him.
And therein lies the problem. Endgame became the end point of a larger issue for me in the MCU: Marvel is getting bad at storytelling. They ruined a hero’s sacrifice. They turned the God of Thunder into a clown. They made the Hulk a selfie-taking comedy figure. They killed characters just as they started to shine. They’re not utterly lost, as shown by stories like Iron Man’s, but they’ve slid enough in quality to make me really concerned about whether or not I’m going to get a good movie when I go watch a Marvel film. I never used to have that worry. But now with phase four, I know I’m getting more Clown Thor in Guardians 3 and Thor 4. Will Doctor Strange be turned into a joke? Will the Eternals be wall-to-wall laughs? Only time will tell. And in the meantime, I really won’t be feeling much excitement for the new MCU movies. I’m going to get some good comedy-action movies, but those are a dime a dozen. Ant Man and Guardians of the Galaxy were fine, but they feel like summer adventure movies. They don’t feel truly great. I want epic from Marvel. I want The First Avenger, Winter Soldier, Thor, Infinity War, Iron Man, and Civil War. Instead, I fear that at best we’re getting Guardians, and at worst, they’re giving me more Ragnarok. And that’s simply not something I care to see.