Ant-man hits theaters on Friday, and with its release marks the end of Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Phase Three kicking-off next May. Depending on how big of a Marvel fan you are, this news will come as either exciting, or painfully boring. A surprise appearance by Agent Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in Iron Man‘s credits enthralled millions of filmgoers and teased a project geeks only dreamed about. Two box-office-record-breaking Avenger films later and the shared universe has proven itself an unparalleled success in terms of commercial filmmaking, but after the long wait to see Tony, Cap, Thor, and Hulk take on Thanos is realized, the streak of Marvel characters met with open arms and another $100 million weekend may be coming to an end.
12 movies in, and Thanos, the big baddie the movies have been building toward, still has no Infinity Stones (it goes without saying he isn’t very good at this). More grating are the films’ general errors and flubs that are all compounded upon movie after movie. Age of Ultron was enjoyable, but when the big finale was yet another instance of death from above (also used in Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy), it’s tough to argue that Marvel isn’t just using the same template over again. Granted, some directors like Joss Whedon manage to sneak in personal conversations that would otherwise be left rotting on the cutting room floor.
Take the intimate moment shared by Bruce (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) about what future they might have. Bruce admits the realities of a relationship between he and Natasha will always be triangular, with a big, green guy in the third corner. Natasha, in turn, sheds her tough-as-nails persona to reveal a personal secret that has kept her from really getting close to someone. Vulnerability between two heroes sharing real-life interactions is what these crossovers should be about, but it’s often just the grout in between huge set-pieces. Now that Whedon has left to pursue other ventures, who knows if future subterfuge will make it past the bean-counters again.
Presumably, when Infinity Wars wraps the long gestating Thanos storyline in 2019, Marvel will discontinue this particular blueprint, but no one is confirming that. Until then there are several origin stories coming in the form of Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Ms. Marvel and The Inhumans. Should Marvel decide to keep the shared universe going, is there any way to prevent future installments from meeting derision? Or worse, apathy?
Quentin Tarantino’s shared worlds work because the inclusions are never more than a wink and a nod. If he took 10 minutes out of Inglourious Basterds to have Sgt. Donnie Donowitz (Eli Roth) explain his Hollywood ambitions for his grandson, Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek) who appears in True Romance, eyes in the audience would glaze over instantly. What if Joaquin Phoenix popped up at the end of Blue Jasmine to promote the upcoming Irrational Man, or what if Midnight in Paris‘ Gil (Owen Wilson) ran into Stanley from Magic in the Moonlight to talk about their shared love of atheism?
Forcing so many pieces together for so long robs any narrative of tension. Coulson’s death, The Avengers’ most personal failure, was wiped away to make a television series on ABC possible. Tony could have died in the cold recesses of space, but it’s hard to give over to that feeling when lurking in the back of your mind is Robert Downey Jr.’s guaranteed presence in Iron Man 3. It’s understandable that Marvel wouldn’t want to tinker too much with the successful elements of their franchises, but the braintrust must relinquish the reins to directors to make truly great works. Otherwise all the weight of backstory and foreshadowing will render future works as disappointing as Iron Man 2.
The level of saturation in creating yearly installments with overlapping characters begs the question: Can any film withstand the fatigue of a shared world for long? The cracks are beginning to show in the veneer of Marvel’s grand experiment, and 2019 is a long time away for this house of cards to stay upright.