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Marvel rules the world — for now

The next phase of Marvel movies should have more Black Panthers and fewer Infinity Wars.

Avengers: Infinity War
Is Thanos coming for the MCU?!
Marvel Studios
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

From the outside, everything at Marvel Studios appears to be going just swimmingly.

The studio’s February release, Black Panther, has become the third highest-grossing film of all time in the United States and Canada, behind only Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avatar. (The numbers, of course, do not adjust for inflation, but even adjusted for inflation, Black Panther is in the top 30, which is staggering.) And its most recent release, Avengers: Infinity War, smashed the record for opening weekend box office, held in the US and Canada by Force Awakens and internationally by Fate of the Furious.

Whether Infinity War can catch Black Panther (whose long, leggy run meant it was still in the top five at the box office last week, more than two months after its opening) in the US and Canada seems unlikely, but it should become the year’s top hit internationally without too much trouble. (Though Black Panther performed respectably overseas, it’s the rare box office hit that made more than 50 percent of its gross domestically.) And no matter how the final numbers shake out, Marvel will be raking in the dough.

But look a little more closely and Marvel Studios is in perhaps the most perilous position it’s ever been. Its original team of Avengers is nearing the exit, and the same likely goes for the Guardians of the Galaxy (who will have a third spotlight film in 2020, and after that ... who knows?). An inevitable Black Panther 2 will help matters, but it seems unlikely that, say, Doctor Strange 2 (as yet unannounced) will suddenly break out in a way its predecessor didn’t.

Thus, the next 12 months of Marvel are critical. After all, people are going to lose interest in these movies at some point. And transitional periods, like the one Marvel is now entering, are often when that interest starts to wane.

Marvel is trying to pass the torch to a new generation, but it seems a little reticent to do so

My Marvel fan colleague Alex Abad-Santos and I discussed this very topic on the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, as part of a wider-ranging discussion of Avengers: Infinity War and Marvel’s recent cinematic output.

Some of the issues we discussed are easy to understand in light of Infinity War’s production. The fact that Black Panther, for instance, has a comparatively small part within the film is likely due to the fact that Marvel couldn’t have anticipated the character’s debut solo film taking off to the degree that an Oscar nomination for Best Picture isn’t out of the question. And the movie’s somewhat frustrating cliffhanger ending is largely a function of its structure as an elaborate crossover comic event given film form.

But you can also sense that Marvel knows its universe has perhaps gotten too big to keep wrangling into these sorts of big crossover events. The four movies produced or co-produced by the studio right before Infinity WarGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther — are all effectively standalone tales with very little bearing on the events of Infinity War, beyond very cursory ideas like building up the nation of Wakanda as a setting, or suggesting that Asgard is no more.

And yet all four of these films introduce vibrant worlds full of gigantic ensembles of characters that are reduced to one or two cameo moments in Infinity War. Whether it’s Black Panther’s wisecracking science genius sister Shuri or Peter Parker’s best pal Ned, lots of these characters turned up for a line or two before the story swept them away. Still other fun-filled figures, like Thor’s new friends Valkyrie and Korg, were written out entirely.

The characters in “Avengers: Infinity War” line up in a grassy field to face their opponents.
Black Panther is barely in Infinity War.
Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Thus, weirdly, Marvel has reached a place similar to the TV show The X-Files, where the long-running serialized storyline has become so convoluted and top-heavy that almost all of the fun now lies in the standalone stories, where the reverse was true earlier in the run. Black Panther is arguably the best movie Marvel has ever made, and its connections to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe are tangential at best. Meanwhile, Infinity War struggles to tell a story because it needs to keep hurriedly checking off boxes to have any time for the tangents and weird sidebars that made the previous four Marvel movies so much fun.

At the same time, the action of Infinity War seems to suggest Marvel wants to transition from the original team of Avengers to some new team, probably centered on some combination of Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Spider-Man, and the as-yet-unintroduced Captain Marvel (whose solo film drops in March 2019). But the bigger the Marvel Universe gets, the harder it is to shoehorn all of it into a single film without feeling like a last-second driving tour that speeds past major landmarks at 70 miles per hour.

My guess is that the typically savvy Kevin Feige (the man who makes the big judgment calls when it comes to the MCU) has realized this too. After all, after 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Marvel’s movies have trended more toward standalone adventures than giant crossovers (though, granted, both Civil War and Infinity War are GIANT crossovers).

Thus, I would hope and expect that whatever happens in the forthcoming “Phase 4” will be more focused on standalone adventures, with crossover films and Avengers movies tacking in the same direction, having a more limited scope and fewer characters crossing over. (A “superwomen of the MCU” movie would be one example of this, with several characters crossing over, but not all of them.)

This is a problem almost all serialized stories confront sooner or later, when their scope exceeds the limits of what a story can comfortably contain. Usually, the best move is to retreat and retrench, to find ways to reduce scope without going too small. But that’s also precisely the moment when serialized stories run the risk of either blowing up too big (and creating a story too sprawling for one movie or TV show to contain) or going far, far too tiny (and feeling paltry in comparison to what came before). The MCU seems unbeatable right now, but let’s talk again in a couple of years.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.