Monday, July 15, 2024

What, If Anything, Can Save The MCU?

The somewhat fair and yet also completely unfair collapse of “The Marvels” will inspire much speculation on how the MCU can be “saved.” However, if the MCU can bounce back, it won’t happen while Marvel insists on three more years of the Multiverse Saga. In fact, it’s even more apparent now that the beginning of the MCU X-Men, not the end of the Multiverse Saga, will decide if the MCU can even survive in its current form beyond the end of the decade.

Basically, the X-Men and mutants, in general, are to the Multiverse Saga what Thanos was to the Infinity Saga – something teased in mere snippets for years on end until fully showing themselves. Between Evan Peters not quite reprising the X-Men Quicksilver in “WandaVision,” Patrick Stewart’s Xavier getting a far less dignified send-off in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” than he did in “Logan,” Kamala Khan and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” villain Namor being teased as mutants, and another big sign teased in “The Marvels,” the X-Men are clearly chomping at the bit to get in the MCU. And that’s before “Deadpool 3” brings back Hugh Jackman as a living Wolverine for an even bigger multiversal role next year.

If Disney, Marvel, and Kevin Feige had sense, they would put in some ultra meta joke at the end of “Deadpool 3” that closes the Multiverse Saga then and there, escapes the shadows of Jonathan Majors and Kang, and allows them to scrap Phase 6 and the next two planned Avengers films so they can start all over again. If fans and critics are this tired of the MCU and the Multiverse now when there’s no Spider-Man involved, Marvel can’t seriously think they’ll get more excited for three more years of dragging out what hasn’t worked – especially in the “Superhero fatigue” era and while D.C. actually launches a fresh start under James Gunn.

But one argument they can make is they still need to make “Avengers: Secret Wars” – if only because, however the Multiverse is recombined or altered at the end, it will likely spark some pseudo-science event that gives birth to widespread mutations in our universe, and the birth of the X-Men. If that is indeed the plan, it only reinforces the MCU’s next big hope, which isn’t salvaging the Multiverse but launching the “Mutant Saga” for Phases 7-9. Still, it’s hard to argue they couldn’t make up some other pseudo-sciency, mutation-spreading final battle between the Avengers – young and old – and Doctor Doom or Galactus on Earth-616 to end a new, back-to-basics Phase 6 instead.

However, until Marvel reaches Phase 7, it won’t launch until 2027 or 2028. No matter what, fans and critics still have to endure more years of MCU fits and starts – which is the best-case scenario at this point – until the X-Men, the already established MCU Fantastic Four, the Young Avengers, and other FOX refugees have pushed as their cure-all return to glory.
If the Infinity Saga was like Season 1 of a new smash hit T.V. show, the Multiverse Saga is more like a disappointing Season 2, making everyone wonder if the first season was a fluke. The X-Men will almost surely be leading an MCU Season 3 of sorts, which will determine if the good or bad season was the real fluke in the long term.

On paper, there should be no better time for a new X-Men saga to begin. The X-Men’s battles with prejudiced human supremacists and radical mutant supremacists have always been relevant during real-life turmoil. Whatever the political climate is by 2028, and whatever the fight for minority/LGBTQ+/women’s rights looks like then, the X-Men will be poised to forge powerful parallels and metaphors for those struggles – and that could be the hard-hitting storytelling that brings the MCU back to the heights of old and beyond. Or its failures to do so could show the real rot of the MCU really can’t be solved – not while it’s owned by Disney.

The bigoted attacks on Disney for being ‘woke’ whenever they don’t exclusively star white men hide the actual fact that Disney is, more often than not, the most timid studio of all in advancing real progressive storytelling beyond mere casting. This timidity has also affected the MCU, where superheroes are more law enforcement cops than vigilantes; the Sokovia Accords were more an Avengers dividing MacGuffin than the real fascist threat their comic book equivalent was, the forces of Wakanda keep facing evil/misguided minorities rather than white/American power driven threats, and countless characters who seek to change an objectively unfair status quo are mere villains that need to be stopped.

More and more critics and fans are seeing through this trend in how the MCU is more determined to skim through harder themes and keep the status quo at all costs – unlike when films such as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Black Panther” powered it at its peak. Nowadays, any deeper questions about what the heroes are protecting and why, and what they should use their power for, are barely considered or are only asked by villains clearly framed in the wrong.

Ideally, the X-Men should be best equipped to challenge that status quo – but in comics and movies, they’ve kind of pioneered it for decades already. Whether it was the original Jackman/Stewart-led series or the younger reboots in the 2010s, the last two X-Men big-screen franchises stayed relatively safe within the lines of struggling against systemic human prejudice but mainly fighting rogue mutants and humans who merely “went too far” to make real change. Yet since this is basically the formula of most MCU movies and stories lately, and that formula is already wearing thin with the public, rewashing it with the X-Men all over again cannot be the fresh approach Marvel desperately needs.

This is one reason why someone other than Feige should run the MCU by the time the X-Men take over – someone not in the Feige/MCU bubble and allowed to go deeper with real storytelling risks. However, even if Feige goes and they find someone completely new to craft the next MCU saga – even if it isn’t a white man – then there are no more human shields for Disney to hide behind if it still fails.

And in that scenario, Disney’s entire storytelling philosophy will finally be considered the real problem.

For the X-Men to be the full-fledged new beginning the MCU needs, it may require storytelling decisions and moves that might not be possible under Disney – and not just R-rated violence and sex. It might require more explicit centering or parallels with minority/LGBTQ+ issues beyond just casting, even if it might mean getting banned by certain foreign countries – and even if it means bigger attacks from certain demographics at home. It might require taking different and more difficult storytelling angles than “institutionalized prejudice might be bad, but people fighting to dismantle it are worse,” even if that’s been the basis of MCU storytelling for years and X-Men storytelling for longer. It might even require the X-Men to fight more than just Magneto, aliens, and the odd rogue general acting without explicit government permission, even if that might harm marketing possibilities with the government, the military, or more conservative companies.

Whatever America looks like by 2028 or 2030, taking a timid, wishy-washy, modern-day New York Times/CNN-like approach to these issues will not play well with specific large audiences. If the MCU keeps the X-Men stuck in the safe storytelling mud, even while these audiences demand something more substantial, deeper, and more meaningful for the hostile times they live in, all hope will truly be lost for Marvel under the Disney banner then. After the failures of the Multiverse Saga, the false promise of the X-Men turning it around would be the final straw before Disney itself is considered the last villain standing while the MCU burns.

In that distinct possibility, the X-Men will either be doomed to instant failure or go from success to complete collapse as painfully as in their last two franchises. In that scenario, far tougher questions will be asked about whether the MCU should even survive at all – or at least, whether they should survive with Disney.

There is a realistic scenario, if not still a longshot at the moment, that by the end of the decade, there will be louder calls for Disney to sell Marvel Studios altogether than for Sony to let Spider-Man join the MCU. In fact, a savvy studio might be best advised to start setting aside a war chest now – one that could build up enough by 2030-2035 to make a genuine offer for Marvel if enough fans and critics demand it be saved from Disney.

Of course, given the state of big studios today, there may be none left that could give the MCU substantially more storytelling freedom than Disney. Nonetheless, if the MCU continues to suffer for the rest of the Multiverse Saga, and the X-Men are not the great Hail Mary pass they are clearly banking on, any faith that the MCU can return to full glory at Disney will be destroyed completely.

Yet while “The Marvels” got piled on relentlessly this past weekend, the MCU slipped in the “Loki” Season Two finale on Disney+ with less fanfare, but perhaps with something more hopeful. Sylvie – the Loki variant who first broke the Multiverse, and for that became the latest status quo challenging character to get attacked – actually got to convince Loki that instead of “replacing one nightmare with another,” some things should be destroyed if there is hope to “replace that thing with something better.” For whatever reason, this sentiment is almost unseen in the MCU since S.H.I.E.L.D. was brought down, Asgard was destroyed, and Wakanda finally revealed itself to the world.

If something in Feige, Marvel, or Disney is capable of acting on that hope, doing that again instead of an opposite route that hasn’t worked for three years will save the MCU and let the X-Men properly save them. But if the MCU does have real glory days left, they will probably not return for the rest of the Multiverse Saga or will only show up in snippets like in “Loki” and other more experimental Disney+ shows, if not the movies.

As such, we still have to endure years and several more teasers until the X-Men decide the MCU’s long-term fate. Whether the Multiverse failures are a Blip in the road or just the beginning of Marvel’s ultimate destruction, it all depends on the X-Men now – or it will by 2030.

Have you seen “The Marvels” yet? If so, what did you think? Do you think the MCU is in need of a drastic change? If so, what do you think that could be? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account.

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