- Behemoths such as Marvel dominate our cultural landscapes. The Marvel Cinematic Universe comprises an astonishing amount of content.
- Just when we thought we had a satisfying conclusion, Marvel Studios reached Phase 4.
- We might be witnessing the creation of a new kind of myth system, with all of its enduring power and creativity.
I asked myself a few questions as I sat down to watch Marvel Studios’ Moon Knight. How long can a story last? How many chapters can you read before you long for an ending? How about spinoffs, or other stories set in the same world of characters, cultures, and physical settings? These are relevant questions in our era, as behemoths such as Marvel dominate our cultural landscapes with their fictional Universes. (Other such titans include Star Wars, DC, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings.)
As some readers already know, I am a lifelong Marvel comic fan. (I actually read the Moon Knight comics as a kid.) My own children grew up on Marvel origins stories. The enthusiasm I felt for Marvel storylines and characters multiplied a hundred-fold with the launch of Marvel Studios. From so-called Phase 1 through Phase 3, I was all in. I took in many (but not all) of the shows Marvel did with Netflix. Now we have reached Phase 4, with movies such as Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and shows on the Disney+ streaming service such as WandaVision, Loki, and recently Hawkeye. This is an astonishing amount of content, so before I began Moon Knight I felt like I needed to do a status check. My son, who started as a huge fan, was already tired of the whole endeavor. But where was I?
If I was being honest with myself, I felt a little saturated. It’s not that I wasn’t still loving a lot of the content. I thought The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was remarkable for using the superhero genre to stare directly at issues like racism and the political status of refugees. And Loki was just fun, thanks to delightful performances by Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson.
But when I got to the recent movies, things started to stall. Shang Chi was enjoyable, but I found myself surprisingly uninvested in the latest Spider-Man outing. Yes, it was good, but there was a sense of the weight of the whole enterprise hunching its shoulders. Then there was The Eternals, which was simply too much, all at once — lots of characters, lots of exposition, a whole lot of movie.
So, what is going on? If you look at the list of titles and judgments in the two paragraphs above, you can see I am still really enjoying what Marvel is putting out. It still manages to surprise. But the sheer scale of it all leaves me with a big question: How long can this go on?
Now, the obvious answer is that it will endure as long as there is money to be made. That means the next question is, how long will that be? After all, money is only made if people keep watching. And the question of its longevity gets more interesting when you consider what Marvel Studios created up to Avengers: Endgame. Across 26 distinct individual movies, they crafted an exquisitely detailed fictional world, where every film referenced and built off every other. In this way they seamlessly constructed a dense timeline and an equally dense map of what happened, everywhere and to whom. It was a thing of great beauty and delight. With Endgame it seemed to come to a satisfying conclusion. We could stand up, dust the popcorn off our laps, and say “yup, that was awesome.”
Can Marvel Studios keep telling its story?
But then the house lights fell again, and the screen lit up with more trailers and the beginning of a new chapter: Phase 4! Ok, but do I want it? Does anyone really want it?
Reflecting on the fact that most of the stuff coming out of Phase 4 is still pretty good, I wonder if there might be something going on that is similar to what has always happened with fans of the Marvel comics. Author Douglas Wolk has pointed out that the Marvel Comics Universe is basically the largest story ever written. It sprawls across a zillion words, issues, and storylines. You read with enthusiasm. But then, eventually, you get bored and move on to other things. Maybe you pick it all up again a few years (or decades) later. Meanwhile, there is always a next generation of readers who find their own entry into the big Marvel story.
Perhaps that is what will happen with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Maybe it will just go on and on, finding new viewers even after some fans grow into other interests. If that does happen, it would mean something new and interesting in the modern media era: a single story being invented by, and told to, generation after generation. In a sense, it would be the creation of a new kind of myth system, with all of myth’s enduring power and creativity. I’d be cool with that.
Oh, and by the way, the first episode of Moon Knight was awesome.