The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special marks the end of the fourth phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And looking back at Marvel's most content-stuffed chapter to date, I can't help but draw a disappointing conclusion: the MCU kind of sucks right now.
I used to get hyped for each new slice of the MCU, but after seven movies, eight TV shows and two specials in less than two years? My Marvel fatigue has grown so strong that I’m becoming seriously disillusioned with a franchise I used to adore.
It’s not just the sheer quantity of MCU content that has hit theaters and Disney Plus in recent months, the average quality has significantly decreased as well. The MCU’s track record used to be remarkably strong, but its most recent report card makes for far less impressive reading. And that’s in large part because Marvel keeps making the same mistakes over and over again.
Of course, the MCU is still a financial powerhouse raking in millions of dollars at the global box office and almost certainly shifting a significant number of Disney Plus subscriptions, but it’s hard to deny that the dissatisfied voices are growing louder. A quick glance at social media reveals that I’m far from the only person who feels that Marvel has fallen from its previously secure pedestal. But all hope isn't lost, quite yet.
The roadmap for MCU Phase 5 and 6 has (mostly) already been laid out, and I'll admit there are projects I’m excited about — the next two Avengers movies for starters. That said, if Marvel is going to fully recapture my attention as we enter Phase 5? There are the biggest issues that need to be fixed immediately.
We need less MCU content
Let’s start with the most obvious problem with MCU Phase 4: there was simply way (way) too much content. The first three phases of the MCU, referred to as the Infinity Saga, runs for roughly 50 hours total across 23 movies. For comparison, just Phase 4 alone clocks in at more than 60 hours of content.
Since the release of WandaVision in January 2021, it feels like the MCU hasn’t slowed down for a breath. There’s been a new movie in theatres every couple of months and the gaps between theatrical releases have been filled by an avalanche of streaming series on Disney Plus. Such an abundance of content might be appreciated by hardcore fans, but it’s damaging to the overall MCU brand.
For starters, it makes keeping up to date with the MCU far more time-consuming than it should be. But the bigger downside is that it doesn’t allow viewers to digest each individual piece of content. Before you’ve even had a chance to really reflect on the most recent installment you’re already a couple of episodes behind the latest Marvel TV shows.
In previous MCU phases, I actually used to long for the next chapter. I would actively count down the days until the next movie, or until we caught up with a favorite character. In Phase 4 the constant barrage of content meant I never had the space to actually miss Marvel. Instead I just grew sick of being bombarded with so much content.
This isn't something that can be fixed, sadly, as MCU Phase 5 is already looking likely to make the same mistake. Six movies and seven TV shows have already been confirmed, and there are whispers that Marvel might add even more over the next few months. Maybe with Phase 6, MCU might finally show some restraint.
Cool it on the cameos
At times recent MCU projects — particularly feature films — have seemed more focused on cameos than telling a compelling story. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Spider-Man: No Way Home are great examples of films talked about more because of cameos and returning characters than their own strengths.
It should be noted that cameos have always been a part of the MCU.
The first Iron Man flick ends with an appearance from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and teases the Avengers. But in Phase 4 fan-service cameos started to feel like the whole meal rather than a fun little side dish offered to the fans who stick through the lengthy credits.
As fun as they can be these gratuitous cameos are a cheap trick to distract from the overall drop in average quality across the MCU. I’m not saying that cameos should be abolished entirely, but Marvel needs to show far more restraint.
Improve the special effects
The quality of visual effects in MCU movies seems to have drastically dropped in recent years. For example, I found the effects in Black Panther Wakanda Forever pretty ropey, and the first trailer for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania has drawn unflattering comparisons to 2003’s Sky Kids 3D.
Prior to its release, She-Hulk also received a torrent of criticism for its lackluster visuals. And it even made a joke out of the show's budget in the finale, admitting that they were tight on funds.
It’s pretty damning when the CGI in the first Iron Man movie released in 2008 looks more convincing than the effects in MCU movies/TV shows released almost 15 years later. In fact, there have been certain shots in recent Marvel content that have looked so uncanny that I’ve been reminded of a video game — and not a PS5 game, more like a PS3 title.
This problem extends beyond what we see on the screen as well. Over the summer it was reported by multiple outlets that Marvel’s treatment of its visual effects artists is downright awful. Workers allegedly experience long hours, overly demanding tasks, unrealistic deadlines and poor pay. One VFX artist speaking to Vulture claims that a co-worker broke down and started crying due to the pressure of working on MCU projects.
No Marvel movie or TV show is worth an VFX artist's mental health, so in Phase 5 I don’t just want to see better special effects on the screen. I also hope to hear that the people working on these movies and TV shows are being properly supported to deliver their best work.
Introduce fewer new characters
In hindsight, there was a beautiful simplicity to the first MCU phase. Sure, at the time it felt incredibly ambitious, but only four solo movies (and one sequel) lead up to The Avengers. MCU Phase 2 introduced new characters, but kept the number of heroes fairly well managed. Phase 3 over stretched a little, and Phase 4 was completely unrestrained. And now I wonder if we’re reaching a breaking point.
Perhaps it’s just my age — I’m much closer to 30 than I’d care to admit — but the sheer number of characters being introduced at a regular clip is becoming overwhelming. And such a large group of heroes makes it much harder to spend any significant time with any of them. Instead of developing a deep affection for a character, as we did Iron Man and Captain America, we get only a surface-level appreciation for most Marvel characters now.
For all it's many faults, Phase 4 did still introduce plenty of characters that I'd like to see more of. In particular I can't wait to catch up with Shang-Chi and Kamala Khan in future MCU content. And I'm very excited for Sam Wilson to pick up the mantle of Captain America in his own solo movie.
I’d like to see Phase 5 focus around the established core cast and let us really get to know them even more. That’ll surely make the events in Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars all the most impactful. Not to mention it’ll make the job of managing those large-scale team-up movies so much easier for the creatives behind the camera.
And looking ahead at the confirmed slate for MCU Phase 5 it does seem that sequels and shows focused on established characters are taking priority. Even new projects like Thunderbolts will be comprised mainly of players who have already featured in the MCU. By the time the next two Avengers movies roll around the core roster of heroes should hopefully be very well established which will add real stakes to the universe-altering events.
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Rory is an Entertainment Editor at Tom’s Guide based in the UK. He covers a wide range of topics but with a particular focus on gaming and streaming. When he’s not reviewing the latest games, searching for hidden gems on Netflix, or writing hot takes on new gaming hardware, TV shows and movies, he can be found attending music festivals and getting far too emotionally invested in his favorite football team.