Weekender: Heroes, gods and monsters: A recap of this year in Marvel

The Marvel Cinematic Universe logo is pictured. Via Wikimedia Commons

Over the last 14 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a cultural juggernaut. The release of “Iron Man” (2008) marked the beginning of a decade-long saga that spanned nearly 30 movies, peaking with the record-breaking hit “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), in which fan favorites such as Iron Man, Black Widow and Captain America departed from the franchise. Although “Endgame” provided a satisfying ending to the MCU’s narrative, Marvel has kept the story going with a host of new movies and TV shows.

The MCU separates its stories into phases, with “Endgame” and “Spider-Man: Far from Home” (2019) marking the end of Phase 3. After a series of COVID-19-related delays, Phase 4 kicked off in early 2021 with the critically acclaimed miniseries “WandaVision” (2021), followed by four more TV shows and four movies later in the year. The sheer quantity of content is hard for even committed fans to keep up with.

This year began with the release of “Moon Knight” in March, a Disney+ miniseries starring Oscar Isaac as a man with dissociative identity disorder who becomes a superhero. Playing the dual roles of American mercenary Marc Spector and British museum worker Steven Grant is a difficult task that Isaac takes on with ease. The series has a darker tone than most Marvel projects and features no characters from previous MCU works, but don’t let that discourage you. Both an honest portrayal of mental health and an exploration of Egyptian mythology, the series tells a unique, action-packed story. Although the finale leaves viewers with many unanswered questions, it’s worth the watch for strong performances from Oscar, May Calamawy and Ethan Hawke, as well as a beautiful score.

In May, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” continued its title character’s story with the addition of Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff. Although it featured stunning visuals and strong performances from Olsen and Benedict Cumberbatch, its ambitious storyline doesn’t stick the landing. The highly anticipated film dives deeper into the concept of the multiverse, but it’s packed to the brim with exposition and CGI battles. The movie fails to do justice to Wanda, reducing the character to a one-dimensional version of her former self. “Doctor Strange” also suffered the misfortune of being released just two months after “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022), a beautifully absurd indie film that does a much better job exploring the concept of the multiverse.

Next up is “Ms. Marvel,” another Disney+ series which premiered in June. “Ms. Marvel” tells the story of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American teenager from Jersey City who gains cosmic superpowers. Along with “Moon Knight,” this show is one of the few recent MCU projects that feels truly new and original. The series explores Kamala’s family, friendships and heritage, proving that you don’t have to have a huge fight scene every week to tell an effective superhero story. The show explores Pakistani culture and the challenges of growing up, but its message will resonate with all viewers. With a likable cast of characters, an excellent lead performance from breakout star Iman Vellani, a unique visual style and well-written dialogue, the series is worth checking out.

July brought fans back to the theaters with “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the latest installment of the Norse god’s story from director Taika Waititi. This film saw the return of Thor’s former love interest, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and introduced Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) as its villain. While it’s not as good as its predecessor “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017), which perfectly integrated action and humor, it’s still a fun, flashy adventure with lots of humorous moments. However, the movie struggles with pacing, cramming all of the drama into its much darker second half. Bringing Jane Foster back was a good decision, as Portman’s character complements Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and brings the events of the series full circle. Bale fully transforms into the role of Gorr, becoming a complex villain that audiences can both fear and sympathize with. Bale’s character deserved a larger role — or perhaps he should’ve been in a different movie entirely, one that matched the seriousness of his performance.

In August, “She Hulk: Attorney at Law,” a new television series, premiered on Disney+. The show is about attorney Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany), a cousin of the Hulk who becomes a Hulk herself and leads the Superhuman Law Division. The show has been praised by critics, but not by fans — it has a 36% from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. In actuality, the show falls somewhere in the middle of these reviews. Its lighthearted tone is enhanced by fourth-wall breaks and self-referential humor, and Maslany is the perfect choice for the title character. However, it tends to feel like the writers are throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, with lots of lazy, dated jokes and new characters introduced every week that never get fleshed out. Additionally, the VFX used to turn Jennifer into She-Hulk are hit-or-miss (mostly miss), which distracts viewers from the show’s plot.

Phase 4 of the MCU will conclude with a holiday-themed TV special and the release of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” in November. The long-awaited sequel to “Black Panther” (2018) will be the first film set in Wakanda since the death of lead actor Chadwick Boseman in 2020. Next year, we enter Phase 5 with a new Ant-Man movie, a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, a TV series starring Nick Fury and many other projects we don’t have time to talk about here. The question now is: What does the future hold for the MCU in the long run?

The first big clue comes from Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, who described Phases 4–6 as “the Multiverse Saga” at a Comic-Con event this summer. This means that the concept of the multiverse, as seen in the “Doctor Strange” films, will have important implications for the entire MCU going forward. The multiverse was explored last year in season 1 of “Loki” (2021–), where viewers were introduced to He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors), a scientist who seeks to prevent a multiversal war between evil variants of himself. One of these variants, known as Kang the Conqueror, is set to be one of the main antagonists of the Multiverse Saga — you’ll see him in next year’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (2023).

The multiverse was also featured in last year’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021), in which a spell cast by Doctor Strange goes wrong, bringing heroes and villains from previous “Spider-Man” films into the Marvel universe. The inclusion of former Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield in “No Way Home” was not a one-off: We’ll be seeing more Marvel heroes from other universes cross over into the MCU, including the X-Men, who have already made some appearances, as well as Daredevil and the Fantastic Four, both of whom will be getting their own MCU projects in the near future. As the new era of the MCU starts to take shape, we’ll also be introduced to a new team of antiheroes known as the Thunderbolts. Originally featured in Marvel Comics, the group will include Bucky Barnes, Yelena Belova, Ghost and several other fan favorite characters.

Looking even further ahead, Marvel has two new Avengers movies set for 2025. The first one is titled “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty,” so there’s no question who the villain will be. But with half of the original Avengers gone, who are the heroes? The comics can provide some clues here — it looks like Marvel is assembling the Young Avengers, a new incarnation of the original team of heroes. In the comics, the group includes several MCU characters, including Kate Bishop, Cassie Lang and America Chavez, but we should expect to see some other familiar faces join them as the young heroes pick up where their predecessors left off.

As it enters a new era, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has introduced viewers to a never-ending assortment of heroes and villains this year. Some of this year’s stories, like “Moon Knight” and “Ms. Marvel,” have highlighted Marvel’s continued success, while others have failed to live up to expectations. Only time will tell if they reach satisfying conclusions. Although this year’s movies and TV shows have wrapped up their stories, many of their characters will return in future projects. That’s the way things are in the MCU — characters come and go, but the story never really ends.

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