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Has Thor destroyed Marvel? All empires fall eventually

The thunder god is bringing down his creator.

The thunder god is bringing down his creator.


July 20, 2022   6 mins

There’s a 2005 episode of Doctor Who in which David Tennant’s Doctor turns against Prime Minister Harriet Jones and undermines her with six words: “Don’t you think she looks tired?” Veiled as concern, it’s barely a criticism at all but it generates sufficient uncertainty about her health and leadership to inspire a vote of no confidence. Doubt is contagious. The tenor of the current grumbling about the state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe reminds me of that. Not terrible, not failing, but don’t you think it looks tired?

It’s strange that the tipping point for sceptics has been Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder. Any film that features Guns’N’Roses needledrops and Russell Crowe playing Zeus in the style of a sleazy taverna owner alongside a stage four cancer subplot is bound to have some tonal hiccups, and a backlash against the ubiquitous Waititi was in the diary, but it’s still a fun night at the pictures, with a winning lead, a stacked cast, a superb villain and more good jokes than most comedies. Even when the podcast The Big Picture recorded an episode “Five ways to fix the Marvel crisis”, all the panellists agreed that it was the second-best Thor movie (after Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok) and the second-best movie of the MCU’s phase four (after Spider-Man: No Way Home). It pulled in $382m in its first week. Yet a cloud of disappointment has coalesced around it. I was asked by another publication to write an article about how badly Waititi had botched it. I replied to say that I had a really good time and would they like a more positive piece? They would not.

The thunder god has become the lightning rod for a growing sense of frustration and fatigue with the whole enterprise. With the notable exception of Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian, most of the best critics have effectively given up attempting to engage with the MCU, settling for either glib quips or weary contempt, and I don’t hold it against them. Now even enthusiasts such as the Big Picture crew are feeling restive.

Three years ago, it was all roses. In the unlikely event that Disney had decided to leave billions of dollars on the table and wrap up the MCU after Avengers: Endgame in 2019, it would have been acknowledged as the most successful franchise of all time. Not every movie was great, or even good (have you seen Thor: The Dark World?), but mastermind Kevin Feige pulled off a trick that nobody had even attempted before: a 22-movie arc culminating in the colossal pay-off of the most successful movie ever made (at least until a Chinese reissue of Avatar nudged it into second place). As the first person to work out how to translate the interconnected serial storytelling of comic books to the screen, Feige turned average moviegoers into avid completists.

So what exactly is the MCU doing wrong? Everything all at once, apparently. It’s both too frivolous (Thor) and too ponderous (Eternals); too basic (Black Widow) or too complicated (Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness). It’s either overburdened with setting up characters and plot threads for future movies or insufficiently concerned with the big picture; it provides too much fan service or not enough. Back in 2014, when Edgar Wright was dropped from Ant-Man, the complaint was that the MCU’s corporate vision smothered the identity of individual directors, but now that indie darlings such as Waititi and Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao are encouraged to put their own stamp on things, other problems arise.

One thing everyone can agree on is that, thanks to Covid delays and streaming wars, there is far too much material: six movies in the past 12 months and seven Disney+ shows in the last 18. When I was a kid, I would have wept with joy to see just one decent film about a Marvel character. Now I feel like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice of Goethe’s poem who enchants a broom to fetch water and ends up almost drowning. Having worked though the most obvious characters in its IP arsenal, Marvel Studios is currently trying to get audiences hooked on the B- and C-list; I used to read far too many comic books and even I barely remember the Eternals. They are burning through talent at a ridiculous pace, hiring actors as exciting and watchable as Awkwafina, Brian Tyree Henry, Barry Keoghan, Kathryn Hahn and Florence Pugh, but not always using them wisely. Watching Moon Knight squander Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke in a dud story was one of the year’s more dispiriting viewing experiences. It’s like hiring a Bentley to drive to IKEA.

All this surplus generates a powerful sense of déjà vu. Too many plots rely on either processing trauma or repairing broken families and all of them must, by law, climax in an almighty dust-up involving rushed and patchy VFX. Even the winking humour, so fresh and delightful in the first Avengers movie, can feel rote. Bradshaw defines it as “a highly contained form of restricted self-satire or auto-undercutting that is always offset by the huge CGI intergalactic action scenes”.

A bigger problem is that there appears to be no centre and no direction. Cornerstone stars Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans have bowed out, while their most obvious successor, Chadwick Boseman, has passed away. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, the original man with a plan, has disappeared. The Avengers have disbanded. Thanos is dead. Without this connective tissue, which gave even the mediocre installments a reason to be there, it’s unclear why any of this stuff matters in the long run. Everything that is supposed to raise the stakes — the time travel, the multiverse, the quantum realm, prehistory, gods, demi-gods, eternity itself, and all manner of cosmic foofaraw — ends up lowering them. “The Blip” caused half the population of the universe to vanish for five years, but we don’t like to talk about it.

Beyond the hardcore fans, the sense that you have to catch them all in order to appreciate the overall vision — indeed, the idea that there is an overall vision — has evaporated. There is at once too much continuity to keep track of and too little cohesion. Whereas the end-credit stings used to tease a larger strategy, they now feel like empty promises. Will we ever again see Brett Goldstein as Hercules or Harry Styles as Eros? Will we care if we don’t?

The MCU is currently struggling with all the ways in which movies are not like comic books. Marvel Comics has always been kept afloat by its big hitters — Spider-Man, the X-Men — while lesser characters have been regularly rebooted, replaced or temporarily shelved. The best work often arises when a new creative team is given a waning character on the verge of cancellation and allowed to take some risks. Failure is always an option on a comic-book budget, and characters can take several years to fulfil their potential. It’s taken as read that some readers will drop out as they get older while the diehards will accept the fact, inherent in a universe that has been around for 60 years, that everything changes. As Marvel scholar Douglas Wolk writes in All of the Marvels, “no creator expects that their readers are familiar with the whole Marvel story to date…What the story wants from you is not your knowledge but your curiosity.” Movies simply cannot afford to sprawl, experiment and confound in the same way.

For all that, I have to say that I’m still having a fun time at the pictures. Maybe it’s MCU Stockholm syndrome but let’s remember that it’s hard to make one effective blockbuster, let alone (so far) 29. The last movie I watched before Thor: Love and Thunder was 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, an astonishingly bloodless remix-cum-travesty of its two predecessors. None of the post-James Cameron Terminator sequels is better than average; the same goes for the post-James Cameron Alien movies. There are as many bad Star Wars movies as good ones and the content keeps coming. Fox’s attempts at the Fantastic Four were disasters, as were the studio’s last two X-Men films. The DC Extended Universe is chaos. The Transformers franchise is almost entirely dreck. Even now that the writers and directors of the last two Avengers movies have re-teamed for the Netflix spy thriller The Gray Man, its Rotten Tomatoes score is lower than any MCU movie bar Eternals.

You get the picture. I’ve noticed that when friends with older children seek recommendations for solidly enjoyable family movies, MCU is always the no-brainer suggestion because even the worst entries have some memorable moments and a base level of competence. If Kevin Feige is like an ambitious juggler who drops a ball every now and then, most of his competitors are regularly left empty-handed.

Feige’s current problems, then, are imperial ones. He runs an overextended superpower which has probably already peaked but cannot stop growing. It can’t be healthy for a single franchise to exert such hegemonic dominance over the box office and the cultural conversation but nothing looks capable of supplanting it. The curious upshot is that the MCU is too big to fail and yet too big to succeed to the extent that it did with Infinity War and Endgame. While it’s not beyond the wit of Feige and his collaborators to braid all these loose threads into a satisfying narrative rope at some point, that task is becoming exponentially more difficult. The most obvious solution to MCU exhaustion would be for it to slow down and do less, but empires, famously, aren’t very good at that.


Dorian Lynskey is an author, journalist and UnHerd columnist.

Dorianlynskey

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Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
2 years ago

The mark of the true artist is this: he knows when to stop. Doyle.

Marshall Ballantine-Jones
Marshall Ballantine-Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Alas, the artist has no say in this – it’s all about profit, profit and more profit…

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
2 years ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Even Doyle was browbeaten at last by fans and publishers to bring back Sherlock Holmes until he final acquiesced and un-killed the great detective. His saga was prophetic of what was to come. In the time since Doyle, the moneymakers have figured out ways to keep control of valuable properties themselves. Now, if one artist wants to quit, they just bring in a new one. Comic books, ironically enough, were an early adopter of this tactic, and now they’ve transitioned to movies, where we no longer talk about pictures, but instead talk about ‘franchises’, or my personal favorite term, ‘properties’ reducing the creative act into something as mundane as a space on a monopoly board. Corporate executives care nothing for the art and everything for the money they can make from it. Still, we should remember that there ARE artists and for all the corporate meddling, sometimes they succeed. The first four phases of the MCU were a great example of this, and Kevin Feige is to be commended for succeeding in implementing his creative vision, however the corporate stooges drive it into the ground, which they surely will, and even within the failures, there will be a few gems, like the most recent Spider-Man movie, which brought back the old heroes and villains in a classy tribute to the franchises successes and failures.

Marc Manley
Marc Manley
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

In the spirit of UnHerd’s mission, “to push back against the herd mentality with new and bold thinking, and to provide a platform for otherwise unheard ideas, people and places,” I think I’ll add a thought here. There is definitely a talent, skill, or perhaps even an “art” to making money. I certainly don’t have it, nor do I envy those that do, but I can definitely appreciate the talent. I live and work more in the art side of life, but recognize that my particular art, and much artist’s work, would not exist were it not for the patronage of those who have the artistry to turn something like a 10 cent comic book into a multi-billion dollar product. And you would be hard pressed to say that most artists who made it big didn’t appreciate the financial benefit realized by that particular talent. So, at least give credit where credit is due, and try not to lump all corporate executives into the same heap of “stooges.”

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  Marc Manley

Allow me to make a distinction. It’s not the money I object to, its the way their money making ‘art’ as you so termed it, grants them a disproportionate level of power and influence over most aspects of society as a whole, from filmmaking to pharmaceuticals and everything else besides. The dollar, as Henry David Thoreau once said, is innocent. The allegiances and advantages bought by those dollars are certainly not. There’s not much you could say to me at this point that could convince me that the pursuit of money to the exclusion of all else and the unchecked power of those who excel at doing so is a good thing. I will concede that I used the term stooges out of personal bias, but I challenge you to prove my bias is misplaced in the current world.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Jolly
Marc Manley
Marc Manley
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I accept the distinction completely. I hesitated to introduce another element in my post which likely would have aligned with that distinction, but I was limited with my time.
While Thoreau was a transcendentalist (from my vague recollection of a high school english class!) I would hazard a guess that he knew the oft-misquoted biblical verse about money and the root of all evil, and the comment about the innocent dollar was his restatement of it. It’s the love of money—revealed in action by “the pursuit of money to the exclusion of all else”—not money itself, wherein lies the evil. And yes, money and power are joined at the hip. And yet…
I was simply providing a pushback against the lumping together of all corporate types into the one package, labeling all as evil, greedy, money-grubbers. I really believe there are folks in that world who get there simply because they are gifted in that way, love what they do, appreciate the arts, and are artistic in their own right in being able to bring grand visions to fruition. The money to them is just a reward for their talent and efforts. I would hazard to guess this is a rare breed in the current world, but not extinct!

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

As Tommy Cooper said ‘Its not the principle, its the money’.

Jo Nielson
Jo Nielson
2 years ago

i agree, there’s no point to the series now that Endgame is over.
Also, the stories are just awful and overly woke now. We went to Marvel movies to have fun, not to get lectured. They just aren’t fun movies anymore. I hated Black Widow and I went in expecting to like it. I’m still wondering what the point of the Eternals was because it was super convoluted and I had no investment or like for any of the characters or the story. Not going to bother with the new Thor. They’ve jumped the shark and it’s about Disney making more money at this point. They should have quit when they finished Endgame.

harry storm
harry storm
2 years ago
Reply to  Jo Nielson

I thought infinity world and endgame were chaotic and by far the worst of the avengers/CA movies.

Mel B
Mel B
1 year ago
Reply to  harry storm

With you on that Harry. I was getting bored with the whole Thanos thing by the time those two films finally came out, and I yawned my way through both when I could watch them for free. There were too many characters all competing for attention and I just ceased to care about any of them. As for Eternals, I didn’t even make it halfway through, but even it makes some of the Marvel TV series look good.

Nick M
Nick M
2 years ago

I enjoyed watching the new Thor film but also think most of the criticism of it is valid.

It looks like the current story arch is to build up female Marvel characters (Captain Marvel, Female Thor, She-Hulk, Wanda) and then I imagine once we are familiar with them all there will be some sort of storyline that brings them together and furthers the main story arch like the Avengers films did.

As Martin Scorsese said, they are more like theme park rides than films. But I’m fine with that. Sometimes it’s nice to have a background film on while multi-tasking on one’s phone.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago

Crikey – it’s another world. I’ll stick to the Czech New Wave of the 1960s if that’s OK.
According to Jeremy from The Quartering all these movies are failing because they are too ‘woke’, And then this: ‘As Marvel scholar Douglas Wolk…’
All of which is just an excuse of (almost) quoting John Lennon:
‘A woke-ing class hero is something to be’.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

I yearn for when the fashion for fairytale, superhero and sorceror movies finally comes to an end. It’s just a lot of bad acting, poor scripts that this writer probably thinks are genius, bad plots where devices are invented making everything possible (god how naive was I for thinking it was ridiculous when Bobby Ewing stepped out the shower!) and thereby trivialising to the point of inconsequence the human condition of the drama. And a lot of noisy fight scenes with interludes for nothing. It’s been twenty years now, please, let it end!

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Stewart
Kevin Vail
Kevin Vail
2 years ago

The Thor movies have all been awful. In Ragnorok Thor fully became the comic relief. I have not watched any of the movies released after Endgame, and don’t intend to.

Mark Thomas Lickona
Mark Thomas Lickona
1 year ago
Reply to  Kevin Vail

I would like to fight about the original Thor movie. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s almost like we all hated Dark World so much we don’t even want to remember, let alone appreciate, the film to which it was the abysmal sequel. The original had an actual emotional arc. The first and only emotional moment in TL&T was the one where Thor is retelling the story of the original on the deck of that stupid screaming goat boat. Not to mention that the OG Thor was based af. Which I suspect is why he has been so roundly deconstructed/humiliated. It’s almost like the equally-based actor who plays him did too good a job at making us fall in love with something divine and is now being punished for it. Which actor himself has rightly decried this film as something springing from the mind of a seven-year-old, which is being kind, since seven is the age of reason. OK, gauntlet thrown, let’s rumble.

Guy Pigache
Guy Pigache
1 year ago

The issue is … Disney. Its the MacDonalds of movie land.

John Pickford
John Pickford
1 year ago

I think that in a world with so many problems it is offensive and morally bankrupt that so much effort, energy, intellect, time, money and resource was wasted on one person’s self obsessed smirk at making a movie. Where was the team telling Waititi “this just doesn’t work”. Christian Bale must have been exhausted trying to lift that pile. Chris Pratts and the Guardians “cameo” was a highlight and it went downhill from there. Best compliment….it was fun in the same way as supporting your mates ham up their first amateur dramatics play.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Pickford
Phil Mac
Phil Mac
1 year ago

The films are wreck, they foolishly skipped over the later Silver Age great stories and went straight to the garbage that now sees comic circulation as a fraction of its heyday level.
The fact is that pretty much 90% of what made Marvel great was created over about 5 years by genius creatives Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko & a few others; Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Hulk, Thor & the Asgardians, Daredevil, Dr Strange, X-Men (original), Iron Man & Avengers. It always cracked me up when the culture warriors laid claim to Black Panther, to the extent of haranguing white audiences, they didn’t seem to know the character was thought up by two Jewish New Yorkers. What’s new about their ignorance?
The issues over FF ownership prevented them accessing that stable of brilliant villains, especially Dr Doom, and of course the cosmic characters Galactus, Watcher & Surfer. They should have fixed that.
Some of what came later lived up to the SA level – Claremont’s revamped X-Men being an outstanding instance – but as time passed they were followed by low-talent hacks living off the legacy of the greats, and now it’s just trash.
The MCU skipped the middle bit and went straight to garbage like Ms Marvel. It’s done.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
1 year ago

Its very simple – the Super Hero genre is about a human being (or at a push, someone from Krypton) having superhuman powers operating in a relatively ordinary universe. Thus the medium becomes the message. When that universe becomes psychedelic, pop art, Michael Moorcock Fantasia with added dimension portals and music by a rock band, the message becomes the medium. When the magic becomes the main event its time to return to the Batcave and lie low for 1000 years. The crowbarring in of ‘woke’ elements is only the latest example of when the genre lost its way, when Tony Hopkins agreed to live on an astral plane.

Last edited 1 year ago by Adrian Maxwell
Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago

The problem with the entire superhero universe in recent years – Marvel, Star wars, name anything – is that they are too busy pushing diversity in a world where real world superheroes are ordinary people who are mostly men and disproportionately white men.

Whether it’s dying like flies in Iraq or Ukraine for your country, rescuing kids from a Thai cave, grabbing kids from a burning house while delivering pizza, the real world of superheroes is racist and sexist. We know humans can’t be superheroes but having some correlation between imaginary superpowers and ordinary, put your life on the line bravery is helpful. And as Bill Burr put it, not much diversity or feminism when the ship is sinking, house on fire or the call goes out for military conscription.

Tesseract Orion
Tesseract Orion
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Hoping you’re not serious. Because otherwise you come across as a deluded white supremacist.

Funnily enough those ‘too diverse’ movies are doing just fine around the world, where the ‘real heroes’ are emphatically not male and white, in fact quite the reverse.

0 0
0 0
1 year ago

His name is samir you idiot

Last edited 1 year ago by 0 0
Jason Highley
Jason Highley
1 year ago

As you alluded to in your tour of the other IP’s (DC, Transformers, etc.), this is hardly just a Marvel problem. The problem is that the culture war is coming home to roost, and none of our entertainment reflects the true, the beautiful, or the good anymore. Could anyone even make a realistic Bible movie with actual Christian themes anymore? Perish the thought! All of that money, and ALL of it is in service of white knuckling this foolish woke ideology and all its contradictions.
Most memes on this are more entertaining than the actual fare. For the perfect illustration, I witnessed Wojack guffawing with “awwwww” at two rock dudes making a baby in the most recent Thor, while turning around and mocking Christians for the shallow lives they must inevitably live while in the service of so great a superstition.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jason Highley
N D
N D
2 years ago

Great article. Thor 4 was okay, not great not terrible. Apart from Spiderman the only other decent recent production in my opinion is Loki and even that had a few dull episodes.