The Marvel Cinematic Universe is expanding, to the cosmos and beyond. mTerms like Phase 1, 2 and 3 aside, it feels like we’re entering a brand-new age of Marvel movies, just ahead of the current one officially ending.
For a long time, the MCU has been criticized for being staid and formulaic. Almost every movie seemed to end with the same type of space battle, against the same type of enemies. All of the heroes were mildly attractive white men with devastating senses of humor. The villains were all monotonous, one-note, and easily forgotten. While enjoyable, all of them seemed as if they were rolling off an assembly line -- as steady and regular as McDonald’s burgers.
But Doctor Strange seemed to change that. A film about magic in the MCU? It sounded preposterous, but it worked wonderfully. It even included a battle that didn’t involve the exact same blistering, Galaga-esque approach. Of course, in many ways it was Iron Man with different colors -- an egotistical rich man must make a journey after suffering a hardship to learn powers to save the world. Even their facial hair seemed the same. But that's fine, because past those surface details, it was a different-feeling Marvel film.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 evolved the MCU even further, giving us perhaps our first really good MCU villain (after Loki) in the form of Ego, the Living Planet, aka Peter Quill’s father. It was that touch, that connection to Peter, that lent Ego the gravitas able to rise above the low level of other MCU villains.
The MCU, it seems, is finally breaking out of its shell and is poised to truly evolve. It’s moving away from its assembly line production into a more director-based, well, direction. For proof, one needs look no further than Marvel’s next two films: Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther.
Thor: Ragnarok, to put it bluntly, looks like it might be the first genuinely good Thor movie. It also looks completely different than any Thor that has come before. It’s all aliens and Asgard, families and magick. Gone is human love interest Jane Foster, and in comes Thor’s buddy, Gladiator Hulk. It’s a wildly different take for the series, and one that looks to be serving it well. Marvel seems to have found a director (Taika Waititi) it trusts to take one of its more-established MCU characters into weirder and wilder waters. And God, how fun does that sound?
For once, we’re going to get a comic book movie that’s as wild as the comics -- using a character we care about! Guardians of the Galaxy showed that Marvel could stretch their wings a bit, loosen up, but it wasn’t until Thor: Ragnarok that they really seemed to get the message.
Of course, as game-changing as Thor: Ragnarok appears to be, that’s nothing compared to Black Panther. With a movie like Thor, there’s room to play around; after all, it’s not like people aren’t going to see it -- he’s Thor, and it's the third film in a successful trilogy.
For Marvel wants to show that it's truly dedicated to changing things up, it had to make a movie unlike any it had produced before. Something with magic and science, something set in a different land, a place unlike any we’ve ever -- and, hey, look, it’s Wakanda.
Black Panther has it all -- a brand-new city, an almost entirely black cast, Oscar-winning creators, and a mythos previously unexplored in film. Heck, it even looks to have perhaps Marvel’s first truly great villain -- colonialism.
While Black Panther was first introduced to film audience's in Captain America: Civil War, him getting his own movie is almost awe-inspiring (even if it shouldn’t be). Since Blade, there hasn’t been a big budget superhero movie about a black superhero, and even Blade edged it bets by surrounding Wesley Snipes' vampire-hunting hero with lots of white faces. Black Panther, however, is the beginning of something new.
This is a time for Marvel to be taking chances, something we haven’t seen from the studio in a long time. By extension, for the first time in a long time, it’s exciting to be a fan of the MCU. No one knows exactly what Black Panther will be like, but we know it’ll be different, which, frankly, is a huge deal. Bland, by-the-rules comic book movies are played out -- we want to see something we’ve never seen before. And hey, a movie with an African King protecting his land from white invaders fits the bill. Heck, if it’s really true to comics, it might even be the first Marvel movie to feature two prominent, same-gender characters in a relationship together.
So what does the future hold? Who knows? We know for sure that Marvel is more willing to takes chances on movies they might not have a few years ago. So does this mean we might finally get a Black Widow movie? Maybe a down-to-Earth Hawkeye movie inspired by the Matt Fraction/David Aja run? Heck, is N.E.X.T.W.A.V.E. in the cards? Frankly, the possibilities are nigh-endless.
Unlike the pre-Wonder Woman DCEU, no one is looking for Marvel to prove it can make movies that appeal to millions and millions of fans. Rather, we want to see that it can make films that garner critical acclaim, movies that matter -- and it seems like it’s answering the call, not only with movies featuring more diverse stories, but with more diverse casts. Let’s hope that this continues and we get more PoC heroes, more female heroes -- heck, more female PoC heroes (let us have Ms Marvel)! If these two movies succeed, it’ll be a resounding cry to all producers that superhero movies don’t need to fit into a small grid -- they can be anything they want to be.
Of course, while Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok look amazing, for all for all we know, they could both end with a space battle, Galaga-style. That said, from this vantage point, the future of the MCU has never looked brighter. Which is a good thing, too, since it seems like the days of the MCU as we knew it are about to be over -- after Avengers: Infinity Wars, it’s going to be a brand-new ballgame, after all. But if Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok hit like we expect they will, Phase 3 -- and beyond -- will be just fine.