Ant-Man and the Wasp has yet to roll out to several major countries and thus faces an uncertain financial future, but those of us in the U.S. and elsewhere have now seen everything Marvel Studios had to offer in 2018. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the results could have been much better.
Marvel Studios came into 2018 on a hot streak. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok were all universally liked mega-hits, quieting any naysayers who argued Marvel’s decision to release three movies in one year for the first time was a recipe for audience burnout. Instead, audiences simply couldn’t get enough. The Guardians matured even further into their role as Marvel’s outer space Avengers. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker was so pitch-perfect he seemingly erased all memory of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. And Taika Waitit took Marvel’s most troubled sub-franchise and gave it an entirely new life. Across the board, the films were tasked with prioritizing fun and weird over gloom and predictability.
That, it turns out, was just Marvel’s way of preparing us for what was to come. Black Panther includes a soul-crushingly heavy line like “Just bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors who jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.” Infinity War snaps half the damn universe right out of existence. Ant-Man and the Wasp…
OK, Ant-Man and the Wasp is about as light and breezy a movie as Marvel as ever made, but those first two – Panther and Infinity – are serious stylistic and tonal detours from what came before. It’s hardly a surprise Infinity hit the way it did and continues months after its release to fuel the internet fan culture which is so dependent on endless theorizing over what happens next. After all, the film is the culmination of 10 years of world building and takes the inherent appeal of the team-up narrative and puts it on horse steroids.
Black Panther, on the other hand, is the real shocker. Never before has a film at that budget level been so absolutely and unapologetically black. As film journalist Ellen Jones argued in the most recent Empire, the default setting of mainstream cinema is to invite worldwide audiences to emphathize with straight white male heroes. Here, finally, was a mega-blockbuster superhero movie asking white dudes to make that same empathetic leap for black characters. In the process, the myth that black movies don’t travel was shattered, Ryan Coogler’s wunderkind status was re-confirmed, and Black Panther instantly ascended to becoming one of the new faces of the MCU.
Then Thanos killed him.
Yes, the universe often criticized for having no real dramatic stakes stunned the world by wiping out all the people we not only expected to survive but already know to have sequels in development.
This is where the downside to Marvel’s 2018 comes in. Financially and artistically, this is among the finest collective efforts ever put forth by the studio. But the comic book movie logic is getting harder to ignore, as the instant shock of Infinity War’s ending eventually gave way to more practical “Well, obviously they’ll just bring everyone back through time travel” arguments. Moreover, now Ant-Man and the Wasp and next year’s Captain Marvel have to be viewed with the “How will this connect to Infinity War?” hanging over everything, which you can already see impacting some of the negative reactions to Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Could the interconnectivity soon turn into a liability instead of an asset? Sure, but Marvel’s smart enough to let Ant-Man and the Wasp basically stand on its own. It’s not until the post-credits where we get an Infinity War tie-in, which does – slight spoiler ahead – kind of betray the rest of the film. However, those who want to can just ignore that and look forward to Ant-Man and the Wasp’s next movie, should they get one. Plus, the future after next year’s Avengers 4 will likely see Marvel pulling back on the heavy interconnectivity and reverting to its identity of producing mini-franchises that stand on their own, as much as possible anyway.
The future also promises more diversity. Last year, Ragnarok and Homecoming, for example, gave notable supporting roles to women and people of color; Black Panther and Wasp put those same kinds of people in the lead, becoming the first black-led MCU movie and the first female co-led one. The reward, predictably, has been a higher-than-average turnout among black audiences and women. Now, we’re looking forward to the first true solo female superhero movie (Captain Marvel, which also features Marvel’s first female co-director), an inevitable Black Panther 2, the possibility of a Black Widow standalone story as well as an all-female team-up adventure.
And that’s the template for how Marvel can keep doing what it’s doing without eventually boring people. Change – sometimes subtle, other times drastic – has to be forever brewing. New faces, new stories, new genres to exploit, and new audiences to appeal to. Look at all the people who’ve claimed to have jumped into this universe for the first time over the past year thanks entirely to the uniquely diverse appeal of films like Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther.
The trick will be juggling the new audiences with the old and not bogging everything down with “You really need to have seen, like, 10 of these prior movies to be able to enjoy this new one.” As Black Panther and Wonder Woman, DC’s sole hit, showed, sometimes the best step forward for a film set in a cinematic universe is to actually ignore that universe in favor of emphasizing mass appeal to those who just want to be told a good story.
Given Marvel’s financial track record to this point, it’s fair to question how much of this is actually a concern for them now. After all, surely everyone has seen at least some of the MCU movies by now. True, but in the grand scheme of things, to quote Derek Thompson’s Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, “If 50 million people buy a ticket to see a film, it’s the year’s biggest blockbuster – which more than 80% of Americans over age thirteen ignored.” That’s a pretty significant portion of the audience to ignore. That’s why Marvel’s strategy leans toward maintaining a steady mixture of the team-up tentpoles everyone will have to see as part of a cultural moment and those smaller silos which maintain an idiosyncratic appeal and thus give audiences a refreshing change of pace.
Now, we’re looking forward to next year’s Avengers 4 and debating how everyone will be saved as well as what the MCU might look like when Thanos is finally dealt with for good. How many of the original Avengers will survive? Do they simply retire a character like Captain America when Steve Rogers leaves? Or do they pass the title on to Falcon or Winter Soldier? What does an MCU without Steve Rogers and Tony Stark look like? And how will the X-Men and Fantastic Four factor into everything?
If history is any guide, what goes up must eventually go down. However, the other side of Marvel’s unprecedented ride to the top of the film industry seems far, far away. Even a slightly disappointing box office performance from Ant-Man and the Wasp can’t turn 2018 into anything other than a monumental year in the history of Marvel Studios. There is, admittedly, a weariness creeping in, at least on my part. After all, we’ve just been bombarded by so, so many comic book movies over the past decade. Yeah, but I always end up liking the Marvel Studios movies. I don’t expect to feel any differently about Captain Marvel, Avengers 4, and Spider-Man: Far From Home.
How about you?