Marvel Studios Conquers SDCC

Marvel Studios unveiled its Phase Four slate at SDCC 50 and proved the future really is Marvel. Nothing remotely compared.

Marvel SDCC Explained Natalie Portman Thor

Any attempts to write about a “quiet” Comic-Con died Saturday evening in Hall H to the sound of thunderous applause. With Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige spending 90 minutes taking giddy fans from one impressive looking project to the next, it would be difficult to pinpoint the single most illuminating moment of the night. Was it the fact that the entire cast for next year’s Eternals was revealed and introduced on stage, including Angelina Jolie, or was it Mahershala Ali putting on a Blade hat? Could it be the unexpected revelation that Natalie Portman is returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Thor, or simply that we’re getting a Thor 4 (now known as Thor: Love and Thunder)?

For my money, it was one of the smaller revelations that proved to be the most prescient. During the introduction of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which will be released on May 7, 2022, Feige casually mentioned that Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch will be appearing in the movie… after just having ushered Ms. Olsen off stage-left following the announcement of WandaVision premiering in spring 2021.

“The events you see Wanda go through in WandaVision will tie directly into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” Feige said with chipper delight.

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A smiling Olsen then acutely added, “I’m really excited to be able to link one story in one medium and bring it into the future. We haven’t done that yet, and I think that’s super-unique to the MCU, and I think that might be the future.”

This in a nutshell captures the staggering audacity of what Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios have built over the last 11 years, and why their future looks even rosier in a location like San Diego Comic-Con. Whereas much of the rest of this pop culture mecca has been eerily muted this week beyond an unexpected Tom Cruise Hall H appearance, Marvel Studios isn’t just building a franchise, a brand, or even a shared universe anymore; they are constructing their own media empire that is shattering the line between film and television, and making Marvel Studios’ new Disney+ projects as big an event as their multiplex tentpole movies.

With currently 10 projects comprising the Phase Four that Marvel Studios rolled out this weekend, half of them are Disney+ television shows that you will need to subscribe for. Whereas other franchises continue to stumble replicating Marvel’s annual multi-film serialization strategy, Marvel is now diversifying resources away from just film and putting as much an emphasis on their television output. In the process, Marvel is staking its destiny beyond the multiplex—which is having a very bad summer beyond Marvel Studios and Disney at-large—and would seem to be setting itself up as an even greater around-the-calendar entertainment resource.

It’s more than just a film series or a TV show; it’s an entertainment lifestyle. One whose persuasiveness could be felt by the sheer jubilation within Hall H. Unlike just about any other TV show or film panel I’ve seen this year, the mood in the cavernous space filled with 7,000 souls was frenzied in the build-up to Kevin Feige striding across that stage. So eager were some fans tonight that if Marvel were to suddenly cancel the event, chairs might’ve gone flying. Instead fans were greeted with the most impressive multimedia line-up I’ve seen since… well, Feige announced the Phase Three schedule.

Noticeably, Marvel’s future is also looking much more diverse and welcoming than a recent past that seemed to have an unwritten rule that every other superhero be played by a man named Chris.

One especially moving moment was Simu Liu’s words after he was introduced as the star of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s a film that will obviously rewrite the lore of much of the MCU, as its title references the terrorist organization first introduced in 2008’s Iron Man (Feige also teases this movie might’ve been planned as early as 2015 when the first Ant-Man had a Ten Rings easter egg). But it has a sheer euphoria surrounding its uniqueness as the first major superhero movie about a character of Asian descent, and none were happier than Liu.

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“Literally guys, I was cast on Tuesday, I screentested on Sunday in New York, and this is just the craziest, craziest dream,” Liu said. “My parents immigrated from China to Canada 25 years ago, and with nothing except the hopes and dreams to build a family and build a life for their kids. And all I ever wanted to do growing up was make them proud, so basically what I’m trying to say is that I’m really happy I’m not a doctor. So take that Mom and Dad.”

Perhaps the biggest signal that Marvel Studios output might better reflect reality’s diversity though are the announcements about the highly anticipated Thor: Love and Thunder. Ever since Takia Waititi reinvented the God of Thunder to also be the God of Bro-iness in Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel’s once slightest franchise became its grooviest. Now in a post-Avengers: Endgame world, that film’s Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson, is queen… and in Thor 4, Thor likewise will be played by a badass… named Natalie Portman.

“When we were shooting Ragnarok, I was reading one storyline by Jason Aaron called The Mighty Thor,” Waititi said. “It’s full of emotion and love, and thunder, and it introduces, for the first time, female Thor. So for us, there is only one person who can play that role. Only one.” And sure enough, she was standing right off-stage. When Portman crossed the boards, the power of what Marvel has become, and what it can be, seemed transformative. Portman rather famously broke away from the MCU after appearing in Thor and Thor: The Dark World. She was also particularly disappointed in the latter after her lobbying to give an opportunity to a woman director on the project fell through and Marvel parted ways with Patty Jenkins (who went on to helm a little movie called Wonder Woman). Afterward, Portman elected not to appear in a third Thor movie, saying as recently as 2016, “As far as I know, I’m done.”

Tonight though, she was standing in front of Hall H and wielding Mjölnir. In that moment, she joked, “It feels pretty good, I’ve always had hammer envy,” but the image really reflected Marvel’s future. The narrow parameters that once pushed a socially aware Oscar winner like Portman away are falling away, and in a world where Marvel can dominate SDCC all on its own, movies and television alike, everyone wants to wield one of its hammers.

Hence Feige’s coup d’etat of the night. After giving out 7,000 Black Widow hats to everyone in the ballroom, and showing some impressive Black Widow footage, the Marvel Studios president teased dropping news about Fantastic Four or mutants before instead electing to tell fans about something they did not know that they wanted.

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“All that stuff’s been rumored,” Feige said. “You’ve heard about rumors. But I want to leave you today with one more thing that I don’t think has been rumored about. Ladies and gentlemen, two-time Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali.” While everyone else is wearing Black Widow hats, out strolls the Moonlight star ready to don his own Blade hat. Marvel is playing a game all by themselves, and everyone want sto be on the team.

This, however, can be glad tidings. Kumail Nanjiani, who is one of the many Eternals stars announced at SDCC, considered what the appeal is for actors as well as audiences when it comes to the MCU.

“It used to be movies like Casablanca would sort of have everything,” Nanjiani told Hall H. “They’d have action, drama, thriller, romance, comedy. They’d have everything. Then movies sort of became like they had to be little genres. So what is this? Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Is it a thriller? And I feel like Marvel movies are a throwback to those old school Hollywood movies, because they had everything.”

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And judging by the happy faces under Black Widow hats, they have everything, and the only thing, fans need right now.

This article originally published on July 20.

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.