Why Marvel is Right to Take More Risks With MCU Phase 4

From more diversity to stronger genre angles to championing lesser-known heroes, the Phase Four slate shows Marvel doing what it does best

Marvel MCU Phase 4

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

In 2014, Marvel Comics made some huge changes to their publishing line. As part of the Original Sin event, Thor found himself unworthy to wield Mjolnir and was replaced by a new, female Thor who was later revealed to be Jane Foster. Captain America, meanwhile, had the super-soldier serum in his body neutralized, causing him to rapidly age into a 90-year-old. He was replaced as Captain America by his long-time friend and partner, the Falcon. 

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.

At the time, Marvel’s attempt to rework the characters caused outrage with a certain section of fans, who decried the “forced diversity” of making Cap non-white and Thor a woman. They demanded the return of the “classic” versions of these characters, predicting failure for a version of Marvel that, they argued, was deliberately alienating its core audience. Again, stop me if it sounds familiar.

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Of course, the prophesized sales collapse failed to materialize – sales rose sharply then dwindled gradually, as they always do in comics. The classic versions of those characters did eventually return, as they always do in comics. The stories ran their course as they were intended, but undoubtedly they grabbed headlines, brought in new audiences, and stand as a recognized part of canon.

Whether or not the active pursuit of a more diverse line-up of heroes was the policy behind the stories Marvel told (and it’s worth noting that at the same time, Spider-Man was also just-as-controversially killed and replaced by Doctor Octopus, so it wasn’t really all about checking boxes for diversity) the risks worked. People cared about the stories even if they were angry about them. Sales went up. New audiences found the characters. 

The good thing about comics is that it’s easy to take risks, because the stakes are low and the titles can demonstrably endure all manner of bad ideas. Marvel Studios, on the other hand, has had trouble taking risks in the past. For a solid decade, their cinematic line-up has been focused on the same group of characters – mostly white, mostly male – to the point where they even awkwardly shuffled a Captain Marvel movie back a year to make a new Spider-Man movie. 

In fairness, it’s hard not to sympathize with the business case – bankable stars playing well-known characters, and an overarching narrative that was set years ago that needed to be serviced. You don’t take risks when you’re trying to land a plane. But with the Infinity Saga plane safely back on the ground, Marvel Studios finds itself in the position it was in 10-plus years ago when they decided to take the risk of taking some of their C-list characters and turning them into big-budget movies. 

It’s sometimes hard to remember that back at the start of the MCU, characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor were only in Marvel’s pocket because the likes of Sony and Fox weren’t interested in them – because they were considered the C-listers against the cultural behemoths of the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man. Making a movie out of a superhero based on a Norse god wasn’t exactly a safe bet, nor was making a movie about a piece of wartime propaganda at a time when America’s foreign policy had driven the country to new heights of political unpopularity. Meanwhile, the lead actor tapped for Iron Man was a recovering addict whose reputation as a movie star was in tatters.

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Now, when people look at Marvel’s TV and movie slate and cry that audiences don’t want to see a female Thor, a black Captain America or a Chinese-American Kung Fu master as their lead characters, it’s worth looking back on Marvel’s past decisions and asking the question: how certain of that are you? Because taking risks is what made Marvel the giant it is today. Within the context of the tightly-controlled lead-in to Infinity War and Endgame, Black Panther looked like an extremely risky release – but only until it started setting records.

If anything, you could argue that Marvel is slightly ahead of its own curve in giving audiences things that they don’t know they want. It’s fair to say probably wouldn’t have seen pulpy titles like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness or Shang-Chi and the Legend Of the Ten Rings or even Thor: Love and Thunder when the grand narrative of the Infinity Saga was in play, but as Marvel’s next phase gets started with a blanker-than-usual slate, they’re free to take risks.

Director Scott Derrickson has promised that Doctor Strange 2 will be Marvel’s first proper horror movie. Director Taika Waititi looks set to deliver a follow up to Ragnarok that’s even more audacious than that film was. And Marvel is making a movie out of The Eternals, whose success in the comics has been far from glowing at any point in the last 40 years.

So if you think that Marvel Studios is changing what works for the wrong reasons, you’re wrong. They’re doing what they always did – taking risks, drawing from the most interesting ideas in the history of the characters they can access, and finding new angles. From Iron Man to Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Studios didn’t become massive on safe bets. It only looks that way because time and again, their instincts paid off. Why should now be any different?

You can read more about all of Marvel’s Phase Four projects here.

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