For roughly the first decade of its existence, the Marvel Cinematic Universe hewed close to one narrative tone for its characters. Characters like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are larger-than-life superheroes, sure, but their powers at least wink at something resembling plausibility. Tony is a guy in a suit of powered armor, and Steve is just a super-strong soldier who received an experimental serum.
The Hulk is a science experiment gone wrong. Ant-Man uses technology to shrink himself, and Black Widow and Hawkeye are just extremely talented secret agents. Perhaps the only “weird” outlier of the initial wave of Phase I and Phase II heroes is Thor, the alien prince from another planet. The MCU made the faintest concessions to Asgard’s technological prowess, saying that magic and sufficiently advanced technology are indistinguishable from one another.
Even the Guardians of the Galaxy, who count a talking raccoon and an ambulatory tree among their roster, are sci-fi characters who would be right at home in a Star Wars movie. The MCU only started to show signs of real weirdness in Doctor Strange, which introduced magic to the setting. Now, each entry in the sprawling continuity branches further and further into strange territory, and audiences love it. It’s time for the MCU to get weirder.
How do you keep stories involving long-running characters fresh? Well, you introduce the concept of a multiverse. The MCU has been busy introducing audiences to alternate timelines and parallel universes throughout the end of Phase III and the entirety of Phase IV, setting the stage for a big multiversal showdown with Kang the Conquerer. This has resulted in some escalating weirdness in the MCU.
Phase VI started off with a bang, embracing some full-blown analog horror with the early episodes of WandaVision and keeping fans guessing about what was happening. Wandavision also offered a double-dose of weirdness by being the first MCU television show, so its meta-style presentation as a parody of the medium of TV was a welcome change of pace. The show also came hot on the heels of Avengers: Endgame, which embraced all sorts of strange storytelling by opening up the Marvel universe to time travel and alternate-reality versions of existing characters.
It’s also impossible to discuss Multiversal Madness without talking about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Stephen Strange has functioned as the MCU’s window into all things mystical and weird. It’s his magic that powers the universe-hopping hijinks of Spider-Man: No Way Home, and his own second solo outing introduced audiences to numerous new realities.
It’s hard to argue that the MCU isn’t getting weirder when you see Wanda Maximoff brutally dispatch another reality’s version of the Illuminati, after all. Not only did Marvel introduce John Krasinski as Reed Richards, they promptly killed him off, on-screen, in a mean-spirited sequence that would be right at home in a horror movie.
It’s also easy to see how Marvel got here, progressively diving into stranger worlds and weirder movies. Guardians of the Galaxy saw its protagonists engaging in a dance-off to save the universe (sort of) and its sequel culminated in a battle with a giant face that is also a planet. No, seriously.
Echoes of Jack Kirby
Aside from Stan Lee, Jack Kirby is arguably the most influential figure in the history of Marvel Comics. Kirby helped create some of the most iconic characters of all time, and his illustrations are the cosmic backdrop of some of Marvel’s best books. His mystical, otherworldly art propelled characters like Thor and Captain Marvel to the furthest reaches of the human imagination.
Seeing Marvel Studios embrace Kirby’s colorful, bizarre palette in big-screen movies like Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame is a dream come true for comics fans. While the grounded, gritty tone of some of the MCU’s earlier properties helped make the films popular with a broad audience, the franchise is now massive enough that it can afford to take some bigger risks.
Seeing the studio lean on Thor in Phase III and Phase IV is only natural. After all, he was a tonal misfit in the first two phases, being the one magic-powered character in a sci-fi setting. Now that the MCU is filled with weird and wild characters powered by magic, communing with deities, and just being all-around unusual, it’s great to see Thor taking center stage again.
Thor hasn’t been the only character boosted by the MCU’s turn toward more mystical storytelling. The Scarlet Witch has become significantly more compelling (and powerful) as the franchise has embraced magic and mysticism. Her chaos-based powers were initially ill-defined and only as powerful as they needed to be for the plot. Once Doctor Strange recontextualized magic in the setting, though, her powers became much more noticeably terrifying on screen.
In the final battle during Infinity War, Wanda holds off Thanos with one hand while destroying the Mind Stone with the other. Then, in Endgame, she easily tosses the Mad Titan around with her magic. Then, in WandaVision, audiences saw her powers take on a dark new significance when she enchanted the town of Westview to do her bidding.
By the time we see her as the villain in Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, she’s so strong that even Dr. Strange and Wong can’t beat her in a magical duel. In the hands of director Sam Raimi, her powers have gone far beyond being just red squiggles. She brings terror to people’s minds, pulls unsuspecting bystanders into reflective surfaces, and, as mentioned earlier, turns Mr. Fantastic into blue confetti.
Keep It Weird
When Marvel’s comics needed a boost in sales, the publisher started getting weird with it. They reframed some of their classic characters, bringing in Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man and Jane Foster as The Mighty Thor. When the disparate threads of the Ultimate Universe and the main timeline got too convoluted to keep straight, Marvel just converged them with a yearlong crossover event called Secret Wars, merging all of its timelines and recontextualizing their entire lineup.
As the MCU continues to expand outward and reach every corner of pop culture, it’s ideal for Marvel Studios to keep it weird. They’re on the right track right now, with shows like Moon Knight exploring themes relating to the inner self and Egyptian mythology, while an adjacent series, She-Hulk, will function as a half-hour legal comedy. For these two distinct shows to share a continuity, viewers have to tolerate a good degree of weirdness.
This focus on weirdness doesn’t just keep the audience guessing, either. It also allows directors to have their unique voices shine through in an existing franchise. Just compare Sam Raimi’s work on Doctor Strange to Taika Waititi’s vision for Thor: Ragnarok. These films couldn’t be more tonally distinct, yet they exist in the same continuity. In fact, Stephen Strange makes a brief cameo in Ragnarok, and his appearance hardly derails the proceedings.
As the MCU barrels into the future, leaving the trappings of grounded storytelling behind it, the sky is the limit. Superhero fiction and comic books as a medium have always allowed a certain degree of ridiculousness into the proceedings, and it was only a matter of time before superhero cinema followed suit. You can only tell so many stories about spandex-wearing superheroes before things start to get silly.
The best thing for a superhero franchise to do is to steer into that silliness. When a movie based on a comic book apologizes for its premise and tries to make things too gritty and realistic, it can suck the air out of the storytelling. Superhero fiction is escapist fantasy at its finest! Who doesn’t want to have super-strength or magical powers? Everyone knows it’s a ridiculous premise, and audiences are ready to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.
One need only look at the introduction of Shang-Chi to see how different the Marvel of today is from the studio that introduced Iron Man to audiences in 2008. Iron Man is a reflection of the anxieties of its era, a somewhat plausible political thriller that slowly morphs into a superhero film by the end of its runtime. Tony Stark is quippy, sarcastic, and overall, a believable protagonist in a suit of only-slightly-unrealistic armor.
Shang-Chi, meanwhile, is the son of an ageless crime lord and a master of kung fu before the movie even starts. That’s not to say that Iron Man is a bad film, but it shows how much has changed when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens with its protagonist already capable of beating up ninjas on a bus. That the latter film ends with a giant fight between a dragon and a demon just cements how outlandish modern Marvel films have become–and it’s awesome.
With any luck, the MCU will stay weird for the foreseeable future and will give us more deep cuts from its roster, like the lovable Shang-Chi or the bizarre Moon Knight. Who knows, maybe they’ll even give Howard the Duck another shot!
On second thought, never mind about the duck.