Meeting the unveiling of Marvel’s Phase 3 with cynicism and snark is by now a tired take and in an online world where backlash meets backlash meets backlash (meets backlash?), there isn’t an immediate answer to the question “is this good for cinema?” Most likely, there never will be as the camps of Marvel supporters and those who question the artistic or formal value the franchise adds to the movie industry may never meet halfway. But while speculating about single Marvel releases as they begin production is rather nit-picky, it’s not heresy to question the potential outcomes of making a colossal display unveiling the mere idea of a multitude of films operating in the same universe (especially a universe which has been met with lukewarm criticism in the past).
There is no cinematic reason to unveil nine titles so far in advance.
The Marvel Event was akin to handing a 15-year-old the keys to a brand new Ferrari. That kid won’t be able to drive the car for a year and in the meantime, all he can think about is getting behind the wheel and rushing down the highway at speeds that mock posted limits. There is no cinematic reason to unveil nine titles so far in advance. At best, it serves to turn industry journalists into extensions of the Marvel PR team, empowering the studio to take advantage of immense social media publicity by merely dropping insignificant details along the way (details which don’t even have to be correct, mind you, as we saw with the title of Captain America 3). At worst, publicizing a plan such as Phase 3 can have a lasting impact on the creation and eventual perception of the films themselves.
First and foremost, there is the chance of failure. While Jim Emerson described movies like The Avengers as critic-proof (a notion that the box office results of recent Marvel forays have confirmed), this leaves them entirely on their own publicity campaigns and a tidal wave of fans. Box office numbers suggest that while the core group of Marvel fans is indeed immense, there are likely a large number of marginally attached fans who cannot be banked on regardless of the quality of the entertainment (look at the gap between The Avengers and Thor). If these movies are cheapened in any way, whether from a storytelling, visual, or societal point of view, what does a poor May release for Doctor Strange mean for the films coming in 2017?
Even if we concede that American dollars are not worth as much as the international box office anymore, and perhaps the chance of any sort of sizeable box office dips is miniscule, there is still a creative depth which Marvel studios may not have even hit yet. Even if you have the means to give a kid a Ferrari they can’t drive, you still have a problem on your hands; eventually the kid turns 16 and you have a new driver in a very crash-able Ferrari.
By the time a director steps onto set, the major roles of the film will already be cast, the important plot points may already be set [...]and most importantly, the film will need to begin and end at preset moments in time within the overall narrative…
I don’t mean to suggest that the director of Thor: Ragnarok will have the cinematic capabilities (or driving abilities) of a 16-year-old. For all I know, Kevin Feige will recruit Joss Whedon to direct every remaining Marvel movie – but that isn’t really the point. By the time a director steps onto set, the major roles of the film will already be cast, the important plot points may already be set (a large ship will crash into earth and an orb of some sort must be returned, etc.), and most importantly, the film will need to begin and end at preset moments in time within the overall narrative (to fit with the rest of the cinematic universe). With all of these elements already in place, there’s hardly anything left to direct, save the likely-witty dialogue and whatever the general aura of the film will be.
And herein lies the problem – it doesn’t matter. That the director, cinematographer, or even the whole of the production design team will hardly influence the success of nine blockbusters over the next five years is creatively maddening. Worse still is the fact that these films will be the standard for blockbusters until at least 2019, setting the benchmark for cinematic entertainment during increasingly crowded summer release schedules, and may be two to three of the 5.9 movies Americans go to every year. If these films were formally or creatively innovative, this would be a non-issue. I hope they surprise me and we all get a collective, serialized universe unlike any other we’ve ever had before. I’m not so optimistic.