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The Problem with Crossovers

By Nate Parker | Think Pieces | March 1, 2023 |

By Nate Parker | Think Pieces | March 1, 2023 |


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Contains Marvel and Star Wars spoilers

My first comics crossover was Marvel’s 1992 X-Cutioner’s Song. See, Cable was hunted by the X-Men after his clone, Stryfe, disguised himself as Cable and attempted to kill Professor X as part of a plot with Mr. Sinister, who was disguised as Apocalypse, and then… It doesn’t matter. X-Cutioner’s Song was a comparatively short event but still included multiple issues of X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, and X-Force. Before digital prints were available, comic crossovers were a mad hunt to find a dozen issues spread across a number of different titles. There was a half-baked plot that usually boiled down to multiple factions of super-powered beings fist-fighting over a MacGuffin before joining forces to fight yet another supergroup. The stakes were always world-shattering, begging the question of how many times the world could shatter without the population as a whole losing their minds. Inadvertently reading titles out of order either by accident or because particular issues were sold out was an aggravating way to spoil oneself and remove a lot of the story’s urgency.

And that’s where we are in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Netflix Marvel series were the first hint of the problems that lay ahead, when the lackluster Iron Fist series hamstrung The Defenders. The direction became more obvious after Civil War though it truly became an issue with the Phase Four releases of Disney+ series WandaVision and Loki. It’s been exacerbated by the latest movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania that exist only to advance the larger plot (and sell tickets, of course). And its shoddier entries like Thor: Love and Thunder and Quantumania illustrate the difficulties of a visual effects team stretched to their professional limits struggling to keep up with studio expectations in a shared universe that demands a cohesive narrative. Other studios have faced even greater difficulties in their drive to mimic Marvel’s success. DC’s attempts at the “Snyderverse” collapsed under its own weight after a number of poorly received titles culminated in the middling Black Adam and WB hired James Gunn to clean up their mess, though the upcoming Flash movie will likely jumpstart their own multiverse insanity. Even worse, the Universal Monster universe died in utero after Tom Cruise’s The Mummy was widely trashed.

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The MCU is the most egregious example but a recent piece in Variety illustrates how the problem has expanded to Disney’s Star Wars universe. Titled “’The Mandalorian’ Season 3 Probably Won’t Make Any Sense Unless You’ve Watched ‘The Book of Boba Fett’” the article is a reminder of how the The Book of Boba Fett made an abrupt shift in its fifth episode away from its titular character and back to Mando and Grogu. Why? According to producer Dave Filoni it was because he and Jon Favreau like Mando so much they couldn’t leave him behind.

“We both like Mando, and we felt that it would be difficult for us to go a whole season without seeing him. And so, he’s a friend of Boba’s, so it makes sense to bring him back into the story.”

It’s a weak justification, not unlike Spider-Man: No Way Home’s decision to kill Aunt May and isolate Peter from everyone he knows simply to make him more vulnerable to the Symbiote in the next Spider-Man movie, whenever that may be. More likely it’s cover for a financial decision to pull in more viewers and keep fans of The Mandalorian engaged before season 3’s 2023 release. Which is fine, if your goal is to make money rather than tell a coherent story. But it puts the onus on the fans to find time to watch yet another series in an increasingly fragmented entertainment landscape.

The multiverse angle exacerbated things. Studio accountants must have hugged themselves in delight when they realized Kevin Feige’s vision of multiple universes meant more movies, more series, more merchandising opportunities while giving storytellers an excuse for bad writing decisions. How did the Symbiote end up on Earth 616? Multiverse! How does Kang, a character no one in the MCU’s heard of before Loki, become an existential threat? Multiverse! Why does no one mention the dead Celestial sticking out of the planet’s atmosphere once Eternals’ credits rolled? Probably the multiverse! Despite Feige’s assurances that the Disney+ series would only ever be complementary to the MCU’s films, that was never really the case, as was demonstrated by Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. To fully grasp what the Darkhold did to the Scarlet Witch and why, one had to first watch WandaVision. Of course, to understand the Marvel multiverse and the concept of the Incursions, one also had to watch at least the first and fourth episodes of What If…?. It also helped if you’d watched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so you knew about the Darkhold. Oh, and if you didn’t watch Spider-Man: No Way Home you might not know why the multiverse was threatened in the first place. Then Loki introduced the next Big Bad, Kang, before his silver screen debut.

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The problem is getting worse. Disney+’s upcoming Secret Invasion will make sense only if you’ve seen Captain Marvel. Similarly, The Marvels is based on characters from Captain Marvel, WandaVision, and a single post-credit scene in Ms. Marvel. Captain America: New World Order makes The Falcon and the Winter Soldier required viewing. The Thunderbolts features characters from Black Widow, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Wakanda Forever. It all culminates in Avengers: Secret Wars which I assume rehashes the 2015 print storyline about how the Incursions are caused by an ancient and nearly omnipotent alien race known as the Beyonders out to destroy the entire multiverse. It will make the cast of Avengers: Endgame look like a barbershop quartet by comparison.

By the 2010s, Marvel crossovers were a yearly event. They led to repeated reboots of classic titles and oversaturated the market. I gave up on print comics in 2018 because I could no longer sustain interest in a medium intent on constantly reinventing itself without implementing real change. I’m suffering similar burnout on the MCU despite being a Marvel fanboy who cut his teeth on 1981’s Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. My interest in movie titles has dwindled to the point where it took me 6 months to watch Black Widow. I still haven’t seen Eternals. I love the Raimi-ness of Multiverse of Madness and the introduction of America Chavez, but the actual plot left me cold. My wife, only ever a casual MCU fan, has given up even attempting to follow along unless she can pause the action and ask me for character background. Standalone series - Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, She-Hulk - are still something we can share, but I’m on my own when it comes to most of the movies. There’s too much mythology and, frankly, too many titles.

My prediction is that 2026’s Avengers: Secret Wars will wipe the board clean, more so than Endgame’s relatively low casualty count. Most of the current heroes will be killed, retired, or shunted off-planet. Maybe we’ll get Battleworld, the remains of the multiverse all mashed together. We might get new titles like A-Force, the all-female Avengers team. Or, with a few remaining characters like Ms. Marvel to anchor the new universe, it might be the Mutants’ turn. Then the process will start over, building off new Disney+ series and new interconnected movies, until we end up right back where we are now.

The MCU is a victim of its own success. Gone are the days of loosely connected movies, where one could watch The Avengers without having seen Captain America: The First Avenger or either Hulk movie but still follow the plot. Disney+ series will become required viewing for all but the most casual moviegoer. The DC universe will no doubt follow suit, particularly once James Gunn has the reins firmly in his grasp. Ironic, given that his Guardians of the Galaxy movies are probably the most separate from the rest of the MCU stable. Unless Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’s middling performance is an indicator that audiences are tired of Marvel’s increasingly dense, formulaic titles and a color palette that relies too heavily on reds and purples, nothing’s likely to change. What’s the solution? Damned if I know. All I do know is that I miss the glory days of Marvel’s first releases, when Iron Man and even The Incredible Hulk brought something new to the effects-driven blockbuster. They were fun, not bogged down by their own history. I miss the spark of seeing something new. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a chore rather than leisure, and that can’t be a good sign for the genre.