A look into Marvel’s phase four, and whether it can sustain the popularity Marvel has garnered in recent years

Marvel’s latest miniseries “Hawkeye” recently premiered, adding yet another series to the long list of movies and shows the studio has released in the past year. By the end of 2021, Marvel will have released four movies, four series, and an additional animated series. 

The studio plans to continue this trend in 2022 with the release of three new movies, four series, and a holiday special. This will be a huge step up compared to three releases a year in 2017-2019, and zero releases in 2020.

All of the content released this year was the start of phase four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The ending of phase three sent Marvel in a new direction, as many of the original characters such as Iron Man and Captain America are now dead. 

This results in the release of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which introduces a multitude of new characters. The film did very well according to reviews and box office statistics, bringing in over $200 million in the U.S. alone. Released in theaters only, the film did so well that Disney decided to repeat this trend with the rest of their 2021 films, showing them solely in theaters instead of having a dual release on both Disney+ and in theaters.

Similarly, the film “Eternals” introduces more new characters as well. However, unlike “Shang-Chi,” the film received poor reviews from fans and critics alike, with a B rating from opening night audiences and a 46% on Rotten Tomatoes. These are the worst scores any Marvel movie has ever received.

The poor reviews have led many fans to wonder how long Marvel can keep its hold on pop culture. 

“I think it’s great to have new, quality content, especially with a popular company like Marvel, but introducing so many new characters is tough to follow,” says junior nursing student Rebecca Heaton. In “Eternals,” the amount of characters they’re introducing in that movie is difficult to keep up with, considering there are already so many characters to remember from the original movies.”

The new series starred characters that fans were already familiar with alongside new characters. This combination of old and new helps fans smoothly transition to a new era, but it also means that there are a multitude of storylines for them to keep up with.

Dr. Zachary Cheney, professor of screen studies at APU, warns that Marvel will almost certainly experience the law of diminishing returns with its audience. 

Simply put, the law of diminishing returns means that the higher the amount of input, the greater the value yielded from it is. However, once the input reaches a point where the value yielded is no longer increasing—the point of diminishing returns—more input results in decreasing value. 

When applied to Marvel, this phenomenon means that the studio can continue releasing content and expect increasing profits from it, but eventually they will hit a point where the amount of content they are publishing is too much, and their profits will decrease. 

Some may argue that “Avengers: Endgame” was Marvel’s climax when it became the second highest grossing movie of all time, and that we can now predict every film after will have a decrease in profits.

Cheney agrees, saying that “it seems clear that the brand’s output since Endgame has been more disjointed and hit-or-miss.”

Many fans don’t see it this way. Fans Jeannie Liang and Martin Chang like the abundance of content released, both saying that they enjoy everything Marvel puts out, so they love that the studio is publishing a multitude of movies and shows.

“The original avengers started it all, but there can only be so many stories that you can tell about them. New characters are building the Marvel world to be more relatable as there are so many different types of heroes,” says Liang.

However, Chang says “the only two characters in the new stuff I’m invested in are Loki and Wanda, and everyone else I don’t really care about.”

The new content seems to combat this potential disinterest in new characters by highlighting certain social issues.

The shows “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” deal with the themes of grief and race in America. “Black Widow” is very dark as it depicts an organization that practices brutal treatment of young girls, and the film seems to be a statement about the treatment of women. “Eternals” and “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” are revolutionary for their casting, as  “Eternals” has a diverse cast as well as Marvel’s first LGBTQ superhero, and “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” depicts Marvel’s first Asian superhero. 

Cheney believes this “reflects a trend to legitimize a genre that has been perceived as ‘mere entertainment’ or ‘popcorn movies’ lacking any kind of substance,” he says. “By creating more well-rounded characters and tracing their evolutions through more relatable narratives, audiences are being told that superheroes are relevant to their lives and should, therefore, keep watching the next iteration on the large or the small screen.”

This is reflected in Marvel’s more recent nominations for accolades. Historically, Marvel has not received many nominations or wins at the big award shows. However, the widely-loved “Black Panther” was nominated for multiple Golden Globes and won three Academy awards. “WandaVision” was nominated for 23 Emmy awards, and won three.

To sum things up, don’t be surprised if you see more of Marvel in award show talks, as they seem to be moving in that direction. As they set out to create more “relevant” and critically acclaimed content, they hope to avoid the looming law of diminishing returns. Only time will tell if Marvel will be successful as they venture further into phase four, and we enter 2022.