The MCU Is Barely A Shared Universe Anymore

What is the MCU even doing right now? In Phase 4 we’ve gone from an interconnected shared universe with a cool overarching story to… an unconnected, only slightly shared universe with only standalone stories?

Right now we’re in, by far, the most busy period the MCU has ever had, with six seasons of TV and six movies dropping in less than a year and a half. And it’s also the least interesting period that MCU has ever had, because barely any of those six movies and shows have referenced each other.

We’re coming off a week in which they dropped both a new movie (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) and the season finale of a show (Moon Knight) but didn’t make them have any relevance to each other whatsoever. No hints. No teases. Nothing. There is no evidence that these two things have anything to do with each other. Honestly I can’t really prove that Moon Knight is even in the MCU at all, because it actually doesn’t reference ANY other Marvel stuff.

It’s frankly bizarre. The MCU took over the pop culture landscape by not doing it this way. They used to fill their movies with at minimum numerous vague references to current events, plus a healthy amount of foreshadowing. Not anymore. The 2022 version of Marvel doesn’t seem to be into “planning” or “being a shared universe” or “encouraging you to watch more of its stuff.”

Oddly, this is the same approach that DC has taken with its movieverse since the Justice League debacle. Why would Marvel, the biggest brand in all of pop culture, be taking cues from a franchise that imploded?

And why would Marvel deliver an alleged Phase 4 centerpiece in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness that barely ties to any other movie or show and doesn’t really advance any plots? It puts Wanda through essentially the same personal arc she had on WandaVision again and simply ignores all of Spider-Man: No Way Home aside from a single cursory mention. And if you were hoping for some kind of follow-up with Loki or Kang the Conqueror, even if it’s just the vaguest of teases, well, too freakin’ bad–there’s nothing at all.

And perhaps most bizarre of all is the way this film pretends to connect with What If…?. That animated anthology series featured the origin story for an evil Doctor Strange, in which Christine was in the car with him when he had his accident… and died. Instead of an obsession with restoring his hands, he wanted nothing more than to bring Christine back. He eventually used the Darkhold in his attempts to conquer death, but all he managed to do was wreck his own universe and leave himself corrupted.

In the Multiverse of Madness, we meet a corrupted Strange who had wrecked his own universe by using the Darkhold to try to make it so he and Christine could be together–but it’s a different one from the What If..? guy. This Strange’s Christine was still alive, but she’d gotten together with somebody else.

That’s as good as it gets for MCU references in this movie. We don’t get anything that matters, or anything that would move the story forward. It’s just dead-end half-references like that – Captain Carter being another possible-but-not-really What If…? cameo–and smoke-and-mirrors appearances by big names.

Having Patrick Stewart show up as Professor X again–next to John Krasinski making his first appearance as Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four!–is certainly exciting in the moment. But there’s really nothing here except for that “in the moment” aspect. We don’t know if Krasinski will be back as Reed, or if this Professor X is one we’ve met before or just a random alt. And now they’re both dead. So instead of character development or story movement, we just get these meaningless joke cameos.

And it’s a shame, because these characters don’t work without development, and they can’t really, you know, actually do that unless they have a throughline from movie to movie. Since no lessons were learned from WandaVision, Wanda clearly doesn’t have one. And since Doctor Strange never seems to be concerned at all about the Spider-Man “incident,” he clearly doesn’t have one either.

This approach makes it easy on the viewers–even if you skipped every MCU thing since Endgame you’d have no trouble keeping up with the new Doctor Strange–but it kills any sense of investment for having put in the time and the effort.. What benefit is there to keeping up with the MCU if there’s so little progression or interaction? This is catering to the most casual viewers at the explicit expense of the fans who made the MCU the cultural juggernaut it is today, because there just aren’t any rewards for giving a damn. You just get the dubious satisfaction of having watched more mediocre TV shows than you probably would have otherwise.

The big question here is why. Is it a shift in policy? An attempt to keep things cheap by keeping the crossovers to a minimum in this phase? A result of COVID scrambling their schedule? Whatever it is, it’s extremely bizarre. They’re basically ripping off the DC movieverse approach right now, which doesn’t make sense– DC stuff is disconnected because they imploded, whereas Marvel went this way coming off the biggest movie of all time.

COVID is probably the best guess–they had so many moving parts that it would have been very difficult to keep them all in order while everything was delayed and re-ordered. And this is the most benign explanation, because it makes it a circumstance thing rather than just them screwing it up.

Honestly though, no excuses. You’re telling me the biggest and most powerful entertainment company in the world couldn’t figure out any solution other than to just gut every story they tell of all the connective tissue? No. There has to be a better way than whatever this is. And if they don’t find it, they’re gonna Rise of Skywalker themselves right back down to Earth with the rest of the brands.

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