How Avengers: Endgame Killed the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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How Avengers: Endgame Killed the Marvel Cinematic Universe

April 26, 2019. That’s the date Avengers: Endgame was released in theaters. It’s also the date when the Marvel Cinematic Universe began its slow, steady decline.

The culmination of an 11-year journey that began with Iron Man in 2008, Endgame connected plot points through 22 films and was everything Marvel Studios, and rabid fans, had hoped for. But to understand why the film led to the MCU becoming the muddled mess it is today, it’s important to look at the film’s iconic story and what it had that every Marvel production since has sorely lacked.

Avengers: Endgame is a perfect continuation of 2018’s Infinity War, where we witnessed Thor and Hulk getting their asses kicked, a plethora of heroes turned to dust, and a gut-wrenching scene where Peter Parker dies in Tony Stark’s arms that still brings a tear to my eye. An immense sense of loss continues in Endgame, with the first hour of the three-hour film focusing on how painful life is for those who survived the Snap. 

Clint Barton is now a homicidal maniac. Natasha Romanoff cries over peanut butter sandwiches. Steve Rogers is leading support groups and Tony Stark has finally recovered, sort of, from the loss of his father/son relationship with Peter Parker by becoming a dad. The situation is bleak.

Endgame gradually evolves from morose to hopeful. After spending 30 seconds figuring out how to use the Quantum Realm to travel through time, Tony Stark and the remaining Avengers plan a time heist to retrieve the Infinity Stones from the past. The middle section of the film has an Ocean’s Eleven vibe but also serves as a sentimental journey through Marvel movie history.

Hey look, there’s Peggy Carter! What’s Red Skull doing on Vormir? I always knew Nebula wasn’t to be trusted. Aww, Tony Stark received fatherly advice from his dead dad. 

Marvel fans, myself included, lapped it all up. 

The final act is one for the ages. In a climactic battle, Thanos’ massive army takes on every hero the MCU faithful has come to know and love, with each step of the fight perfectly layered to amp up the intensity. If you were in the theater watching Endgame in 2019, you lost your mind when Captain America summoned Mjolnir, cheered like a lunatic when Black Panther and Spider-Man walked through portals, and cried like a baby when Tony Stark made the ultimate sacrifice. Recently rewatching the film was a genuinely moving experience. 

Avengers: Endgame is Marvel Studios’ greatest success. It earned $2.8 billion dollars, has a 94% aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 555 reviews, and is universally loved by Marvel aficionados, who are known to be a demanding bunch.

So what happened? 

Although technically not the end of Phase 3 of the MCU (Spider-Man: Far From Home was released three months later), the conclusion of Endgame led to a decline in both box office earnings and critic scores for Marvel Studios. Of 31 total films, the three lowest-rated MCU flicks—Eternals (2021), Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)—were all released within the last two years.

An over reliance on CGI, multiple controversies (VFX studios feeling bullied, Jonathan Majors’ legal troubles, executive Victoria Alonso’s sudden exit), releasing Black Widow in theaters and on Disney+ simultaneously, superhero fatigue, and Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige being stretched too thin (more on that later) have all led to an otherwise untouchable brand being tarnished.

However, Marvel Studios has four other major issues to resolve with no obvious answer in sight that could lead to the death knell of a once great franchise:

1) Marvel’s Skywalker dilemma 

Star Wars can’t seem to figure out how to make a film without a Skywalker involved and Marvel doesn’t seem capable, at least not yet, of replacing Captain America and Tony Stark. Killing off Iron Man, retiring Captain America, and turning Thor into a comedic figure has left Marvel Studios without a hero audiences want to root for, and Phase 5 is well underway. 

2) TV series that dilute the films

During the MCU’s first three phases there were several Marvel TV series (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, and multiple Netflix shows) but they had minimal connective tissue to the films. That changed during Phase 4, when a potpourri of Marvel programs arrived on Disney+, all with ties to the MCU. 

While many of the recent Marvel TV shows stand well enough on their own, they’ve failed to further develop the MCU in a way that resonates with audiences. Phase 4 and 5 require viewers to ping pong from television to movies, riddling the franchise with plot confusion. If you don’t watch EVERY new Marvel TV series, you’re probably missing something, which is a giant burden to place on your audiences’ shoulders—one that only the most dedicated Marvel fans are ready to take on. 

3) The villain problem 

Adding to Marvel’s lack of cohesion dilemma is a villain of significant stature to tie things together. Thanos’ machinations reached far and wide throughout the MCU. First seen in 2012’s Avengers, in one way or another Thanos’ path to hoarding Infinity Stones and wiping out half the universe had an impact on every film until the conclusion of Endgame, with the stakes constantly being raised each time. 

That’s not the case in the bloated Phase 4 and 5. Phase 4 alone contains 54 hours and 25 minutes of content over seven films and eight TV series. Phases 1, 2, and 3 of the MCU are 49 hours and 56 minutes combined. Yet viewers have only had two interactions with the new big bad, Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors). Audiences haven’t been given a reason to care about the arrival of Kang. With rumors swirling that Majors could be replaced, Phase 4 and 5 feel like a house of cards. Allegations against one actor putting an entire movie franchise in jeopardy proves that Marvel’s current strategy is precarious.

4) A lack of real consequences

If there’s one major takeaway that Endgame illustrated, it’s that there are consequences to everyone’s actions, especially if you’re a superhero. The film has a palpable sense of loss and regret that give the time-heist missions and subsequent Infinity Saga-ending battle an earned weight. Audiences grew with these characters over years, and while the first three phases of the MCU had some clunkers (looking at you Thor: Dark World), it all paid off beautifully in Endgame. But ever since, Marvel fans have lost that loving feeling, because there’s no bond being built with new characters and the stakes are too low. What audiences loved about the MCU just isn’t there anymore.

Despite a slew of films and TV shows, Marvel Studios didn’t just kill off Thanos in 2019. It also snapped its bright future out of existence. 

Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model. When he’s not charting the multiverse using a conspiracy wall and an entire roll of string, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.

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