Tony Stark’s sacrifice at the end of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame marked the culmination of the story the Marvel Cinematic Universe had been telling since 2008, but it also left the franchise's future in doubt. Without longtime heroes like Iron Man, Captain America, and Black Widow around to anchor it, who would prevent the MCU from spiraling out of control? The answer has turned out to be no one.
The last few years have seen the MCU take some serious hits. The franchise’s Disney-mandated TV expansion has robbed it of the quality control that had defined it during its Infinity Saga era. On top of that, actor Jonathan Majors’ legal troubles have threatened the viability of Marvel’s all-encompassing Kang the Conqueror plans.
These issues have been discussed ad nauseam. A less-analyzed aspect of the MCU’s perilous state is the fact the franchise has been leaderless for over four years now. The departures of Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Robert Downey Jr. at the end of Endgame created a hole within the MCU that Marvel has failed to fill.
The MCU has been expanding ever since Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor were released in 2011. Its second phase saw the franchise reach cosmic territory with 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and later films like Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel further expanded its world and superhero roster. As disparate as many of those movies felt, they were all bound together by the franchise’s core heroes, and the team they’d formed.
The same hasn’t been true of many of the MCU’s post-Endgame films. As exciting as the debuts of heroes like Shang-Chi, Kamala Khan, and Kate Bishop have been, their futures have all been uncertain. What role does each of them have to play in the wider MCU? We still don’t know. Even worse, the state of the Avengers remains unclear. We still don’t know who’s on the team, let alone who’s leading it.
When it was announced, it seemed like The Marvels would help solve that problem. Carol Danvers’ powerful debut in 2019’s Captain Marvel set her up to be, along with Black Panther, a key leader of the post-Iron Man MCU. Consequently, fans assumed The Marvels would mark Brie Larson’s official in-universe promotion. The closer we get to its release, however, the less likely that seems. It’s not clear whether Larson herself is even interested in playing Carol Danvers anymore.
Marvel, of course, can’t be blamed for how the loss of Chadwick Boseman and the toxic online response to Larson’s Captain Marvel shook up its original post-Endgame plans. That said, the studio decided to shift gears from its initial roadmap to reorient the MCU around Kang the Conqueror, a villain so ill-defined that he seemed to be dragging the franchise down even before Jonathan Majors was accused of assault.
At this point, with only two episodes left to go in the disappointingly Kang-centric second season of Loki, the misguidedness of that decision cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Marvel has found a way to rebound from it yet.
Variety recently reported that Marvel Studios is considering reviving characters like Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. The revelation is both unsurprising and disappointing. Iron Man, Black Widow, and Captain America all reached endings that made narrative sense for their characters. Despite that, Marvel is already thinking about falling back on them rather than giving any other heroes a proper chance to fill their positions.
It’s not like the MCU lacks characters who could assume new leadership roles within the franchise. Doctor Strange, Scarlet Witch, Shang-Chi, and Carol Danvers all have the complexity and gravitas necessary to lead the MCU. They just need the same chance to flourish within a well-planned story that Iron Man and his comrades received.
That opportunity hasn’t arrived yet, but bringing back Black Widow and Iron Man isn’t the cure-all Marvel seems to hope it is. Fixing a franchise as massive as the MCU will require far more thought and effort than that.
The Loki Season 2 finale premieres Thursday, November 9 on Disney+. The Marvels hits theaters on Friday, November 10.