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Four problems the MCU needs to fix in Phase Four
With the arrival of Avengers: Endgame in theaters worldwide, the Marvel Cinematic Universe's third phase is rapidly approaching its end. MCU head Kevin Feige has said that Spider-Man: Far From Home is the official end of Phase Three, but if the box-office grosses are any indication, the MCU is here to stay. With a slate of sequels and new franchise installments on the way, Phase Four is ready to hit the ground running.
Endgame has been a massive success for Disney and Marvel. This conclusion of 11 years and 22 films managed to both satisfyingly close out the stories of some of the biggest names in the MCU and highlight some of the franchise’s glaring issues.
The good news? Phase Four offers a new start and a prime opportunity to correct those errors.
WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
Half-hearted commitment to female characters
If there is one thing for which the MCU has consistently been criticized it is the lack of meaningful female representation. Female characters and heroes have existed, sure. Black Widow was, after all, the second Avenger introduced in the main continuity when Scarlett Johansson took down a hallway full of goons in Iron Man 2. But while female characters have always been included in MCU films, it wasn't until 2018 that Marvel allowed a female character to co-star in a title (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and it wasn't until this year that one got her own film in Captain Marvel. It was this lack of commitment to these characters which actually hurt Endgame’s ability to properly stick the landing on some of their biggest moments.
During the epic final battle of the film, Captain Marvel arrives at just the right moment — as you do when you’re a gun so big you could probably have taken on Thanos’ entire army single-handed — destroying Thanos’ ship and dropping in on Peter Parker to pick up her leg of the Infinity Gauntlet relay. In a moment obviously designed to elicit a visceral reaction from the women in the audience, as Peter asks how she’s going to get the Gauntlet where it needs to go, Okoye responds “She’s got help.” as the camera pulls back to reveal every woman in the MCU (minus the late Black Widow) battle ready and primed to clear a path for Marvel’s newest addition. In the moment, yeah, it works. The distinct lack of female representation up to this point in the MCU means female fans never had their own version of the Avengers Assemble moment and now we had it. Except there were noticeably few women — only nine in a sea of male characters — and while it was thrilling to watch them dominate for a little while on screen, the moment could never pay off the way it could or should have.
In a film like Endgame, the biggest moments are going to be reserved for the biggest characters, wrapping up their storylines in a satisfying way which allows them to nab the biggest victories. Because, even 21 installments in, Marvel had not spent time in their original slate of films, in that first Avengers line up, to fully develop female characters as a core element, an all-female team up could only be empowering to a point. They were allowed to get close, but they could not take it over the finish line. This isn’t their story. They are not the heroes. This is the same reason it was deemed okay for a character like Black Widow to give her own life halfway through the film. Would such a thing have ever happened to Tony Stark or Captain America?
Heading into Phase Four, Kevin Feige has said that they are committed to stories starring female characters and people of color. After Endgame, it’s painfully obvious that if they intend to include moments like these in future films, they’re going to have to keep that promise, or risk frustrating and alienating their female fans, who have already grown impatient.
Problematic murder of people of color
As a part of Hawkeye’s Ronin storyline, there are two scenes in Endgame that involve the unnecessary slaughter of people of color. In the first instance, Natasha and James Rhodes discuss Hawkeye's actions while he's been missing from the Avengers. He’s been on a killing spree, taking the lives of drug cartel members in Mexico. From Rhodey’s description, it was a massacre. In the second instance, the audience sees Clint picking off presumed Yakuza members. The character Akihiko, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, is killed in particularly brutal fashion, saying just a few lines before he’s taken out by Hawkeye. While the people of color were technically bad guys, the inclusion of their deaths was gratuitous. This feels particularly egregious in relation to the death of Akihiko, murdered before audiences even knew who he was, outside of his status as someone who Hawkeye was hunting down. In a movie in which half the universe ceases to exist, was it really all that important to include those deaths when Hydra is right there and could have easily been Hawkeye's targets. The optics are troubling.
It’s imperative for Phase Four of the MCU to be more mindful of these optics. It’s one thing to kill of a character of color who has been fleshed out but it’s another to kill off a character of color just for the sake of a white character's story progression. This is not to say that none of the upcoming MCU projects yet can have any deaths of people of color, not at all. It’s just a tired and archaic trope that should be retired. It's time to stop using people of color as the go-to bad guys for white people, especially when it only serves to as an outlet for white anger. There are literal Nazis and other white supremacist organizations doing their part in terrorizing the lives of people of color (it's no coincidence that Hydra is deliberately evocative of Nazi iconography and tactics in the MCU). Perhaps Phase Four can focus on them. People of color deserve to see themselves represented in more meaningful ways than just cannon fodder. Black Panther was an excellent example of striking and impactful representation for Black characters who covered all directions on the moral compass. Hopefully, with the upcoming Shang Chi film and maybe at some point the introductions of America Chavez and Kamala Khan, other people of color will have improved representation in the MCU.
PTSD doesn't have to be a joke
Endgame showed how the remaining members of the Avengers dealt with the aftermath of Infinity War. One of the characters, in particular, took the loss to Thanos very personally. Thor didn’t aim for the head and missed his chance to prevent the Snapture from happening, resulting in a difficult bout of depression and PTSD. Thor was also still dealing with the loss of his entire family and home. Having an Avenger like Thor cope with something so universal is great. It brings some depth to the character as well as a grounding in reality. We all are affected by our defeats and traumatic events differently and sometimes depression and PTSD can be the outcome.
Depending on the way one copes there can be an effect on their physical appearance. In Thor’s case, he gains weight and turns to alcohol. At various times throughout Endgame, both his alcoholism and weight gain are the butt of jokes. With the handling of Tony Stark’s PTSD and Valkyrie’s alcoholism in past installments of the MCU, it’s not like these sensitive topics haven’t been handled better before, so it makes Thor’s arc all the more disappointing. It would be great if Phase Four could not only make sure to handle trauma and PTSD with care, but also for it to hopefully offer well-rounded and empathetic portrayals of characters dealing with other forms of mental illness. When handling such sensitive subjects it's important to make sure the representation is not only fair but handled sensitively, especially since these films reach millions of people, some of whom may have a mental illness of their own. Phase Four has an opportunity to get more creative with how these topics are discussed within the MCU as well as an opportunity to stimulate conversations about them.
Make it gay, you cowards!
Perhaps one of the most frustrating things to come out of the Endgame press tour is the Russo Brothers’ approach to what they are referring to as the first openly gay character/moment in the MCU. The scene in question lasts about two minutes and features an unnamed character in a self-help group talking about a date he went on with another man. That’s it. Frankly, it’s a little insulting. The problem is not that the scene exists — it’s a good moment on its own as a passing-but-appreciated added depth to this world — but that this is what we are forced to call the FIRST gay moment in the entire MCU? And we’re supposed to be happy about it?
LGBTQ fans (and straight fans too) have been looking for queer representation in this franchise for nearly the entire 11-year run. Perhaps the biggest ship in the franchise is Stucky, the romantic pairing of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, which fans have been begging to make canon since Captain America: The First Avenger back in 2011, and was all but ignored in Endgame. Meanwhile, Valkyrie, a canonically queer character in the comics, was only coded that way in Thor: Ragnarok, fans of the character forced to craft a backstory from a short, tragic flashback and her bisexual swagger (and the fact that actress Tessa Thompson has said she considers Valkyrie to be queer). Viewers were once again forced to read their own ideas into the relationship between Carol Danvers and her gal pal Maria Rambeau, turning the character from a technically sexless representation of female power into a lesbian icon.
The possibility for queer representation is there — it always has been — but up until this point, the MCU has not leaned into it, essentially treating it as an afterthought, or not a thought at all. As Phase Four approaches and the Russo brothers make headlines for their half-hearted attempt at queer rep, now is the time to lean in. Captain Marvel herself, Brie Larson, has gone on the record saying she wants the franchise to start representing LGBTQ characters and is committed to helping bring it about. If you want Phase Four to succeed, you may want to listen.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.