4 Guesses What Superhero Movies Will Look Like In 2021 (and Beyond)
Superhero movies are big business. But, despite the seeming ubiquitousness of capes, skin-tight body armor, and problems that are only resolved by lasers and face-punches, we’re in uncharted territory now. We’re entering the second decade of the Age of the Comic Book Blockbuster, and no one’s really sure what’s going to work going forward.
This month alone saw the release of Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of the much maligned Justice League, comicdom’s equivalent of Bigfoot being caught and interviewed on live television. Walt Disney’s Marvel Studio Presents: The Marvel Cinematic and Televisual Universe has formally entered into Phase Four, trying to repeat the impossible feat of ten-plus years of interconnected films that rewrote the playbook for mega-hit movies. And Sony’s here too, with a sequel to Venom scheduled to arrive this summer.
No one could have predicted any of the above when Iron Man premiered in 2008, and, honestly, we don’t think anyone can predict what’s going to happen going forward either. Let’s take a look at what’s already happening and drop some theories about what it all means.
WandaVision’s As Weird As The MCU'S Ever Going To Get
Let’s start with WandaVision. The first WTF trailers for Marvel’s WandaVision seemed to promise something new and, more importantly, weird. This wasn’t going to be your typical Marvel experience, they said. This might be downright David Lynch-ian, they said, so hold onto your butts. And then Marvel reneged on that promise like some kind of supervillain.
WandaVision had three pitch-perfect sitcom homages -- Wanda Maximoff processing her grief through the comfort of television -- but then there was a sledgehammer of exposition in the fourth episode. The fifth episode split the difference, with everything, even the fun sitcom parts, now tinged with the Marvel of it all. Episodes eight and nine gave up on the sitcom stuff entirely, and this “new, weird” TV experience culminated in a pair of simultaneous CGI-fests, our heroes fighting evil mirror-versions of themselves. Y’know, like Iron Man did with Iron Monger, and Hulk did with Abomination, and Ant-Man did with Yellowjacket …
As a result, WandaVision doesn’t feel quite as different anymore. What should have been a slow-burn puzzle similar to Lost, Devs, or even Better Call Saul, with clues as to what was happening teased out over a season, was truncated. The big finale reveal came in episode four, with everything spelled out and repeated slowly, just in case you didn’t get it the first time. That quiet, quirky show about one woman’s processing of her personal grief was refocused on chaos magic and laying down a foundation for the entire MCU going forward. (Also, the much more laudable task of giving the world more Kathryn Hahn and Randall Park.)
None of this is necessarily a bad thing, mind you -- there were plenty of fans clamoring for just this connection to the greater MCU to happen. We were all watching because we love the Marvel movies. But it does seem to confirm that none of the upcoming Disney+ shows are going to truly be standalones -- there’s only one Marvel story now. And, as Marvel Studios’ first wholly-owned foray into television, WandaVision also set a precedent that nothing’s ever going to be all that different going forward, for better or worse.
Everything’s Definitely Connected Now – Maybe Too Much
When Marvel overlord Kevin Feige absorbed Marvel Television into his Marvel Studios kingdom, he cleaned house, axing -- well, everything. The Netflix shows? Gone. The young adult-skewing Runaways and Cloak and Dagger? Also gone. The Ghost Rider spin-off rumored to lean more into horror, and literally already in production? Not anymore it’s not!
Everything that wasn’t directly connected to the big-screen Marvel was killed, in service of a singular and more cohesive universe. Which, on paper, sounds cool; certainly the most frustrating part of watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was how it always almost got to play with the big boys. Personally, it feels like maybe throwing a fun Daredevil or Luke Cage cameo into a Spider-Man movie would have been easier, but whatever! Corporations gonna corporate.
Anyway, with the literal one exception of Patton Oswalt’s upcoming M.O.D.O.K. series, all the new Marvel stuff will be intricately woven together -- and, in fact, already is, beforehand. Y’know, kind of like DC tried to do with very limited success? And Universal also tried and failed to do with the Dark Universe of classic monsters? And what Marvel explicitly did not do? They’re going against their own playbook.
Again, look to WandaVision. This quiet, introspective series about grief and trauma, and also about the history of sitcoms, and also also about S.W.O.R.D. and the groundwork of the MCU going forward, was also also also an origin story for Monica Rambeau’s Photon -- which, as io9's Charles Pulliam-Moore noted didn’t exactly go so great. What should have been a big deal was shoehorned in, to make an upcoming movie’s plot a little neater.
The new Ms. Marvel show also already ties into Captain Marvel 2. She-Hulk, far from being the Law and Order-esque procedural some fans were hoping for, is looking like it’s going to clean up the Hulk’s existing history. Shang-Chi will most likely have to contend with the fact that the Ten Rings and a Mandarin both already appeared in the MCU. All of these shows are pre-saddled with existing baggage that, honestly, didn’t need to be that heavy.
The Doctor Strange sequel, meanwhile, was attached to WandaVision before it premiered. The Scarlet Witch could have – and maybe should have – flown off into parts unknown, but also she couldn’t. Per Elizabeth Olsen, the series was “a complete tee-up” for Multiverse of Madness. The post-credits scene has Wanda reading the evil Darkhold and, given the “corrupted” theme playing over it, plotting. She’s going villain already, even though her show didn’t really sell that.
The earliest reports of a post-Endgame world included vague promises of a comedic Rocket and Groot road-trip movie where they’re just kinda screwing around. But can you see that still working in Feige’s cinematic Latveria? If even the personal and nuanced WandaVision was roped into the bigger universe, what chance do two of Marvel’s most merchandisable characters have?
Arguably, the regrettable parts of the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (other than the lack of gay, Latinx, and Asian folks) were the occasionally ham-fisted attempts to cram an Infinity Stone into the proceedings for the purpose of some future movie. And now Marvel seems to be doubling-down on that tactic, connecting things beforehand instead of making it organically work afterward.
Meanwhile, Over at DC’s Multiverse of Actual, Literal Madness
Let’s talk about the “Snyder Cut” of Justice League. It shouldn’t exist. Zack Snyder was given seventy million dollars to turn a box-office bomb into a prestige limited series for HBO Max, a multimillion-dollar mulligan because some people complained loudly.
Snyder was famously given the reins to the DC Extended Universe with Man of Steel, and then dropped DC Comic’s most famous and friendly superheroes into a grimdark fantasia where villains are all poorly CGI-ed blobs, murder is fine, and Martha is a shockingly uncommon name. Some people loved this world, some people shrugged at it, but everyone agreed that, hey, it’s definitely not the MCU – an opinion seemingly shared by, uh, whoever the Warner Bros. version of Kevin Feige is these days. (We think it's Michigan J. Frog.)
After struggling to build an interconnected movie universe a la their mighty competitors, DC just kind of ... gave up. Far from Feige’s ever-tightening stranglehold, DC seems more than content to let everyone just do whatever. Aquaman was a beautiful fever dream of fish monsters and Jason Momoa’s exquisite torso that basically ignored previous movies. Shazam! was a heartwarming film about responsibility and found family that also played fast and loose with existing canon. Birds of Prey was a campy, frenetic exploration of female emancipation. And Wonder Woman 1984? It exists.
Which brings us back to the Snyder Cut. DC is so out to lunch that, despite being the failed culmination of the DCEU’s interconnectedness, and despite not really wanting to work with Zack Snyder anymore, they let him redo Justice League anyway. And now two versions of the same movie will exist simultaneously within the DCEU. Beyond that, there’s James Gunn’s Suicide Squad. No one, not even the creators, seem to know if it’s a reboot or a sequel – and nobody really seems to care, either.
And that’s just the accepted big-screen DCEU. Joker -- a.k.a. Taxi Driver with Grease Paint -- was a huge hit despite its many problems. HBO Max has Titans, the sublimely weird Doom Patrol, and the criminally underrated Harley Quinn animated series, all within their own unique universes.
The CW’s Arrowverse -- currently six series strong -- also exists, with its own twisted path to its own insanely tied-together universe. Originally a loosely connected series of alternate realities, occasionally on different channels, the shows were recently squished together by a “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover connecting not just the Greg Berlanti-produced shows, but just about every live-action DC property, ever, from 1966’s Batman to Swamp Thing to, yes, the DCEU. And, in doing so, by acknowledging and accepting a true multiverse, DC set them all free, like a thousand spandex-clad butterflies filling the sky.
Now DC can do literally whatever it wants. You want a Snyder Cut? Sure. You want an even grimdarkier Batman, and a cop show to go with it? Done. More of the OG animated Batman from the ‘90s? We can probably make that work. An underwater horror series? Absolutely. DC is going full-bore into standalones and auteur alternate realities – and it might actually work this time.
So What Does All This Mean?
You see, the MCU was never supposed to work and now it’s irrevocably changed the shape of the movie industry. Pre-planning everything years in advance doomed every competitor Marvel’s ever had, but If any studio can pull off the impossible, it’s them. And, I mean, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder is almost certainly going to be nuts, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness might just cut the MCU loose in ways we can’t imagine. Hell, with the Snyder Cut as precedent, maybe we’ll even get Edgar Wright’s version of Ant-Man. Maybe we’ll finally see the Rocket & Groot Go to Space White Castle of my dreams.
DC, meanwhile, has always had more critical success with their television shows than any movie made after 1993, but the gloves are off now. James Gunn turned the Guardians of the Galaxy into Marvel’s flagship characters, with his versions of the team gracing all manner of merchandise and headlining at least two of Marvel’s recent video games. Letting him go nuts with King Shark might be the kick in the butt the DCEU needs.
And, I mean, Sony’s still out there, too, trying to make a Spider-Man-less Spider-Verse. Venom was bonkers, with an equally bonkers sequel due this summer -- you really think adding Woody Harrelson is going to tone things down? Plus, Spider-Man: No Way Home is sounding like it’s just a live-action Into the Spider-verse, so what does that mean for the actual Into the Spider-verse-verse? Is Marvel going to fully Arrowverse it up and pull Sony into their multiverse, or are they just trying to steal their thunder?
Look, when it comes what the future holds for our favorite superhero cinematic universes, all bets are off. Multiverses are coming, for sure, but beyond that? It’s going to be more of the same, but also none of the same, with formulaic crowd-pleasers and some real wild swings, probably within the same program. But you’re almost certainly going to find something to like.
At least until the Fantastic Four finally show up again and completely crap the bed. It really shouldn’t be that hard to make a good FF movie, guys.
Eirik Gumeny is the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series. Recently, he added werewolves to The Great Gatsby, in what is easily the greatest literary feat of 2021 so far. He’d also add werewolves to the Fantastic Four if given the chance.