July 8, 2022 6:20 AM EDT

The genius of Marvel Studios, at least in the beginning, was that each movie felt like a puzzle piece. Meticulously designed with the next step in mind, each chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe saga felt purposeful—it would introduce a hero, a few side characters, a villain, and then a stinger previewing the next film. Even if the movie didn’t totally work, individual films about Iron Man or Captain America or Thor were building toward something greater, and eventual team-up film, usually an Avengers film.

Critics have knocked Marvel Studios for making movies based on corporate rather than creative mandate. But there was one very creative person in charge of a singular vision: Kevin Feige. The Marvel Studios head broke the films into “phases” and regularly would explain to fans what they could expect next. New characters would make their debut on stage at Comic-Con, usually years in advance of the cinematic debut, to get fans hyped about their eventual films.

But it’s been three years since the Marvel folks took the stage at Comic-Con, and for the first time in over a decade the trajectory of the MCU movies isn’t totally clear. I look forward to each new entry in the MCU with hopes that it will articulate a clear, unified vision for the future of this storytelling project. Each time, I leave the theater more lost than before. Thor: Love and Thunder was no exception. The movie is self-contained, for better or worse, barely acknowledging a world outside of Thor’s New Asgard.

The old Marvel movies at least used to at least set up the next entry in their stingers. We got our first glance at Thor’s hammer at the end of Iron Man, and our first introduction to Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in the end-credits for Avengers. But Love and Thunder’s end-credits scenes (which I won’t outright spoil, but you can read about here) merely introduce potential sequels and spinoffs to the Thor franchise specifically.

And while that may be fine for any one film, at some point fans are going to wonder whether hours of investment in a saga leading nowhere may offer diminishing returns. A couple years into Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s time to take stock of what’s working and where it’s all heading.

The way we were

Yes, it was a capitalist con: You had to see all the movies to truly understand what was going on, and Marvel was maximizing its movie ticket sales in the process.

But that format had its narrative advantages. My husband and I rewatched (for me) and watched (for him) all of the Marvel movies in a row early in the pandemic. We didn’t treat them with reverence. We paused when we were bored or tired or hungry and picked them back up again the next day. We treated them like long episodes of television. And as television, the episodic Marvel movies work well. The phases were “seasons,” each Avengers movie the season finale.

Even when a single film underwhelmed us (looking at you, Thor: The Dark World), we didn’t feel as if we’d wasted our time. Episodic storytelling always has its highs and lows. But we knew that Thor background would prove useful in some future installment. You were working toward a storytelling crescendo that would be satisfying in its finality, despite problems in the script.

Some of the most maligned movies wound up playing a crucial role in the finale. The much-hated Avengers: Age of Ultron actually foreshadowed every major event in Avengers: Endgame. Of course we couldn’t have known that at the time—it’s possible that that film’s director Joss Whedon didn’t know where the MCU was headed either.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Avengers: Endgame
Marvel Studios

But signposts were there. The phases had relatively neat beginnings, middles, and ends. The Infinity Stones were sprinkled sparingly throughout the films, which rewarded audience members who could point at the screen and recognize an important MacGuffin when they popped up. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury would drop in at some point in nearly every movie to inform the Avengers that another threat was approaching, and they really ought to learn to work together.

Big bad Thanos (Josh Brolin) was teased in the end-credits scene for the original Avengers movie, six long years before he’d actually become the main villain in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. He played a small role in Guardians of the Galaxy but otherwise just lurked in the background, a looming threat. We were propelled forward by the expectation of something larger.

When the MCU worked

Examining the franchise through an episodic lens, Avengers: Endgame was one of the more successful series finales every produced in episodic filmmaking. Not only did it tie together over a dozen storylines from disparate films but it offered fulfilling conclusions for characters like Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans). The touching moment when Iron Man sacrifices himself only worked because we’d watched the character grow from an immature playboy to a responsible, if still wise-cracking, dad over the course of a decade.

Captain America’s reunion with his love Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) hit home because Evans and the Russo brothers (who directed several of his movies) had spent years developing the character from a resilient but cloyingly earnest Boy Scout into a slightly more cynical and wiser version of the character, without losing Cap’s all-important moral compass. (See: the evolution of the “I can do this all day” catchphrase.) Those emotional beats can only be pulled off after years of character development.

Chris Evans as Captain America in Avengers: Endgame
Marvel Studios

That narrative investment in the characters is what helped Marvel stand out from the competition—specifically the DC and X-Men movies. It was difficult to buy Batman and Superman’s clash in Batman v Superman when we had never seen Ben Affleck’s Batman onscreen before and didn’t know what made him tick. The Dark Phoenix movie failed in part because the audience had spent little to no time with Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey before she turned into the villain. There were other reasons those specific films didn’t work, but the franchise failures are largely due to lack of patience on the part of the studios. Those franchises tried to skip over the world-building episodes and go straight to the season finale. But, for the majority of fans and moviegoers, the finale is only satisfying because of building blocks that came before it.

Reports suggest that the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t always the carefully crafted story it appeared to be. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn has said he received little instruction on the scene in which a character explains the origins of the Infinity Stones. So, yes, there was some dumb luck involved. But once the pattern was established—several one-off films each year, culminating in a team-up every few years—audiences knew what to expect.

The MCU loses its way

It’s been three years since Endgame debuted, and fans have been left flailing ever since. Marvel properties have multiplied, thanks to the introduction of the Disney+ streaming platform, and with it, Marvel-themed TV shows. Some of them are crucially linked to other entries: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness barely bothers with character development for its villain, Scarlet Witch aka Wanda Maximoff, because it assumes you’ve watched her show Wandavision on Disney+.

Others seem to have nothing to do with anything: I was initially charmed by Moon Knight, but was left cold and confused by the star-studded show that seemingly exists in a vacuum. The script didn’t wind up being good enough to justify the show’s existence, and if the plot had nothing to do with the rest of the MCU, why did I spend six hours of my life on this show when I could have been watching far better projects featuring Oscar Isaac or Ethan Hawke?

We always knew this would be a fallow period in the MCU. With major stars like Downey Jr. and Evans officially off the board and others like Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) looking toward retirement, the franchise would need to hit the reset button and begin to introduce a new generation of heroes. There was clearly some sort of plan in place that involved actors like Johansson and Renner handing the torch to young talent like Florence Pugh and Hailee Steinfeld in movies like Black Widow and shows like Hawkeye.

But Feige has confirmed that there won’t be a new Avengers team made up of these new actors subbing out for the old. The action is not building toward an Avengers 5 in the traditional sense. Which leads me to the question: Why not? The format worked so well before. Why abandon it now?

The easy answer is money. Disney wanted a streaming service and needed shows to fill it. So the stories proliferated. But now there are too many different characters and storylines flying in too many different directions. The cosmic entities of the Eternals seemingly have nothing to do with Steinfeld’s street-level arrow slinging. Plus, these projects all have wildly different tones, so it’s hard to imagine them ever coming together.

There could be a Young Avengers team in the works. And some sort of mystical team-up involving all the wizards and witches. And a dark one involving Blade and the Black Knight. And a villainous one full of gangsters, assassins, and disgraced would-be heroes lead by Julia Louis-Dreyfus of all people. It’s…a lot. Even as someone who is paid to keep track of all this, I’m often tempted to drop episodes, movies, and storylines because I simply do not have enough time to keep up with every single story beat.

The studio has also faced several unforeseen challenges. One of its brightest stars, Chadwick Boseman, passed away in 2020. Black Panther was a big hit—the biggest solo debut for a Marvel superhero—and Boseman seemed poised to dominate the Marvel movies for years to come. Director Ryan Coogler was sent scrambling trying to rewrite the script for the sequel.

Corporate skirmishes with Sony, who owns the rights to Spider-Man and wanted to build its own superhero cinematic universe, left Peter Parker’s fate up in the air and created writing challenges for the ending of Spider-Man: No Way Home. Meanwhile, Johansson sued Disney over the decision to release her long-awaited solo film Black Widow straight to streaming during the pandemic. (Disney and Johansson have since settled.)

Which brings us to Marvel Studios’ biggest unforeseen challenge: COVID-19. The virus hit and delayed the filming and release of several projects, muddling up carefully conceived timelines. Notably, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was apparently supposed to debut before both Wandavision and Spider-Man: No Way Home. This revelation explains a lot of clunky storytelling in those three properties. Wanda repeats the same trajectory twice over, turning from hero to villain to hero again in Wandavision and again in Multiverse of Madness. It’s a storytelling choice that some fans have likened to character assassination. Presumably, the initial intent was for Wanda’s descent into corruption in Multiverse and her revelation about her evil deeds to come In Wandavision.

And even setting aside character, this phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to hinge on the audience understanding the multiverse (parallel universes); variants (different versions of the same character in those universesl, and incursions (one parallel universe crashing into another). But instead of giving fans one succinct explanation for why characters can suddenly travel across the multiverse, we get three—the murder of the man who was maintaining one single master timeline In Loki; Doctor Strange’s misbegotten spell that leads to Spider-Man villains invading our main timeline in No Way Home; and America Chavez’s multiversal travel in Doctor Strange.

As a Marvel devotee, it remains unclear to me what any of these events have to do with one another. Again, I suspect shuffled release dates has something to do with this confusing plot, but it’s far from an ideal way to launch a universal reset.

Where Thor: Love and Thunder stumbles

And then there is Thor: Love and Thunder, the latest entry in the MCU. With Iron Man and Captain America gone, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is technically our only major character from the original iteration of the Avengers left. (Sorry, Hulk, but since Ruffalo has never gotten his own movie—and probably won’t—I don’t think his version of the Big Green Guy counts.) Presumably Thor would be the lynchpin to whatever comes next.

Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Love and Thunder
Courtesy of Disney

But Taika Waititi’s new film—which has underwhelmed critics relative to its predecessor, Thor: Ragnarok—lives in a world of its own almost knowingly devoid of references to other Marvel movies, save a throwaway joke about Thor saving Nick Fury’s phone number as “Nick Furry” on his cell. This meditation on a specific character’s emotional state would be fine, if we weren’t desperate for a rock to cling to in this overwhelming storm of Marvel content.

Listen, solo movies that stand away from the pack be great. Black Panther, for one, found ways to shine without being bogged down by easter eggs referencing other Marvel films. In that circumstance, Coogler used that space to build an entire new world. That movie contains Wakandan lore, a long history of its leaders reckoning with political and moral responsibilities, and a debate about how the privileged ought to help the oppressed. Waititi, too, used his time in Ragnarok to build new lands for Thor to explore and refresh the character by giving him a comedic bent.

But Love and Thunder doesn’t break new ground. It’s simply a contained adventure that wraps up a decade-old storyline from an earlier film. To the screenwriters’ credit, there is some character development going on here. In the past Marvel movies, Thor has lost his brother (thrice over), his mother, his father, and several of his best friends. He struggles with loneliness and vulnerability because of this loss, and manages to find some hope in various relationships in this film. But that evolution feels like an end rather than a beginning for a character who has now starred in more solo superhero movies than anyone else in the MCU.

Thor may still have life left in him. The mid-credit teaser promises an intriguing future villain. The casting is particularly inspired. But at this point, Marvel has thrown out so many characters in cameos and stingers that have yet to manifest in the MCU that I try not to get too excited about any one casting decision.

Here’s a list of just some of the actors Marvel has teased who have yet to show up in a Marvel property: Michelle Yeoh and Sylvester Stallone as Aleta Ogord and Starhawk in an end-credits scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; Will Poulter as Adam in that same movie; Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, who also was a tease for Aaron’s unseen nephew, Miles Morales, in Spider-Man: Homecoming; Michael Mando as Scorpion in the end-credits scene for that movie; Harry Styles as Thanos’ brother Eros in Eternals; Mahershala Ali as Blade and Kit Harington as the Black Knight in another end-credits scene that same film; Charlize Theron as Clea in Multiverse of Madness’ end-credits scene; even John Krasinski as Mr. Fantastic and Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier in that same movie stoked long-held fan predictions that those two actors would take on larger roles in the MCU.

Thor, deep in thought
Courtesy of Disney

It’s an embarrassment of Hollywood riches just waiting in the wings. And who knows if or when we’ll ever see them. I would argue that, in fact, the list of people sucked into Marvel’s universe has become too long. The movies end up wasting genius talent like Tessa Thompson, who is quickly sidelined in Thor: Love and Thunder because the movie doesn’t know what to do with her, or Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was set up as the big bad at the end of the first Doctor Strange movie but only played a bit part in its eventual sequel.

In April, Feige said the folks at Marvel were headed on a creative retreat to plan the next decade of Marvel movies. One might question why they didn’t conduct such a planning session several years ago before Endgame premiered in anticipation of this current lull. Perhaps they did, and this meeting signals that they realize the throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall method is not working. They need to refocus on one or two main storylines and execute them well rather than dozens that underwhelm. The studio will have a chance to get fans excited about the future of the MCU again at San Diego Comic-Con in July and the Disney Expo D23 in September.

To stave off Marvel exhaustion, the Marvel team will need to explain that there is, in fact, a plan in place, and we are in safe hands. Because twenty-nine films and seven Disney+ TV series in, the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com.

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