It has been 15 months since the last entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” and we’ll be waiting even longer for the next.
That’s the biggest gap between Marvel Studios movies since the 23 months between “The Incredible Hulk” in 2008 and “Iron Man 2” in 2010. With the announcement Wednesday that the already-delayed Nov. 6 release of “Black Widow,” starring Scarlett Johansson, has been pushed back to May 2021, we’re looking at another nearly two-year wait for the movies in which superheroes bicker and save the planet from maniacs.
The MCU has been responsible for plenty of bad trends, including the omnipresence of superhero movies and the dedication to fan service over storytelling. Too many Marvel movies worry less about coherent narratives than cramming in characters and story lines from the comic books.
But the MCU has been responsible for worthwhile trends, as well. “Black Widow” will be a rare movie that centers on a female superhero, something Disney-owned Marvel Studios also did with “Captain Marvel” and has been laying the groundwork for since Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow debuted in “Iron Man 2.” Her popularity undoubtedly fueled rival Warner Bros.’ decision to give Wonder Woman two of her own films, the latest of which, “1984,” was postponed to Christmas.
The Marvel series has also been fairly inclusive, with juicy roles for Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Tessa Thompson and others. “Black Panther,” with its cast of top-notch talents, made the late Chadwick Boseman a star and gave an entire community the heroes it had deserved for decades, while also providing gifted Ryan Coogler a big stage on which to direct.
The MCU has lagged on behind-the-scenes women. So far, a co-credit for Anna Boden on “Captain Marvel” is the only sign that women also make movies. But that will change with the next two projects, Cate Shortland’s “Black Widow” and “Eternals,” which stars Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Gemma Chan and Brian Tyree Henry and was directed by Chloé Zhao. Zhao is known — barely — as the director of “The Rider,” a beautiful drama that killed on the festival circuit and nowhere else.
That may point to the best thing about the Marvel movies. Producer Kevin Feige has taken chances on directors whose records give no indication they’ll be good at staging explosions in space, with one bunch of special-effect characters battling another. In addition to Zhao, Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”), Boden and Ryan Fleck (“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”) and Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”) have basically gone straight from making movies about three people chatting on a porch to movies where the world might end.
For complicated and boring reasons, not all Marvel characters are part of the MCU — the rights to the X-Men, for instance, have belonged to another studio — but they’ve still released 23 movies in 12 years, and from the perspective of someone who’s more a fan of good movies than comic book movies, many are worth another look.
A sense of fun has not always been evident in Marvel movies, but it’s all over my favorite, powered by the wide-eyed charisma of Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, the I-get-no-respect Rodney Dangerfield of heroes. It’s the loosest MCU movie, the funniest and arguably the one that is least concerned with how it fits with the others. “Guardians” characters have been integrated into the other films but they’re at their best in this entry, where they let their freak flags fly.
How long ago did the MCU launch? So long ago that the trailer actually mentions Myspace as if it were a cool thing. Robert Downey Jr. genuinely is a cool thing as the title character, giving the no-contest best performance in any of these movies. Glib, sly and brainy, his Tony Stark is a millionaire jerk whom Downey makes endearing.
We don’t even know yet how many movie careers were launched or given a boost by Coogler’s swift — if typically overstuffed — empowerment adventure. Letitia Wright and Winston Duke have snagged big parts as a result of it and Michael B, Jordan, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o have moved into different realms.
A case could be made that Taika Waititi, an Oscar winner for writing “Jojo Rabbit,” is the best thing to happen to the MCU. Another director plucked from the world of low-budget movies (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”), Waititi didn’t worry much about the previous movies in the “Thor” series, choosing to turn the third one into a speedy, funny romp that has some of the energy of the Indiana Jones franchise. And the hits keep coming; Waititi is writing and directing the next “Thor,” too.
Paul Rudd has been in many movies that rely on his charm to bail out a dumb script, but the “Ant-Man” films show how he can exponentially improve an already sharp one. He’s wry and winning as the title character, whose superpower (getting tiny) is sort of embarrassing. And Rudd isn’t even the most delightful person in the movie. That would be screw-up sidekick Michael Peña.
This let’s-get-all-the-heroes-together adventure benefited from coming on the heels of DC’s horrendous “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The “Captain America” entries feel unique because of the Norman Rockwellesque quality of Chris Evans’ character, but he’s balanced here by Downey’s ironic sensibility and by the addition of a brand-new Spider-Man: Tom Holland. Whom Iron Man insists on calling “Underoos.”
A feminist comic book movie? Sure. This one’s all about an accidental superhero (Brie Larson) who literally spends the movie discovering who she is and in what ways she is powerful. I hope they come up with a worthy villain for the next “Captain Marvel,” but this one succeeds by exploring something few caped-crusader movies care about: its protagonist’s humanity.