Even when the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, touched on geopolitical themes (think “Iron Man’s” arms dealer subplot) it didn’t wag its finger at us. The emphasis remained on a rollicking good time, the kind audiences of all ages cheered.
That was then.
Team Disney just announced a new slate of MCU features, dubbed Phase 4. The Comic-Con reveal highlighted the MCU’s first openly gay hero (Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie), its first Asian lead (Simu Liu) in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and Natalie Portman as Lady Thor in “Thor 4: Love and Thunder.”
Did the biggest movie franchise on the planet just get woke? Or will the diverse pivot result in bigger, brighter stories?
We’ve already seen signs of the MCU’s progressive lurch. “Avengers: Endgame” featured an absurd sequence where some female heroes joined forces to fight Thanos’ goons. Even The Mary Sue, the wokest of woke journals, called the girl power moment condescending.
Earlier this year, “Captain Marvel” fed us clumsy female empowerment courtesy of Brie Larson. The Oscar winner’s social justice bona fides are beyond dispute off-screen, and she eagerly brings that attitude to her work.
MCU chief Kevin Feige doesn’t mind. In fact, Feige says Larson’s character will lead the next MCU phase. Feige also cheered on “Avengers” star Chris Evans’ progressive politics, another hint his billion-dollar franchise could take an ideological turn.
That’s a problem in more ways than one.
Obviously, a liberal MCU could turn off a huge swath of the country, a risky move in economic terms. These movies boast massive budgets and even larger marketing machines. Alienating Red State America could hit them hard at the box office, at least stateside.
Social justice storytelling also sports a spotty record. It’s one reason the mainstream movie comedy is on life support.
Comedy screenwriters must avoid the PC police, a fear which can stifle their creative spirit. Sub-par comedies like this year’s “Late Night” and “Stuber,” along with the 2016 dud “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” show being woke isn’t a laughing matter.
It’s no accident “Captain Marvel” ranks as one of the MCU’s most disappointing entries.
Progressive groupthink can infiltrate the creative process in other, less obvious ways. Team Disney is under pressure to have women direct female superhero films, a nod to the industry’s sorry record on gender balance. There’s nothing wrong with that, on paper, assuming the chosen talent are up to the task.
That certainly proved true when Patty Jenkins made “Wonder Woman” DC’s best superhero saga since the “Batman” trilogy. Diversity hires, though, threaten to put identity politics above raw talent.
“Black Widow” director Cate Shortland’s resume, for example, hardly screams “MCU Blockbuster.” Perhaps she’ll be a pleasant surprise, like when the MCU overlords plucked Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors of the obscure 2006 comedy “You, Me and Dupree,” to oversee the “Captain America” franchise back in 2014.
The Russos went on to direct three more superlative MCU features.
The MCU’s woke potential might actually anger those screaming for change. Woke warriors demand diversity but are rarely happy when it actually appears.
Take the recent box office dud “Booksmart.” The teen comedy proved as socially aware as any film in recent memory. Yet some critics still shredded it for focusing on two white, middle-class female heroes.
The 2018 comedy “I Feel Pretty,” starring the uber-progressive Amy Schumer, also got tarred for featuring a white, blonde, able-bodied heroine.
Schumer’s previous big-screen comedy, “Snatched?” That mother-daughter romp, filled with empowering messages, got slammed for casting people of color as the villains.
Even Taylor Swift’s recent pro-LGBTQ video for “You Need to Calm Down” got stung by social critics for a crush of thought crimes.
Social Justice Warriors are never, ever satisfied. That could mean trouble for the MCU.
What happens if Thompson’s lesbian hero doesn’t have a love scene or barely acknowledges her sexuality? Will SJWs rage if the “Black Widow” solo feature offers a straight, AKA cisgender, love subplot?
It sounds absurd, but the SJW track record shows that’s exactly what might happen. Suddenly, your woke movie franchise is “problematic.”
The MCU could avoid all of the above. Stick to the comic book scripts. Hire the very best creators, like “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler. Remember our inner kiddies, the moviegoers who can’t wait to see their comic book heroes spring to life.
In short, focus on the audience, not the agenda. Ignore the Twitter scolds ready to snap at the slightest offense. It worked for a solid decade, and It’s the best chance the MCU has to remain on top.
Christian Toto is the editor of HollywoodInToto.com