Just when I thought I was out…
This time I’m going to seriously try and not get into this too deep. Having said that, let’s talk about that Loki season finale. Spoilers forthcoming.
I’ll admit I popped big for Kang. Or “He Who Remains,” or Immortus, or whatever you want to call him—it’s all the same guy, ultimately, and they’re all played (or will be) by Jonathan Majors. But then I started thinking about the larger implications of it all and I floated back down to Earth.
This month saw the release of Black Widow, with Shang-Chi and The Eternals coming up in September and November, respectively. Then we’ll get Spider-Man: No Way Home in December, which we know will be exploring the multiverse and alternate Spider-Mans quite heavily. This will be followed by Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness in March. Surrounding this will be the What If series and, possibly, the second season of Loki. With WandaVision having run from January to March, we’re going to wind up with more than a year of the MCU exploring alternate realities and timelines. (And let’s not forget we already had Into the Spider-Verse back in December of ’18.)
Now after this, we’re maybe/probably getting a break from the theme with Thor: Love and Thunder (May 2022), Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (July 2022), and Captain Marvel 2 (November 2022). But then we’ll get Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (February 2023), where we know Kang is the heavy, so we’re right back to time travel shenanigans and timeline meddling.
This scares me more than just a little. As I’ve mentioned before, unless time travel is baked into your premise (like in Back to the Future or Quantum Leap), it can turn your story into a mess really quick. (And in my own opinion, they already wrecked Endgame with it, so that makes me even more nervous about it.) Honestly, if I had absolute editorial power over every creative project in existence right now, I would declare a moratorium on two plot devices: time travel and clones. These two things sink a lot more stories than they save or improve, usually because they render the entire narrative pointless. Time travel takes away all the dramatic stakes because whatever happens in the story can always be undone or erased by someone traveling through time. Clones have a similar effect, because the audience/reader can never be certain if any of the characters are “real” or just clones.
And if the story goes on long enough, the audience will be left with no idea of what legitimate “history” is left in a time-traveling story; nor will they have any certainty about which characters are “real” in a clone story. Or even if the audience does feel like it has certainty about any of these things, the nature of the premises will always allow a later writer/creator to just undo it or spin it all into a completely different direction. This is why such stories always end up feeling kinda pointless and often turn into a disaster.
Serendipitously enough, I just so happen to be reading The Comic Book Heroes by Jacobs and Jones, and their take on some of Marvel’s flaws in the Bronze Age would appear to apply to the current direction of the MCU, which is being dominated by alternate-timeline plots now and well into the future. Of Steve Englehart they wrote: “A persistent problem with Englehart, however, as with most continuity-minded writers of the 1970s, was that in focusing on subplots and personal development he seemed to bring far less care and imagination to bear on the actual adventures.” (Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones, The Comic Book Heroes: From the Silver Age to the Present, New York: Crown Publishers, 1985, p. 220.)
Continuity is a creative tool for a story, but I don’t think it should ever be the point of the story. If and when it (the continuity, that is) becomes cumbersome it is better left ignored. Certainly, it is not something that a creator should ever allow himself or herself to become obsessed with. When this happens, it amounts to navel gazing, leaving nothing accomplished but a dull story with little real character development and a plot that is left overly complicated to the point of incoherence. This is what time travel does—it gets the writer involved in alternate timelines and changing the past and/or future, which leads to mucking about the established continuity.
This approach is also not remotely inviting to new readers; in fact, this is at least part of the reason comics began to shed their audience over the course of the 1970s and into the present day. Does the MCU really want to risk going down this road? I’ve invoked this axiom before, and I’ll no doubt invoke it again in the future: Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Further, while the idea of seeing Kang on the big screen fighting the Avengers still holds a great deal of appeal for me (as it would for most die-hard fans of classic comics), my anticipation is tempered by the knowledge that we’ll never see Kang fight the “real” Avengers. Cap won’t be there; Iron Man won’t be there; Thor may not even be there. If we don’t see this classic villain take on the classic team, then why bother?
Let’s be clear: the MCU faces no short-term danger from this approach, at least not commercially. Right now, they could put out anything, literally anything, under the Marvel banner and make a fortune with it. But their work has already begun to suffer greatly from an artistic standpoint, and that will lead to commercial setbacks eventually.
Trust me, Disney: you don’t want to repeat history.