After a year of pauses and false starts, the Marvel machine is humming again.

When we last saw the Avengers, in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, they had just defeated Thanos. Empowered by the Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos had snapped away half the galaxy’s population — but in a mortal sacrifice, Iron Man brought all those lives back. At the end of the movie, the remaining Avengers mourned the deaths of Iron Man, Black Widow, and Vision, and said goodbye to Captain America as he went into retirement. The remainders have since gone their separate ways, but this is Marvel; we’ll surely be catching up with our heroes sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, the entertainment titan is set to release Shang-Chi over Labor Day weekend, marking the first Marvel movie that chronologically takes place after Endgame. (Spider-Man: Far From Home, which came out a couple months after Endgame, was a Sony and Marvel collaboration; this year’s long-delayed Black Widow was a prequel.) Post-Snapback, as Iron Man’s heroic final act is called, both the Avengers and Marvel itself are dealing with a much different universe. Shang-Chi is the film that will set the next phase of Marvel’s grand design into motion.

That means learning the origin story of Shang-Chi, the first Asian-American superhero in Marvel’s history to get his own movie. Then, in November, we’ll meet the Eternals, a group of powerful immortal beings who have decided to finally come forward and protect Earth from villains who threaten it. Noticeably absent this year are movies starring any of the Avengers’ current roster — Captain Marvel, Thor, Doctor Strange, the Guardians of the Galaxy, et al. are nowhere to be found on Marvel’s 2021 slate. But don’t blame the pandemic: Introducing new characters ahead of established heroes’ next adventures was always part of Marvel’s plan.

Heading into Marvel’s next phase, the company’s new strategy is to simultaneously bolster its tentpole movies and build out the Marvel Cinematic Universe with television shows on its parent company’s streaming service, Disney+.

WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki spotlighted supporting characters and gave us deeper looks into their lives in ways that previous movies had not. In keeping with Marvel’s signature style, all three series contained enough juicy teases about the future to turn them into must-see events. Sometimes it was a promise of the multiverse. Maybe it was a new villain or a potential crossover. Sit one out, and you might be missing a huge chunk of the backstory for an upcoming movie.

Jonathan Majors) explains that he has been keeping the master timeline sacred. He Who Remains then intimates that there could be a future in which one of his variants is less benevolent — a clue to Kang the Conqueror (also played by Majors), the upcoming villain in 2023’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and an iconic antagonist in Marvel’s comic books. He then gives Loki and Sophie a choice: Take over his work and continue to pare down alternate timelines as they arise, or kill him and let the multiverse grow. Sophie makes the final decision, killing He Who Remains and allowing more and more timelines to sprout.

This all sounds complicated; it is complicated. Another way to understand the multiverse-variant concept is to look toward one of Marvel’s best examples to date: Miles Morales, the popular comic book hero and web-slinging protagonist of 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Morales and an alternate version of Peter Parker live in a parallel timeline to the MCU’s Peter Parker (played by Tom Holland). If their timelines were to hypothetically merge, you could theoretically see Morales’s Spider-Man meet up with Holland’s Spider-Man.

But back to the MCU. Though she is never mentioned by name on Loki, WandaVision’s Wanda Maximoff was also a looming figure on the show.

At the culmination of WandaVision, Wanda was revealed to be a powerful entity known as the Scarlet Witch. She can bend reality to her will, and throughout the series, we saw her manipulating objects at the atomic level, refiguring people’s anatomies, and even granting Monica Rambeau a new set of powers. It was hinted that Wanda is considered a Nexus Being, someone who’s powerful enough to disrupt the way reality and time usually work — someone who would be a significant person of interest on a show like Loki that’s all about time-hopping and alternate realities.

In WandaVision’s eerie post-credits scene, Wanda heard her twin boys’ cries for help even though they never existed in the first place — she created them by warping reality. The popular theory is that her children’s cries for help exist because she placed them in an alternate dimension when she dissolved her spell on the town of Westview. The important takeaway is that Wanda is powerful enough to do such a thing.

With WandaVision disrupting universes on one plane of reality and Loki sprouting alternate dimensions, variants, and Kang the Conqueror on another, the two shows laid the foundation for what feels like the next big Marvel battlefield: what’s left of the Avengers joining up with a few new recruits like Shang-Chi or the Eternals and fighting against interdimensional threats in an ever-expanding multiverse. Both shows also seem poised to dovetail into 2022’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

What’s especially fascinating about this approach is that while Marvel set about establishing a titanic concept — that there may be multiple dimensions full of heroes and villains, some of whom may be variants of ones who already exist — it began building out some smaller stakes stories, too.

Black Widow and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier began to fill in the details of a post-Snap world

Despite Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan’s charms, not many were especially thrilled by how The Falcon and the Winter Soldier concluded. The show was too often derailed by clunkiness, especially when it ambitiously tried to tackle the implications of racism in the MCU. It’s difficult enough to make a TV show that offers intelligent commentary on the effects of race and racism in America (though HBO’s Watchmen adaptation comes to mind as a successful example). Trying to confront those ideas within the context of the MCU, where bias and racism have rarely been addressed — and doing it while incorporating real-life allegory and cultural commentary — seems impossible.

That said, one of the brighter spots of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was the way it explored the worldwide repercussions of Thanos’s Snap in Avengers: Infinity War and the Snapback in Endgame. Apparently, one of the silver linings when half the world’s population disappeared was that the world became more sustainable for the people who remained, including those who were previously struggling to get by.

Conversely, the problem with Endgame bringing back all the snapped folks was that in the five years that elapsed post-Snap, the world moved on without them. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier detailed how, after a period of instability and power grabs when government officials varnished, new authorities rose. The series also looked at how people returning en masse created a refugee crisis. The resulting displacement created social and political unrest.

This unrest opened the door for one Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine to be sneaky and broker deals with characters like John Walker, a.k.a. the replacement Captain America, and Yelena, Natasha Romanoff’s sister. Though we don’t fully know her plans, Valentina (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has a nefarious comic book background and seems to be setting up a team of rogue or misguided heroes.

Valentina’s actions so far seem to indicate that she’s bad but doesn’t care about the multiverse, or reality warping, or becoming a villain more powerful than Thanos. She also doesn’t seem to care about any of the heavy-hitting Avengers like Thor or Captain Marvel coming after her. We haven’t had that much insight into her plans, but it feels very possible that Valentina is purposely slipping through the cracks because she knows the Avengers might be preoccupied with much more powerful villains and much more cosmic tasks.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Valentina becomes the throughline for Marvel’s upcoming Disney+ shows — Hawkeye (scheduled for release later this year) and 2022’s Moon Knight and She-Hulk — which all happen to focus on street-level characters. Based on the comic book source material, where they are usually on Earth fighting crime, and considering the Disney+ storytelling so far, it seems likely that these new characters will take on a villain like Valentina or deal with the repercussions of big multiverse stuff in an acute way (e.g. the effects of a multiverse collapse on New York City) rather than meeting up with the Avengers in a battle to save the universe. It’s more or less what Netflix attempted to do with characters like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, despite not having clearance from Marvel to connect them to the MCU.

The future of Marvel might be very crowded and confusing, but the studio trusts its loyal fans to show up

Two people in a marital arts-style battle appear to be sending lightning at one another.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

In 2019, Marvel acquired film rights that had previously been sold off to Fox, thereby expanding its ability to bring even more of its huge roster of characters to the screen. So it makes a lot of sense that the company is deploying its intellectual property in Disney+ shows that can serve as bridges to future movies while presenting smaller-scale adventures for some of its newer heroes. Audiences clearly love Marvel — we don’t have much streaming data, but Black Widow has hauled in $370 million during a pandemic and is the 2021’s fifth-biggest movie so far — and Marvel can’t make shows and movies fast enough. Taking advantage of that demand by creating a bigger onscreen world is low-hanging fruit.

The looming question now is whether there’s a point where so many different characters and teams coupled with an expansive multiverse might trigger superhero fatigue, which more casual fans may already be experiencing.

There’s historical precedent for this concern: Splitting the MCU and its heroes into larger- and smaller-scale teams is taking a page out of Marvel’s comic books. For example, in the 2013 comic book event called Infinity — which saw Thanos invade Earth in a manner similar to his onslaught in Infinity War — a group of heroes called the Mighty Avengers dealt with the invasion in New York City while the heavy-hitting Avengers were off in space. (This group included Monica Rambeau, who made her onscreen debut on WandaVision.)

There also used to be an alternate Earth, known as Earth 1610, that existed in a line of comics that was separate from the “main” line. Called Ultimate Marvel, these comics had a grittier, more mature tone than the main comics, and were full of variant versions of Marvel’s superheroes like Captain America, Nick Fury, and Tony Stark.

Marvel stopped publishing the Ultimate Comics line in 2015.

As Vulture’s Abe Riesman reported, Ultimate Marvel had initially been a success but slowly fell victim to confusion and overcrowding across all of Marvel’s properties. As Marvel’s movies got bigger and more popular in the years following Iron Man’s launch in 2008 and the Avengers’ first team-up in 2012, the main comic book timeline did too — which made the variant stories of the Ultimate Marvel spinoffs confusing. The main comic books also began mimicking the hallmarks and themes (realism, grittiness, antiheroes) that originated in Ultimate Marvel, which made both comics lines feel interchangeable and disorienting.

Marvel eventually decided to eliminate the line, save its most popular heroes, and focus on the main timeline.

Could a similar fate befall Marvel’s onscreen projects? Certainly.

Trying to explain WandaVision and Loki to casual viewers who haven’t kept up with each new MCU entry can be a frustrating experience for more dedicated Marvel fans. The same is true when attempting to explain rumors that Tobey Maguire (who played Spider-Man in Sony’s early 2000s trilogy of Spidey films) and Andrew Garfield (who played the character in two more Sony films in the 2010s) will both show up alongside Tom Holland (who plays the web-slinger in Sony and Marvel’s recent Spider-Man co-productions) when Spider-Man: No Way Home comes out in December. And that’s without considering how such a possibility may or may not connect to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. There’s definitely a risk of alienating some audiences.

That risk will likely be balanced out by the fact that Avengers: Endgame is the second-highest-grossing movie of all time, worldwide, and that Marvel has transcended its more niche past to become mainstream entertainment. The company doesn’t have to worry about casual fans if it’s made the second-biggest movie in history.

Plus, the MCU has another important thing going for it: While we’re over a decade of stories in, it’s still nowhere near as crowded as the comic books were. Though it may be difficult to believe, Marvel is still in the early stages of building out its onscreen world. The Avengers roster might even feel smaller for the next few years, as fans adjust to the departures of Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson.

Meanwhile, there’s no pressure (yet) to keep every plate spinning. If a show doesn’t catch fire the way Marvel may have hoped, there’s no obligation to keep it going for multiple seasons. Of Marvel’s three Disney+ shows to date, Loki is the only one whose second season has been announced.

Upcoming Disney+ shows like She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel may ultimately be used as trial balloons to see just how well they win over an audience. The former is a mainstay in the comic books; the latter may not just have her own show but is rumored to also appear in the Captain Marvel sequel that’s slated for 2022.

With all that in mind, it seems like Marvel’s two big upcoming movies will be launching pads for new heroes to join up with the existing Avengers and participate in big battle stuff like Endgame.

Shang-Chi’s immortality-granting weapons (the rings) and the Eternals’ wide array of superpowers seemingly make them more equipped to trade blows with a cataclysmic threat like the late Thanos and his ilk than to trade quips with Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Disney+. Either way, the fans will be watching — at the movies, at home, or most likely, both and often.

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