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Michael Douglas requesting Hank Pym to be killed off in Ant-Man 3 highlights the MCU's recent lack of stakes

There have been exceptions, but it's largely felt toothless as of late.

Michael Douglas as Hank Pym in Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania
Image credit: Marvel Studios

Deadpool & Wolverine looks fun enough, and at least The Fantastic Four appears to have a very specific pitch in mind to wow us come 2025, but can Marvel Studios fix its current lack of soap opera dynamics and high-stakes drama?

We'd be lying if we claimed Phase 4 and 5 entries such as Spider-Man: No Way Home, Loki, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever didn't pack an emotional punch, but it's all feeling a bit weightless and disjointed since Tony Stark's sacrifice and Thanos' defeat, isn't it?

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One of the first things that came to my mind after reading Michael Douglas' thoughts on Hank Pym not biting the dust in the third Ant-Man movie was that, yes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe used to be much meaner. With an increasingly overcrowded canvas, I think the massive roster of characters could use some trimming for dramatic effect.

Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania continues to be one of the biggest examples of how to fumble an amazing pitch on paper. Much has been written and discussed about Kang failing to convince as the big baddie of the Multiverse Saga, but the threequel also lacked emotional stakes besides that very brief moment in which Scott Lang almost doesn't make it out of the Quantum Realm (again). Pym doesn't sacrifice himself to save his entire family, and neither does Lang. As a direct result, the entire victory against the (supposedly dangerous) Kang variant comes across as even cheaper.

Mind you, I'm not talking about the MCU turning into Game of Thrones when it comes to character deaths, but the mix of overabundant world-ending threats that amount to very little in the end and life-threatening events that barely scratch even the older veterans has been slowly damaging the audience's emotional engagement to what used to be the biggest and most expensive dramatic movie franchise around. No matter the genre or IP being adapted, people used to show up to these movies because they wanted to follow the characters in their personal journeys. By the time we reached Infinity War and Endgame, any death or life-threatening scenario felt like hitting a wall made of bricks.

Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Image credit: Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios has rarely been in the business of 'shock value' deaths (the dreadful Secret Invasion series is a marked exception), and instead used to take great advantage of every time a major character, primary or secondary, died. As mentioned before, there are some great recent examples in movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home (Aunt May's death) and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (the entire thing is defined by a family crumbling apart). Likewise, Loki season 2 had an amazing final stretch that packed quite the punch and made us rethink the entire multiverse, and the secret sauce was making us care enough about the characters to fear losing them forever.

Ironically, the studio hasn't slowed down when it comes to burning through most of the Infinity Saga's noticeable female characters. Intentional or not, veteran women haven't had a great time recently in the MCU, and stuff like Jane Foster's demise (which was instantly walked back anyway) or Wanda's (probably temporal) sacrifice could've been handled way better. At the same time, the 'one-and-done' villains continue to pour in and go into the meat grinder before they can get like 15 minutes of total screen time. Marvel has been trigger-happy in recent times for sure, but is it really making an impact on the stories overall?

Tom Holland as Spider-Man, stood in a dimly lit area wearing his Spider-suit, mask off, looking at something offscreen.
Image credit: Sony/Marvel

Much like the semi-homogeneous salad of content Disney and Marvel Studios have pushed out in like three years, it all appears to come down to misplaced priorities rather than a lack of talent and/or creatives actually trying. It simply seems that people like Jon Watts, Ryan Coogler, Sam Raimi, Michael Waldron, and especially James Gunn fought for their vision strongly enough. I'm not expecting Deadpool & Wolverine to change my thoughts on the matter despite looking genuinely fun, so the MCU's 2025 slate, which also includes a return to Daredevil and its street-level human drama, feels like Marvel Studios' definitive 'make or break' moment.

While I still enjoy much of the MCU's output, it's hard to deny it's not coming together like it used to, and now we're starting to appreciate standalone productions like X-Men '97 more and more. It may seem like we're tired of universe-building, but in reality, we're just tired of half-baked universe-building which lacks the well-placed dramatic beats that used to tie it all together.

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