Marvel Studios, Disney Plus and the Art of the Cameo
Ever since Disney+ was announced that Marvel Studios made it extremely clear that the streaming service would become a pivotal part of their future going forward. Many reasons make this paradigm shift a game-changer for the MCU, but one of the most interesting ones is the possibility of having a larger number of relevant characters interacting on-screen, cross-pollinating the various projects. Characters that if Marvel Studios had stuck to feature films probably wouldn’t even have the chance to show up at all.
What the extended screen time and the weekly episodic format ended up causing was a constant increase in the expectations these possibilities allowed for. Be it because cast and crew hinted at big things to come in upcoming episodes or simply because fans’ theorizing became the norm, it seemed to be possible for everyone who’s anyone in the Marvel Universe to make a surprise appearance in some shape or form. Reed Richards, Mephisto, Wolverine, everyone was fair game. Until they weren’t. Now with both WandaVision and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier in our rearview mirror, we can safely say that that’s a good thing.
Just like with the characters and locations that we did get, the absences themselves have shown us how Marvel Studios has been all about the particular story being told. Living mostly in the moment and only looking towards the future in ways that don’t weaken the plot. These “surprise appearances” always tended to serve at least one of two purposes. Either they helped move the story along with previously introduced elements (which helped not making them feel too forced), or they subtlety introduced new elements that laid the groundwork for something sure to pay off down the line. But there was a line that was never, ever crossed: Not a single introduction, not a single “surprise”, had the power to overshadow the true focus of the show.
It would have been fairly easy to make Reed Richards the friend Monica Rambeau kept referring to in WandaVision. That is if you don’t consider the issue of eventually rushing the casting process of a character that is sure to spearhead the MCU for the next decade, of course. Everybody would have loved it, there would be articles written on how the MCU was as big as ever and that Phase 4 was off to an impressive start. But it would also mean that Monica’s journey would be undermined, by asking less of the character from then on, thus limiting what it had to offer. In the end, it would be making WandaVision worse by changing what audiences would be caring about. The same with introducing Mutants, or almost any mutant for that matter, in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier as Sam and Bucky entered Madripoor. It would have turned the show on its head, moving away from the relationship between the two and centering audiences’ not on the “old and dusty” characters but on the “new and shiny” mutants that everybody seems to love.
This way, subtlety introducing someone like Eli Bradley or adding Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine to the mix proves to be a much better option, both by the possibilities it opens up and the “Who’s that?” 99% of audiences asked themselves when she presented herself, all but assuring their interest was peaked but that their focus would remain on Wilson, Barnes, Walker, and Karli. This is their story, their time to shine. Other characters might step into the frame, but the stage should always be theirs.
We’ll likely continue with this modus operandi in the upcoming Loki series, especially when introducing characters that only later on, in streaming shows and movies alike, will take center stage and become household names for the casual viewer. But for now, it’ll be Hiddleston‘s show, and any special appearance coming our way will be anything but gratuitous, serving the story first and foremost, without much concern for whatever mind-bending, and often lackluster theories might surface at the time.
Marvel Studios could be giving us new characters every single week, and the legacy characters would still manage to increase the amount of screen time they have had for the last ten years. The fact that it isn’t doing so, and that it’s taking its time, is perhaps the biggest selling point towards the bright future the MCU has ahead of itself.