“Stakes” is an interesting concept. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was built on gradually escalating stakes — Iron Man (2008) was basically about a corporate takeover in terms of plot, but the emotional stakes were about Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark learning not to be a self-absorbed douche — a lesson he had to keep learning and learning until it killed him, but that’s another story. When it did kill him, the emotional stakes were very high indeed — Avengers: Endgame (2019) is not a perfect film, but it did exceptionally well in terms of giving more or less everyone a big emotional payoff (there are notable exceptions) and leaving us with the satisfying feeling that This Was What It Was All Building To. And the tangible stakes? Half the sentient life in all the universe? Off the charts, baby! How do you top that?
Well, you can’t, really. Because it’s not important. When we talk about stakes in those terms, what we’re really talking about is scale, and all the scale in the world doesn’t matter if your emotional stakes aren’t well delineated, and there’s a concrete answer to your core question at the end: did the protagonist get what they want or not? And what did they learn? If you fumble that or mute it in service to setting up other stories down the track, the story at hand doesn’t tend to resonate. This has been an increasing problem with franchise-minded Disney/Marvel since the end of Phase Three (And before then, too, but now it’s really obvious): catharsis has been sacrificed in favor of setting up dominoes, and while we’ve been promised a big climax, probably involving Kang (I don’t care) or the multiverse (I still don’t care) or possibly even Kang and the Multiverse (are we supposed to capitalize that? I still don’t care) but probably not Mephisto (that was pretty funny, though), it’s hard to get too excited. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the 22 Marvel flicks up to and including Endgame “lightning in a bottle” because, really, who even makes bottles that big, but holy fuck, they are not pulling off that trick twice. Believe.
Eternals (2021) is probably the poster child for confusing stakes and scale (or stakes and worldbuilding) in this context, but it’s affecting all of Marvel’s recent efforts to one degree or another, including their Disney+ offerings — what we used to call TV. Last year’s WandaVision is a concept looking for a story, and so too is Loki, but they’re both buoyed to no small degree by some really charming performances (Kathryn Hahn is so fucking charming that most people don’t seem to realize that Agatha is barely a character). The Falcon and the Winter Soldier fares better but is hobbled by some truly mealy-mouthed political posturing that is scared to death of actually saying anything meaningful lest it alienate an audience quadrant. So, much to my surprise, it’s Hawkeye that’s the champion Disney+ Marvel show of the past 12 months. Indeed, it might be, narratively speaking, the MCU’s best effort overall in 2021 (of the nine Marvel series and movies this year, only Spider-Man: No Way Home gives it any competition).
Why? Clear stakes for pretty much everyone.