Since its inception, Marvel Studios has famously used its post-credits scenes as bonus teasers for its upcoming movies. Sometimes, the scenes have pointed to a direct sequel, like when Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) showed Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) the Wasp suit at the end of 2015’s “Ant-Man,” presaging Hope’s ascension to title-role status for 2018’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” Just as often, they serve as a hand-off between characters: Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) visit to Stephen Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) sanctum at the end of 2016’s “Doctor Strange” sets up Thor’s search for his father in 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok.”
These scenes have been at once fun throwaways and the essential threads that bind the Marvel Cinematic Universe together. Audiences wait to see them to get a taste of what’s to come, and that ritual has been crucial to cementing the MCU as the biggest storytelling force in Hollywood history.
On rare occasion, end credits have also introduced new characters, like Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) appearing at the end of 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which helped lay the groundwork for their crucial roles in 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” But save for the introduction of Thanos at the end of 2012’s “The Avengers,” audiences — at least, savvy ones who follow entertainment news — already knew these characters and actors were coming well in advance.
Not anymore. Last year, Marvel Studios began shifting its strategy for the post-credits scenes for its feature films, using them less as previews for previously announced titles than as de facto casting announcements for brand new characters whose future in the MCU is as yet unknown.
The end of 2021’s “Eternals” could have included a spoonful of the cosmic goings-on in “Thor: Love and Thunder.” Instead, Harry Styles pops up as Starfox, aka Thanos’ brother Eros, who talks vaguely about helping the Eternals find their lost compatriots. At the end of May’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” we could’ve gotten a taste of the forthcoming multiversal shenanigans in February’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” or the upcoming second season of “Loki.” Instead, Charlize Theron suddenly strides up to Strange on a city street, daring him to join her on a quest to the Dark Dimension without ever announcing her name. (It’s Clea.)
Most recently, one might expect the post-credits scene for “Thor: Love and Thunder” (which opened in theaters on Friday) to suggest what’s to come in next May’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” given the Guardians’ role in the first act of the movie. Instead, we are introduced to Hercules — the mythical Greek demigod and Marvel Comics mainstay since 1965 — as played by Emmy winning “Ted Lasso” star Brett Goldstein.
Hercules’ makes his MCU debut following a speech from his father, Zeus (Russell Crowe), who butts heads with Thor earlier in the film until the God of Thunder impales Zeus with his own lightning bolt. In the post-credits scene, the camera stays fixed on Zeus as he nurses his wound, wondering bitterly to someone off screen how the gods of ancient myth have found themselves so overshadowed by upstart superheroes. To regain their stature, Zeus commands his son Hercules to bring down Thor. The camera cuts to a buff, armored, and hairy-chested Goldstein, who growls “Yes, father,” with all the simmering rage we’ve come to expect from Goldstein’s “Ted Lasso” performance as begrudgingly retired footballer Roy Kent.
As with Styles and Theron, Marvel Studios has yet to indicate when or how Goldstein will appear again in the MCU, but the good money is on these actors co-headlining the respective sequels for the films in which they first appeared. After all, in the comics, Starfox is an Eternal, Clea marries Doctor Strange, and Hercules starts out as a Thor antagonist before the two become friends.
Still, it is a mark of deep confidence (with a healthy pinch of hubris) that Marvel Studios would use these scenes to present new characters without also indicating precisely where those characters are going. In each case, the thrill winds up being more about seeing Styles, Theron, and Goldstein show up in the MCU than whatever those appearances could mean for the larger story, especially as the MCU stretches itself thinner than it’s ever been before. There’s great storytelling potential in Starfox, Clea and Hercules. But with over 25 movies and Disney+ series already on the horizon for Marvel Studios, adding three more major characters to the mix risks exacerbating the complaint that keeping up with the MCU is starting to feel less like fun and more like homework.
Actually, Marvel had planned to initiate this strategy even earlier — with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ appearance as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine in the post-credits scene of “Black Widow.” That film, of course, was first scheduled to open in May 2020. But the pandemic pushed it to July 2021, leapfrogging it over what was supposed to be Val’s second appearance, on the Disney+ series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” On that show, Val gets a proper introduction, so the excitement of seeing Louis-Dreyfus is matched with a better understanding of the nefarious role she has to play inside the MCU. When Val shows up again in “Black Widow,” commanding Yelena (Florence Pugh) to go after Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), we’re more interested in what it means for those characters than buzzing off of the surprise of suddenly seeing Louis-Dreyfus in a Marvel movie.
Maybe Marvel Studios has just outgrown the need for post-credits scenes — there’s no need to tease us anymore when we already know it’s all connected. Rituals, however, are hard to break, even after they’re no longer useful.