The word cameo has been thrown around a lot lately in the world of pop culture. When it comes to recent projects in the worlds of Marvel, DC, and Star Wars, fans are constantly speculating which iconic fan favorites are going to pop up for a surprise appearance. But many are misunderstanding what the word cameo actually means.
The dictionary defines a cameo as "a small character part in a play or film, played by a distinguished actor or a celebrity." Except for a few specific cases, it's very rare that these so-called cameos in recent projects have actually matched this definition.
For the last two years, almost every Marvel, Star Wars, and DC project has been plagued with speculation as to which characters will make a surprise appearance, something which largely appears to only be harming each of the universes.
How Star Wars Started the Cameo Trend
Thinking back, the trend of speculation surrounding cameos and surprise characters really began during the break between Phase 3 and 4 of the MCU when the second season of The Mandalorian was taking over Disney+. The first season may have only delivered a few minor connections to the Star Wars mythos, but Season 2 stepped it up a notch with Boba Fett, Bo-Katan, Ahsoka Tano, and Luke Skywalker delivering unexpected appearances.
Fans were quick to refer to all of these characters as cameos, but none really meet the definition. After all, each had a major part to play in the story of the series. The Book of Boba Fett followed a similar trend as several unannounced fan favorites showed up across the series, with each, once again, having fleshed out roles to play - except for perhaps Ahsoka in Episode 6.
The Mandalorian was Disney+'s only blockbuster series to debut before Marvel Studios kicked off Phase 4 with WandaVision, so many assumed the trend of surprise character appearances would carry over into the MCU. However, for the most part, that hasn't proven to be the case.
Even as Star Wars takes its first step away from the MandoVerse on Disney+ with Obi-Wan Kenobi, speculation is running wild as to what "cameos" the series may offer.
That's not to say Star Wars has handled its shocking appearances poorly. In fact, it has done it excellently as all have fit naturally and served a purpose in the storyline. The issue comes more as many viewers are more focused on which Star Wars characters will appear in projects like Obi-Wan Kenobi, as opposed to the main character and the core story itself.
Marvel is Suffering from the Cameo Obsession
The Mandalorian Season 2 delivered on so many of the biggest theories with its surprise characters and shocking twists, naturally leading fans to expect the same from Marvel Studios when the MCU made its Disney+ debut with WandaVision.
With the Disney+ series having been promised to not only be game-changing but also to lead directly into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, expectations for its long-term impact on the MCU were high from the beginning.
These expectations and wild theories were only fueled throughout the series - who can forget the famous Aerospace Engineer and Mephisto debacles. The series itself offered some basis that these theories would lead to something, but the comments from the cast and crew were undeniably misleading and set expectations that weren't delivered upon.
Both Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany hyped up a shocking cameo to rival Luke Skywalker's Mandalorian appearance, but these turned out to be jokes referring to Bettany's White Vision. Monica Rambeau actress Teyonah Parris even shared her excitement for the reveal of her Aerospace Engineer, one which was ultimately non-existent.
There's no denying the cast of WandaVision set fans up for disappointment by fueling wild theories which they already knew wouldn't pay off. Since then, audiences really haven't learned from their mistakes in the sitcom series, as every show since has had expectations of surprise characters - of which, only Loki has really delivered with Jonathon Majors' Kang reveal in the finale and Hawkeye through its monumental appearance from Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin.
Spider-Man: No Way Home offered a great example of Marvel doing fan service right and, fortunately, theories paying off. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield reprising their Spider-Man roles were jaw-dropping and surprising; at least, it would have been without the leaks, but one can only imagine the reactions if they ultimately weren't in the film.
Not only did the Spider-Man team-up deliver on expectations and provide crowd-pleasing fan service, but they made a legitimate contribution to the plot. The influence their older heroes had on Tom Holland's Peter was integral to his arc in the film and helped him to finally complete his heroic origin. The point is that they weren't just there to appease fans; they served a purpose.
With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness being Marvel Studios' second Multiverse-centric adventure, and directly following Spider-Man: No Way Home, expectations were high for more surprise characters. Every Marvel character under the sun was rumored to appear in the movie, from returning favorites to major debuts.
Unfortunately, Doctor Strange 2 didn't deliver on the theories to the same extent as Spider-Man: No Way Home, but that wasn't necessarily to the detriment of the film. The Multiversal surprises were really contained to Earth-838's Illuminati, of which, four of the six members were confirmed in the lead-up to release anyway.
In the case of Multiverse of Madness, most of the "cameo" hype stemmed from the unreasonable expectations of fans and false reports from supposed insiders. But now, Marvel Studios faces a problem where fans are now treating every movie as if it's the next Avengers epic, when most are simply standalone adventures focused around their titular hero.
Even though the Doctor Strange sequel didn't offer as many surprise characters as hoped, the ones present serve a purpose, albeit not one quite as important as No Way Home's returning heroes and villains. The primary role of the Illuminati was to underestimate Wanda and demonstrate her newfound power, which is why the movie tore them down quite as quickly as it did.
Perhaps after Multiverse of Madness failed to deliver, fans will be more cautious in the future, something which may help Marvel to actually surprise audiences and subvert expectations.
What Is the Solution to Pop Culture's Cameo Problem?
DC may have delivered the best example of how cameos should actually be handled with the Peacemaker Season 1 finale. After the battle against the butterflies was won and John Cena's team had proven victorious, the team walked from the rubble to see the Justice League arriving to assist. Most of the team is only seen in the form of shadows, but Jason Momoa's Aquaman and Ezra Miller's Flash each get a brief line of dialogue that makes reference to a joke from earlier in the series.
In a sense, Peacemaker's Justice League offers the perfect example of how an actual cameo should be handled. The team's arrival came as a complete surprise and their brief screen time didn't overshadow the main cast or storyline, meaning this is one of the few examples of this trend that actually matched the definition of a cameo.
That's not to say either Marvel or Star Wars have been handling their surprise characters poorly; the problem arises when the promise of cameos, surprises, and shocks become integral to the marketing and build-up of a film or series. In many ways, this simply sets fans up for disappointment when crazy and unsubstantiated theories don't pay off.
At least as the situation currently stands, the problem with these cameos is not with the studios, but with the fans themselves. So far, neither DC nor Star Wars have yet fallen victim to the sharp end of this trend, but Marvel has already suffered countless times, and it's becoming increasingly hard for them to satisfy fans.
From the studio perspective, there may be no solution to this problem, short of avoiding the word "cameo" altogether. But from the fans' point of view, it may be time to move on from this obsession and return to the days of enjoying stories for what they are. After all, cameos, surprise characters, and fan service can complement a project and add to the hype, but that should never detract from the main character and their tale.