The Not-So-Marvelous Marvels
The Continued Projected "Death" of the MCU
It feels like every few months I have to report on someone else's report that the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. is dying. "Was Phase IV the MCU Gas Leak Year?" or "Bad Writing and the MCU" and "Too Much Continuity in the MCU". Marvel has the biggest film franchise in the history of, well, film, but any chink in the armor for the company is going to seem endlessly fascinating and, man, are there some serious armor holes at this point.
The latest reports that have come out over the last couple of months have continued painting a picture of a studio on fire, unsure of what they're doing and how to course correct. We'll start with the fact that the studios next film (at the time of this writing), The Marvels, is projected to only make between $75 and $85 Mil. It could have an opening as soft as $55 Mil even, as word of mouth hasn't been great so far and the trailers haven't inspired the kind of fanatical devotion people tend to expect from a Marvel project. That's means the franchise is dying, right?
Well, I am not going to go around being the harbinger of doom, but that kind of opening isn't great for a film that's cost upwards of $274.8 Mil after re-shoots (and before advertising). The film needs to make $600 Mil or more just to break even, and an opening weekend of anything less than $150 Mil would be disastrous with little hope of the film being the standard Marvel smash. There are any number of reasons why the film could be opening soft, from fans of the first movie, Captain Marvel, not realizing this is supposed to be a sequel, to the possibility that films are still struggling post-COVID (even as some films, like Barbie and The Super Mario Bros. Movie manage to break through).
Hell, it's entirely possible there's not just superhero fatigue but franchise fatigue in general. Consider the fact that the movies that have done very well -- Barbie, Mario, Oppenheimer -- have brought delights not often seen on the big screen. It was Barbie's first big-screen film ever, Mario's first in 30 years, and Christopher Nolan's newest (and audiences always seem to like what he's selling). Meanwhile, franchise films -- Shazam!: Fury of the Gods, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, The Flash, Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning, Part One -- have come from franchise that people may just be tired of after many, many, many years of entries.
The problem with having one of the most successful, longest-running film franchises is that, eventually, people will get tired of a ride that never ends. That, of course, brings us to the next point that we need to discuss: has the franchise really been good since the end of "The Infinity Saga"? Fans were all abuzz for the MCU through Avengers: Endgame and they were willing to stick around and see what was next, but the promise was that whatever came next was going to build to something just as good as what fans had gotten. It was 22 films, through Endgame, with almost no real duds. An impressive run by any metric. But then the next phases gave us another 22 works (through Loki: Season 2) and I think you'd be hard pressed to name more than four or five that really were good and worth watching over and over again.
Please note that I'm not saying the output of the MCU has been universally bad across all of Phase IV and what we've seen so far from Phase V. That said, it also isn't anywhere near at the same level as the first three phases that made up "The Infinity Saga". Marvel rode a high, proving a cinematic universe could work. They took their time, did it right, and pushed through 22 films over ten years to get to that epic conclusion. And then, in the span of just four years, they shat out 22 more works that didn't really seem to do much of anything for the franchise.
By any expectation, creative 22 works in four years is going to lead to a few misfires. That's a number that puts the cart far before the horse. That's rushed. That's half-baked. That's poorly developed. I like Marvel in general but when I go back and looked at how much they expected fans to watch and keep up with in just four years, it shocking to think they expected fans would bother trying. Especially when you consider it's not just films but TV shows as well. hours upon hours of interconnected works that you have to watch just to keep up. And, by and large, most of those works haven't led to anything.
Yes, WandaVision tied into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and it'll also tie into The Marvels alongside Ms. Marvel. And sure, Loki launched Kang, who then showed up (sadly) in Ant-man and Wasp: Quantumania before going back to Loki. But beyond those, does any of the output matter?
Black Widow gave us Yelena, who is great, but she's barely been seen since (outside of Hawkeye, which also feels superfluous), and Black Widow was terrible. The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special led into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but the special was hardly essential viewing. And the Guardians series largely stands apart from the MCU. The rest of it is all one-off diversions that don't seem to have had any impact at all.
As for the stuff that was decent, was it good enough to justify its existence on its own. I am a big fan of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, but that series reportedly had a cost of $25 Mil per episode. That's higher, reportedly, that the cost per episode of the last season of Game of Thrones, and much as I liked She-Hulk it was no Game of Thrones, especially to the general public. Marvel's ambitions these last few years have been likened to a Money Pit, and when you see costs like that, with little return, it's hard to argue the point.
This has led to further shake-ups within the studio. For starters, they've decided that doing their TV shows like movies is not the way to go. It makes them expensive (see above) and the returns from fans are negligible. So, instead, they're going to do TV shows like, well, TV shows, with showrunners and writers' rooms, and lower costs. I think that's good for the production side, but it's hard to say that fans are going to look at a Marvel logo on a TV show and care as much now even with a recalibration. The logo doesn't mean as much on a show as it once could have.
Meanwhile, the studio also realizes that it's newer crop of heroes aren't catching on with fans. Their solution? Try to resurrect all the old heroes that died near the end of Phase III. Yes, that means Tony Stark Iron ManBillionare Tony Stark has a secret: while he travels the world by day as a playboy philanthropist and head of Stark Industries, he combats the evils of the world as the armored Iron Man. and Natasha Romanoff Black WidowNatalia Romanova was one one of the greatest and most effective Russian spies, a deadly killer who could blend in anywhere. Then she was turned and became one of SHIELD's most effective, and trusted, agents. and Steve Rogers's Captain AmericaCreated by Simon and Kirby in 1941, Captain America was a super soldier created to fight Germany and the evil HYDRA. Then he was lost in the ice, only to be found and reborn decades later as the great symbol of the USA.. It's hard to see that working, firstly because these characters had deaths that were, by and large, earned. it was time to move on. The actors certainly have, which leads to a second problem: these stars, if they do come back, will cost a lot of money. Robert Downey, Jr. reportedly was paid $50 Mil to come back as Tony Stark for Endgame, and that doesn't even count what he made on the back end. Marvel's films would have to make a lot of money to justify that kind of payday for an actor.
All of this speaks to a studio that is desperate to regain it cultural cache. They were once invincible and now they're not. Maybe they can recover, maybe not, but flailing around certainly doesn't help. What they needed to do, after Endgame, was take a break, cool things off, and recalibrate for the next generation. That ship, of course, has sailed and now Marvel has to see if they can recover after a massive series of missteps. We're still having to wait and see if that's even possible.