There was a time, not so very long ago, when a new release from Marvel Studios would be a guaranteed hit, regardless of whether the film starred one of the world’s most popular superheroes or introduced audiences to characters few knew. Pundits wondered how long such an interconnected franchise could sustain itself, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe emerged as the highest-grossing film series in history and continued to break records.
Marvel broke another record this weekend, though not a record anyone in Hollywood could have predicted a few years ago. The Marvels, filmmaker Nia DaCosta’s follow-up to $1 billion hit Captain Marvel (2019), debuted with the lowest opening weekend box office in the MCU’s fifteen-year history. The numbers are sobering for a film that cost over $250 million to produce, and has led fans, commentators and Hollywood insiders to wonder, are Marvel’s days in the limelight over?
Some are all too quick and grab a shovel and start digging a grave for the MCU, a move the feels premature given recent hits like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
But one thing is undeniable: Marvel Studios can no longer just rely on the Marvel Studios name to get butts in seats, it must give audiences a reason to be excited, to feel like they’re going to see something they’ve never seen before, and not just something they can watch on their TVs a little later.
Multiple factors have been cited for The Marvels‘ poor turnout, from the actors strike that prevented charismatic leads Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris and Iman Vellani from promoting the film, to lackluster marketing, to superhero fatigue.
Others have attributed The Marvels’ opening to racism and misogyny; it was directed by a Black woman and two of the film’s leads are POC. I am hesitant to make that the takeaway, as it seems like the kind of excuse studios have historically used to ignore POC films, especially those starring and directed by women. That’s not to say that misogyny and racism aren’t there, but the successes of Barbie and the female-led Wakanda Forever run counter to that narrative.
The most obvious culprit is the glut of Marvel projects released in recent years. Marvel Studios, under the direction of Disney’s Bob Iger and then Bob Chapek, oversaturated the market with Marvel projects to drive up subscriptions to Disney+. But releasing multiple projects every quarter left audiences feeling exhausted and behind.
For all the flaws of Marvel’s Infinity Saga, it felt more focused. There was a set number of characters, whose stories all played out in films. Post-Avengers: Endgame, we’ve been introduced to a host of new characters who, for the most part, don’t interact with each other, whose projects all set up different storylines yet to converge, and who aren’t seen for years in between projects, making it hard for audiences to latch onto them as they did with the OG Avengers.
The fact that there has been no New Avengers movie feels like a massive oversight. An Avengers film prior to The Marvels would likely have benefited the film, just as Captain Marvel greatly benefitted from coming out between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Yet, Marvel seems intent on saving the Avengers for its Multiverse Saga conclusion with Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars, in a bid to create the next Infinity War and Endgame.
But that was never the point of the Avengers. The point was to bring new characters together and solidify who they are amidst their peers and global threats. In the comics, The Avengers runs monthly, and while yes, the Avengers films should feel special, they also shouldn’t take a decade to build to. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have seen Doctor Strange, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Shang-Chi, Black Panther, Ant-Man and the Wasp team-up as the latest iteration of the Avengers at this point.
Marvel Studios has also cannibalized projects that would have made great films in order to make “content” for Disney+. Secret Invasion, the ill-received Samuel L. Jackson series from earlier this year, could’ve easily been akin to Captain America: Civil War and played on the big screen, instead of becoming a haphazardly put-together show that disposed of valuable characters, didn’t share any similarities to the popular comic event by Brian Michael Bendis and Leinil Francis Yu, and actively damaged the MCU with a last-minute character power-up.
Regardless of opinions on The Marvels’ narrative, it’s obvious that Captain Marvel: Secret Invasion would’ve had a greater pull for audiences. It would have allowed fans to turn directly to a graphic novel and build enthusiasm, which is what happened with Civil War. Monica and Kamala still could have factored in, and alongside a mix of new and old heroes, it could’ve made for a twisty event that actually made good on the themes Captain Marvel set up. It would have firmly established Captain Marvel as a marquee character going forward. Instead, we’re left with the significant possibility that The Marvels will be the last Captain Marvel solo-film.
Nevertheless, Marvel Studios will move forward, having learned from the disappointments of the last year. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes may ultimately benefit the MCU in the long run, forcing the studio to push all of its theatrical projects except Deadpool 3 out of 2024 and into 2025. The move will give audiences a much-needed reprieve from the constant Marvel projects , and given the enthusiasm mere set pics of Hugh Jackman in Wolverine’s classic blue and yellow costume generated, and the fact that Deadpool 3 will essentially be Marvel Studios’ first real stab at live-action mutants, chances are strong that by this time next summer, everyone will be talking about Marvel Studios grand comeback.
The Marvels certainly isn’t alone in the disappointing box office for superhero fare this year, with DC’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash and Blue Beetle and Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania all underperforming. Superhero fatigue has been the go-to theory, and I think there’s certainly some of that. But then you look the success of Guardians Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse this summer, or the good will around superhero-centric shows Gen V, Loki and Invincible. Suddenly, fatigue feels a little too much like an easy catch-all.
The performance of The Marvels this past weekend is undeniably a disappointment. But every long-running franchise goes through growing pains. Just as Bond didn’t die when Timothy Dalton’s films disappointed at box-office, and Batman managed to survive the cold shoulder of Batman & Robin, Marvel won’t die. It’s an institution at this point.
And while we may get fewer films, we’ll hopefully get ones that are more cost-effective and of more consistent quality. That’s the Marvel method that made the MCU such a hitmaker in the first place, and a trusted formula that can still work while pushing ahead with new characters and new stories. The age of Marvels isn’t over. It’s a little tired, bearing scars and nursing a black eye, while trying to push through the wreckage on its back, but as we all know, that’s often when heroes rise to their best selves.