Let’s get this out of the way up front: The Marvels is a fun time. We said as much in our review of the movie, and stand by it after a second viewing. But there’s also no denying that The Marvels box office numbers, at $47 million domestic, an all-time low for Marvel Studios and the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), is the final canary in the coal mine of several canaries that have been chirping their dying breaths since Avengers: Endgame premiered in 2019. This may not be the end of Marvel as a brand; but after this weekend, Marvel Studios and Disney will have to do some serious reworking of the MCU.
Have there been multiple external factors out of Marvel Studios’ control that have been working against them over the past several years? Absolutely. The COVID pandemic, which is ongoing whether we like to pretend it is or not, has massively impacted theatrical moviegoing and how viewers interact with entertainment as a whole in ways we still don’t quite completely understand. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes put a (extremely worthwhile) dent in the release schedules of both TV and movies throughout 2023.
But this downturn with Marvel wasn’t entirely out of their hands, either. Marvel Studios taking over TV production while also expanding its theatrical output in a clear attempt to have near-weekly “episodes” of the MCU stretched the company too thin and wore on the more casual audience’s patience. While there have been plenty of good shows, the quality became wobbly — and perhaps more importantly, the perception of “necessity” became wobbly as well. Since the story of the MCU ostensibly ended in Endgame (see: the name of the movie), Marvel has become increasingly less “must see” and more “wait and see” for many former fans.
The big problem with that is “wait and see” is not how the entertainment industry works. It’s all opening weekend box office, per the focus of this article. It’s the streaming numbers in the first month. Past that point, the companies are already on to the next thing. And often, so are the audiences as a movie that once would have been a Thursday night appointment becomes a casual watch months later once it hits “free” streaming.
Though there have been plenty of questions and concerns about Marvel’s Phase 4 output, chinks in the armor if you will, 2023 has been the year that removed that armor entirely. Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, released in February, was slammed by critics, mostly ignored by audiences, and led directly to a very public conversation about how Marvel treats its VFX artists, one that was bubbling in the background and came to the foreground with 2022’s She-Hulk. Whether directly or indirectly, it led Victoria Alonso, who was in charge of VFX and one of the core trio leading Marvel Studios, to leave the company.
May brought Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, which is an outlier. The initial box office wasn’t as strong as expected, but the movie had legs once critics and viewers aligned on it not just being a good movie, but also an actual end to the franchise — and not Marvel Part 25, as Ant-Man 3 ended up being. Still, with this movie being so intrinsically tied to writer/director James Gunn, this win was ascribed more to him than Marvel. And ominously, Gunn had already left Marvel to go lead rival DC Studios for Warner Bros. Discovery.
This was followed by the first TV release of the year, Secret Invasion. Despite massive hype and a fan-favorite in Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, the show underwhelmed (to put it kindly) from both a critical and fan perspective. This show went from Marvel’s potential savior to an albatross that added conflicting and confusing information to the overall story. And given it looked to tee up the upcoming The Marvels (it didn’t), did that movie no favors as well.
Then there’s Loki Season 2, which premiered in October. Despite massive hype and even a well-received finale airing last week, the show has dropped precipitously from Season 1 to Season 2 on Nielsen’s charts of streaming series. The Season 1 premiere, with one episode airing, generated 731M viewing minutes in its debut week. In Season 2, with seven episodes available, Loki generated 446 million viewing minutes. It was, and I don’t want to underplay this, pushed in every McDonald’s nationwide for about two months. And yet with multiple episodes available, significantly fewer people were watching. Whatever you think about the quality of the season, that is not good.
Meanwhile, in the background: Jonathan Majors, who Marvel is hanging their upcoming movies and shows on, was arrested for assault, and the case is ongoing; VFX workers unionized in a clear victory against Marvel; Disney CEO Bob Iger copped to them diluting the Marvel brand with too many movies and TV shows; and near non-stop “trouble on Marvel sets” articles were backed up by shifting release dates, reshoots, and some shows and movies getting pushed back or scrapped entirely. And to that point, it was recently announced that only Deadpool 3 will be released in 2024. Every other Marvel movie has been pushed to 2025, or beyond.
That brings us up to The Marvels. The point I’m aiming to emphasize here is not that The Marvels was Marvel Studios’ make-or-break moment so much as the final straw. If The Marvels had done okay at the box office, the onus for soul-searching behind the scenes would have moved on to the next show (which is Echo, by the way), or the next movie (which is Deadpool 3). As is, the lowest box office result not just domestically (a reported $47 million), but worldwide (a reported $110 million), is… Bad. Very bad. Heads will roll style bad.
And you can’t blame The Marvels underperforming on any of the above factors alone. It is the overall narrative of the MCU, it’s the strikes, it’s the trolls online who hate Brie Larson (and women!), it’s the confusing marketing and the fact that the stars were only able to promote in the last 48 hours, it’s that Ms. Marvel vastly underperformed on Disney+ and WandaVision was two and a half years ago… All of those things and a million other factors led to this box office implosion.
But the big takeaway here probably needs to be the end of the MCU as we know it. Kevin Feige isn’t going to get fired over this (though he may start/already be looking for his exit strategy). And Marvel isn’t going to get sold or killed by Disney. The fact is that every part of Disney that is actively more important than theatrical movies — theme parks, cruises, toys, lifestyle products — is intrinsically tied to Marvel. Disney has made a major investment in the brand, and there’s no way of them extricating themselves from it without significant negative financial output. Marvel will probably continue far past any of our lifetimes for that simple fact alone.
But the MCU? Dead as we know it after this weekend. Yes, they’ve got Deadpool 3 headed back to production, and that movie will most likely be huge. But like Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, that’s not about Marvel so much as it is about Ryan Reynolds turning everything he touches into gold. This will be a win for him, and a net positive for Marvel financially and (hopefully) critically. But if it does dominate the box office, and it probably will, that’s a feather in Reynolds’ cap; not Marvel’s.
They’ve also got Captain America: Brave New World already filmed, though that is reportedly going back into extensive reshoots, and was pushed to 2025. And everything else has yet to enter production or is still in development including Thunderbolts, Blade, Fantastic Four, and much further out Avengers: Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars.
On the TV side, Echo is coming out in January, but has already been given the label “Marvel Spotlight,” which they’re designating as shows where you don’t need to have watched anything else to watch (despite this show spinning out of both Hawkeye and Netflix’s Daredevil, which I feel may override an unclear title card). Agatha: Darkhold Diaries and Ironheart are both filmed, though have been pushed far down the schedule to TBD dates. Daredevil: Born Again is reportedly being completely reworked, despite being halfway done filming. And Wonder Man production was halted by the strikes, but presumably should return soon.
Beyond that, there are several animated series including What If…? Season 2, X-Men ’97, and Spider-Man: Freshman Year. The latter two are set in non-MCU universes, and the former is set in multiple other universes. So in terms of what we’re talking about here, they are not part of the problem.
What I’m suggesting, after all this warm-up, is that the MCU as a series of interconnected TV shows and movies is done. It’s not working for audiences, and the tied-together nature of everything, whether accurate or not, makes the audience feel like they need to do homework. As I was being pithy about above, there’s no way labeling things “Marvel Spotlight” will solve the problem, it’s like putting a piece of pizza on a gaping chest wound. I’m not part of Marvel Studios, nor am I a studio exec. But with multiple factors working against the studio at the moment, there’s no way Marvel and Disney can just barrel ahead with their overall Multiverse Saga plan and think that’s going to work.
Neither is giving things a break by only releasing Deadpool 3 in 2024 going to solve the problem. Something people don’t currently like is not going to suddenly be something people like in 2025. It’s an inherent flaw in the design of the MCU that is only going to get worse over time.
Instead, continuing the Marvel brand — something that Disney has to do — will rejigger the focus to standalone movies and series that perhaps have crossover between actors, but do not have the overarching story that has been bogging things down, creatively and critically. What once was the MCU’s innovation is now its greatest weakness, and the studio needs to recognize that. If Marvel moves forward with Blade, for example, and that feels like a big “if,” I’d expect it to be less following up on the post-credits in Eternals and more as a done-in-one Blade movie with the possibility for more, if it hits. It will also, as reported, be less than $100 million to make, mitigating risk on the movie — and we’ll probably see a lot more of that as things go.
What does that mean for current projects? With Captain America 4 going back into reshoots, it’s probable there will be a push to make it a standalone project focusing on Sam Wilson’s Cap, rather than a setup to five other movies. Anything not currently filming may get halted until Marvel can figure out the path forward. And whether that means pushing quickly towards Secret Wars with the original six Avengers actors or scrapping the whole plan entirely, what the MCU looks like before and after this weekend will be vastly different.
Could I be wrong? Of course. But if Marvel barrels forward without the soul-searching and continues with their plan as is, they risk continuing to whittle both the brand and the good-will of the audience. Just look, for no particular reason, at the X-Men franchise. That’s a series that started strong, peaked, then plummeted — and continued to plummet hard until it fizzled out with the weakest movies in the entire series. If Marvel wants to salvage what’s left of the MCU, they need to scrap what’s there, and start new. Because it’s clear, not just from The Marvels box office, but from the general path of the public’s reaction to the MCU over the past four years that what’s happening now just isn’t working.