It’s no secret in Hollywood that Marvel Studios is facing some serious issues that are now playing out in a very public way. Although the challenges Marvel has to deal with pale in comparison to the ones that the recently reorganized DC Studios will have to work through, the world’s biggest superhero movie studio simply isn’t the powerhouse that it used to be.
Earlier this week, Variety laid out many of Marvel’s current challenges in great detail, as well as a few plans to reignite the franchise. The report even indicates that there have been discussions about bringing back all of the original Avengers stars for a new sequel. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk never really left the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye was semi-retired even before Renner’s life-threatening accident earlier this year. However, Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), and Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) were already written out in Avengers: Endgame. Cap got to live out his life in the past, but Iron Man and Black Widow both died on-screen.
Of course, in comics, death is never really the end. And with the Marvel multiverse, it would be easy to explain away new iterations of Captain America, Iron Man, and Black Widow. Getting all of those stars on board would definitely boost interest in another Avengers movie. But bringing back the original Avengers won’t be enough to save the MCU. At least not by itself. Marvel’s issues go so deep that even in the unlikely event that an Avengers sequel came close to Endgame’s record-breaking box office, it still wouldn’t fix the other problem areas in the company.
In some ways, Marvel is a victim of its own success. Through the 32 movies released since 2008, Marvel Studios flicks have earned nearly $30 billion at the worldwide box office. It’s an unprecedented run of hits that made Marvel one of the most successful studios in the world. Disney had the good fortune of purchasing Marvel for a mere $4 billion in 2009 before it became clear just how big the MCU was going to become.
Having become so huge, it’s almost inconceivable to see Marvel now struggling creatively and financially at the box office. Via the report from Variety, the next film in the franchise, The Marvels, is only expected to open with between $75 million and $80 million at the box office domestically. For an ordinary movie, that would be cause for celebration. For a Marvel movie that reportedly cost $250 million or more, those numbers are very worrying.
No studio can remain successful forever, and Marvel caught lightning in a bottle with the first Iron Man in 2008. For better or worse, that film became the template for nearly every MCU film that came after it. Iron Man was funny, so almost every subsequent film had to be funny as well — until the comedy threatened to overwhelm the action and decrease the stakes to the point where the audience simply didn’t care anymore. That was the extreme approach taken by 2022’s Thor: Love and Thunder, which completed director Taika Waititi’s march toward a complete superhero farce. Who can care about Jane Foster dying from cancer when even she doesn’t seem that concerned about it?
Marvel’s overreliance on humor has led to many of these movies feeling like they are interchangeable. Or worse, that they simply don’t matter. The few films that broke out from being joke fests, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Black Panther, felt like a welcome change of pace. Even the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which are quite funny in their own way, managed to carve out a unique place among the Marvel franchises. Far too many of the other films felt like rehashes or worse.
One of the reasons why Marvel is so alarmed by The Marvels’ soft box office prospects is that the company has already seen something like that earlier this year. In February, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was hyped to the moon because it had the formal introduction of Johnathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror, the next big Marvel villain. Feeding off that hype gave Quantumania a $120.4 million opening over the holiday weekend. All’s well in the House of M, right? But then the film fell off drastically and limped to a $214.5 million domestic run, which was less than the $216.6 million that Ant-Man and the Wasp grossed in 2018.
The situation was even more bleak internationally. While Ant-Man and the Wasp had a worldwide take of $622.7 million, Quantumania finished with $476.1 million, and it became one of the first non-pandemic Marvel movies to lose money. More pressingly, it was the first Marvel movie to be rejected by die-hard fans after they saw it on the opening weekend. Repeat business for the film was abysmal, which suggests that the audience’s dissatisfaction with it ran deep. It may prove to be a harbinger of The Marvels’ fate as well.
One of the key complaints from Quantumania viewers focused on the uncharacteristically unfinished and shoddy special effects. But it wasn’t the only Marvel project to suffer from this problem. The She-Hulk series on Disney+ had similar issues, despite a reported $25 million-per episode budget that made it one of the most expensive televisions shows ever made.
Victoria Alonso, the executive formerly in charge of Marvel’s VFX, was fired a few weeks after Quantumania’s premiere. And while fans and industry insiders have scapegoated Alonso for Marvel’s FX troubles, the constant complaint from the VFX artists themselves is that Marvel has overworked them for years with nearly impossible deadlines and low pay. Marvel executives have also had a tendency to wait until the last minute to request major revisions. When dealing with some of the most expensive movies ever made, there’s no excuse for special effects that are anything less than the best in the business, even if that means pushing a film’s release date back.
One of the most jaw-dropping aspects of Variety’s report was about Blade, the upcoming reboot starring Mahershala Ali as the half-human/half-vampire previously played by Wesley Snipes in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. According to Variety, “one person familiar with the script permutations says the story at one point morphed into a narrative led by women and filled with life lessons. Blade was relegated to the fourth lead.”
That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Blade’s appeal, especially if the lead character was really overshadowed in his own movie. People went to see the original Blade trilogy to watch the title character hunt vampires, fight monsters, and kick ass. They certainly weren’t going for “life lessons.”
Variety notes that Logan screenwriter Michael Green has taken over scriptwriting duties on Blade, and Marvel may actually produce it for under $100 million. Considering that most of the recent Marvel movies have cost $200 million or more, that’s a drastic reduction in budget. But it will presumably be easier to turn a profit with that total.
Last month, The Hollywood Reporter broke the story that Marvel took the drastic step of firing Daredevil: Born Again showrunners Chris Ord and Matt Corman after determining that “the show wasn’t working.” Unfortunately, Marvel didn’t come to that conclusion until after several episodes had already been filmed.
Among the red flags for Marvel were that Ord and Corman’s vision for the show was for more of a legal procedural, and Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock didn’t even put on his Daredevil costume until late in the fourth episode. Once again, that was a fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal of the character. And Marvel has no one but itself to blame, since Ord and Corman’s scripts had to have been approved long before production began.
Born Again isn’t the only Marvel Studios TV show to struggle. She-Hulk: Attorney At Law was remarkably unfunny for a series that was allegedly a comedy. And the two seasons of Loki have transformed Tom Hiddleston’s god of mischief from one of Marvel’s most intriguing villains into a half-hearted heroic shadow of his former self. Even Moon Knight mishandled Marvel’s answer to Batman by playing up the slapstick of Oscar Isaac’s dual personas as Steven Grant and Marc Spector.
The push to create original Marvel series for Disney+ was in place during Disney CEO Bob Iger’s first run with the company. And while the initial batch of Marvel shows like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and Hawkeye had undeniable star power, the upcoming slate includes shows for Echo and Agatha Harkness, who can’t even hold down their own comic book series. It’s asking a lot of the Marvel brand when two of these 2024 series feature characters who are about as far from A-listers as it possibly gets.
Who’s to blame for this mess? The same man who brought so much success to Marvel in the first place: Kevin Feige. As the president of Marvel Studios since 2007, Feige has basked in the glory of the company’s success. But that also means Feige has to take his share of the blame when things go poorly. Since 2015, Feige has been empowered to make the big calls at Marvel Studios, so the buck ultimately stops with him. Various reports have also indicated that Feige has been overextended by the numerous Marvel shows and by the slate of upcoming movies. So the solution seems obvious: Feige needs to delegate, and he shouldn’t have to be the lone creative executive that has to fix every issue in his company. It’s not like there’s any shortage of writers who know the lore of Marvel’s comics.
The good news is that Feige and the rest of the producers at Marvel Studios seem to recognize their problems now. That’s better than ignoring the issues until they get worse. Feige recently hired former Punisher showrunner Dario Scardapane to take over Daredevil: Born Again and get the series back on track. Marvel Studios is also reportedly hiring executives who have more experience with television to oversee future shows and prevent the issues that have plagued past shows from happening again.
While all of DC’s live-action films have bombed in 2023, Marvel had two bright spots at this year’s box office. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 rebounded nicely with $359 million domestically and $845.6 million worldwide. The Sony Pictures Animation-produced Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse bested Guardians 3 domestically with $381.3 million, although the worldwide total of $690 million came in behind it. But for all the talk of superhero fatigue, these two Marvel films proved that audiences will still show up for superhero movies and come back for repeat viewings if they have appealing stories and characters that they care about.
That brings us back to the Avengers. There are two upcoming sequels, Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars. Getting the original cast back for either or both of those movies could only help them. But if Marvel wants to recapture its former glory, the studio needs to rededicate itself to making good, and hopefully great, superhero stories. Average superhero films just aren’t going to cut it anymore.
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