The Marvels flopping is just the start – here’s what the death of the MCU will look like

The seemingly unflappable superhero franchise has been on the ropes this year, with ‘The Marvels’ setting a new low at the box office. A demise feels inevitable, writes Louis Chilton, but Disney’s golden goose won’t be going anywhere soon

Friday 17 November 2023 06:00 GMT
Brie encounter: Larson fronts ‘The Marvels’ alongside Iman Vellani and Teyonah Parris
Brie encounter: Larson fronts ‘The Marvels’ alongside Iman Vellani and Teyonah Parris (Laura Radford/Marvel Studios)

It had been coming. The Marvel Cinematic Universe – the superhero franchise that has dominated the box office for the better part of 15 years – is crashing back down to Earth. It’s spent the past few years drifting out of its lucrative orbit, mind you; ever since 2019’s cathartic crossover film Avengers: Endgame, the MCU has struggled to curry consistent interest in its ever-ballooning catalogue of films and TV series. The latest film, The Marvels, is a sequel to Captain Marvel, which grossed over $1.1bn globally. This follow-up has opened at just $47m (£38.4m) – the lowest opening weekend for any MCU film, losing even to 2008’s execrable Incredible Hulk.

The Marvels follows a slew of other recent MCU releases that have underperformed, both critically and commercially. This year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 did fine – raking in around $845m globally. But the critically reviled Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania took in just $476.1m. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever made $859.2m – around half a billion dollars less than the original Black Panther. The streaming side, meanwhile, has fared even worse, with Disney+ series such as Loki, Hawkeye and Secret Invasion failing to make any impact on the wider cultural conversation. In a recent report on the “crisis” at Marvel Studios, Variety’s Tatiana Siegel runaway budgets – individual episodes of She-Hulk reportedly cost $25m apiece – an over-saturation of content, and the legal issues surrounding Jonathan Majors, the actor who’d been positioned as the franchise’s big villain for the next few years. For these reasons and more, it’s clear the MCU is in dark and uncharted waters. But reports of its impending demise are overstated. What actually lies in store is more complicated than that.

Marvel Studios has already committed to projects years in advance. The current slate of confirmed projects stretches until Avengers: Secret Wars in 2027 and includes seven forthcoming films and a handful of streaming series, with multiple other projects (including a new X-Men film) yet to be given a release date. The most drastic scenario would see them releasing these films to increasingly small and unenthused audiences, until they decide profit is no longer a possibility and simply hit the abort button. But this kind of drastic spiral is unlikely to be how it works.

Superhero fatigue spells disaster for The Marvels | Binge Watch

Given the relative failure of films such as The Marvels, they will almost certainly look to restrategise – to squeeze as many final pumps out of what was once their fat-uddered cash cow. MCU releases will become less frequent, something that’s already happening: next year, the only theatrical film will be Deadpool 3, down from three this year and last. Expect, too, to see the return of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man: the webslinger is Marvel’s most bankable asset, with 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home a nearly $2bn aberration in Marvel’s post-Endgame decline.

Reports have also suggested that Iron Man’s Robert Downey Jr is being courted for an MCU return. While the news is likely to disappoint those who enjoyed his return to legitimate acting in Oppenheimer this year, the comeback would be an obvious win for Marvel Studios: Downey’s presence was always a demonstrable box office draw for the franchise, evidenced by his extraordinary paychecks. (For 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Downey Jr reportedly negotiated an additional bonus atop his supposed $40m base fee if his involvement meant the film outperformed the previous Downey-less Captain America – which it duly did, by around $400m.)

To some extent, the decline of the MCU speaks to a possibility that many at Marvel Studios would be unwilling to countenance – that maybe the superhero craze has run its course. It’s not just Marvel that’s struggling for commercial potency right now: this year, DC Studios has released The Flash, Blue Beetle and Shazam: Fury Of The Gods to utterly muted receptions. It may be that viewers are losing interest in the very idea of superheroes. Film genres go in and out of fashion – musicals; westerns; romcoms. There’s no reason this would be any different. Just don’t expect Marvel to admit this any time soon. These are comic book people after all. And in the world of comics, death can always be rewritten.

‘The Marvels’ is in cinemas now

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