The Marvel Cinematic Universe may have met its greatest enemy that even all the combined heroes of Marvel can’t stop: audience apathy.
A recent Variety magazine article is getting attention spotlighting the behind-the-scenes turmoil of Marvel with buzz that the upcoming The Marvels movie may become its first outright bomb. This coincides with a schedule thrown off by Hollywood strikes, lower-than-expected box office on recent hits and a real-life controversy revolving around the supposed star villain of Phase 5 has put the MCU’s future in serious doubt. So here’s a quick rundown of just what is happening.
MCU’s box office domination fading
For nearly 15 years since Iron Man, Marvel movies have meant instant box office gold. That even included low-level characters like Guardians of the Galaxy. But Ant-Man and the Warp: Quantumania had lower than expected box office along with reviews that Phase 4, with an emphasis on Disney+ shows and the reaction to experiments like Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings and Eternals wasn’t as good as hoped for.
This has added to worries that The Marvels may end up with an opening weekend of less than $75 million, a major low for a much-hyped Marvel film. The fact that the stars can’t promote the movie due to the SAG strike (which has also affected schedules for other films) is another disappointment. But that pales next to another key issue.
How to handle Jonathan Majors?
Phase 5 was built around Jonathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror, the time-traveling villain. He was set up in Loki and Quautumania, with multiple versions of him threatening an epic clash. It was to all build to Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Secret Wars.
But that’s now in danger due to Majors facing possible criminal charges for assault. The case is still ongoing, and the actor is featured in Season 2 of Loki. But a major concern is what happens if a trial means he can’t continue the role when Marvel has built around him.
The Variety article mentions possibilities such as recasting the role (which Marvel has done before) or perhaps replacing Kang altogether with the iconic Marvel villain Doctor Doom. Either way, having to restructure after pushing Majors as a major face of the franchise is a blow to the MCU.
The writing and FX issues abound
A growing criticism by even many Marvel fans is that too many of the movies and TV shows seem not only repetitive but too convoluted. The Marvels, for example, requires fans to have watched WandaVision and Ms. Marvel to know who the characters are. This ties into a long-standing trend of Marvel to basically film with a rough script and then try to fix it in post-production with reshoots.
The Marvels was the same despite how director Nia DaCosta moved onto a new film just after production was wrapped. The director even indicated she wasn’t allowed to be as free as she expected, echoing other MCU directors. At the end of the day, it's always President Kevin Feige who makes the final say on how an MCU project looks.
This combines with accusations that the reason the special effects on projects like She-Hulk look so bad is the rushed productions and played a significant role in the FX teams unionizing in the fall of 2023. But that still showcases the issues of scripts hurting the final product.
Yet it seems the problem was Disney and Marvel thinking that with the Disney+ shows, they could provide a seemingly never-ending stream of Marvel projects year-round, missing that spacing the films out could let fans breathe and prepare for the next big event.
It does seem Marvel is trying to learn from this, as shortly after the WGA strike was handled, the entire writing team for the upcoming Daredevil: Born Again series was let go with a new writing team assembled. Also, the upcoming reboot of Blade will have new scriptwriters, with accusations in the Variety article that one draft would have made it a female-led movie with Blade basically as a fourth lead. However, writer Michael Starrbury denied those claims, muddying the issue further.
To top it off, rumors now abound Marvel is hoping to get the original Avengers cast together for a new film, including Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson. Right now, those are just rumors, but it can be seen as a sign of desperation for Marvel to replicate their past success.
Where does Marvel go from here?
As of now, with hopes the SAG strike can finally be ended, Marvel is set to move on with Deadpool 3 among projects in 2024. That they’re making changes like better scripts shows they finally realize that slapping the Marvel label on anything no longer means instant success and go back to quality over quantity. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 was a huge hit, with James Gunn (who will now head up the DCEU) writing and directing a well-regarded film.
A big shift is with Disney owning 20th Century Fox, the MCU can finally use characters like the X-Men and Fantastic Four. Hugh Jackman is set to reprise his role as Wolverine in Deadpool 3, and an FF movie is among the films planned for Phase 6. The influx of such popular characters can help as it’s past time the MCU tackled the A-listers rather than lower-level characters like Moon Knight.
It could be that Marvel is feeling the inevitable backlash of audiences turning on superhero movies (see the box office failure of The Flash) or the shifts due to the pandemic making theaters no longer the go-to viewing for movies. Marvel may simply be the victim of their own success and hubris, thinking that the same formula would last forever.
Marvel Comics learned a long time ago that changing things up was vital to keeping the company going. The MCU needs to learn the same, as Phase 5 may end up being the most critical ever to determine if the MCU lasts the rest of the decade or not.