2023 was supposed to be the start of a bold new era for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Instead, it could be the beginning of its end.
From a huge controversy over one of its stars to its first outright flop and now a massive pushback on its cinema calendar, the MCU is in a huge state of flux and no longer the unstoppable box office juggernaut it once was. What happened, and can Marvel possibly fix it?
How the MCU fell
In some ways, the coming collapse of the MCU mirrors sports dynasties who coasted for years on success and ignored the inner issues. Compare it to how the New England Patriots figured they were safe on top with Tom Brady, but after he left, the once mighty Patriots sunk into the cellar.
The MCU had coasted so long on star power and dominance, but this coming fallwas likely inevitable. After the huge height of Avengers: Endgame, which felt like a natural end to the saga, trying to continue it was tricky enough.
Marvel didn't help by putting out some "experimental" stuff in both cinemas and Disney+. Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Moon Knight and others were different fare for Marvel, some succeeding more than others. Spider-Man: No Way Home was a smash, but that was more for the long-awaited crossover with the older Spider-Man films than being a MCU entry.
Since then, things have not gone as well as Marvel is too busy laying the seeds for the next big saga to care as much for the immediate future. Who cares if Thor: Love & Thunder sets up Thor vs Hercules if the actual movie was a mess? Or if Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania introduces a key threat when the film is a letdown? And that's without the other problems…
The MCU's major issues
To be fair, some issues are beyond Marvel's control. The biggest, of course, is the combined WGA/SAG strikes halting production and forcing changes to the calendar. It also prevented the stars of The Marvels from promoting the film, which may have contributed to the movie having the worst opening of any MCU film and, barring any miracle staying power, will be Marvel's first outright flop.
Then there's the problem of Jonathan Majors, as Marvel was going to make Kang the key villain of this saga, leading to the Kang Dynasty film in 2026. But with Majors likely facing trial for assault charges, Marvel is either going to have to recast or completely dump the character they've centered Phase 5 around.
However, these are too obvious issues when the problems are bigger. Fans are just tired of "same old, same old" with Marvel. The She-Hulk finale even had Jennifer Walters breaking the fourth wall to directly address how every MCU project ends in a CGI-filled fight and then a teaser for the next movie. It's become way too formulaic.
There's also Marvel's tendency to just rush into production and then try to fix it with reshoots and such, which contributes to how messy it is. Marvel has lost the tendency to focus on making a good movie that can stand on its own and make fans feel they need to watch every film or TV show just to understand what is happening.
Add in Marvel is feeling the same problem so many other big franchises are feeling nowadays in that the COVID-19 pandemic changed moviegoing habits. Sure, there can be events like Barbie but many viewers aren't as thrilled going out to see a movie they can wait a few months to catch at home. And Marvel isn't doing as much to entice them back to theaters these days.
So, the problems are big, leading to the question of how Marvel can solve them.
Use the strike delays to your advantage
So far, the big effect of the strikes has been Marvel pushing back much of its slate to 2025. Deadpool 3 will be the only movie coming up next year. Rather than see this as a detriment, Marvel should embrace this as a way to change.
Trying to deliver a non-stop Marvel menu via Disney+ and films was a bad idea. Even the biggest pizza lover doesn't want it constantly. Taking a long break can help fans feeling burned out by so much content and make a Marvel movie feel like an event again.
Better is this gives an opportunity to work on the creative side. It began with changes for writers on the Blade movie and Daredevil: Born Again show. This is a recharge required for Marvel and the strikes could end being a blessing in disguise.
Even Chris Hemsworth echoed the feelings of fans that not every MCU movie has to be "save the universe" stakes. Some can be more personal tales, smaller in scale, and more about the hero facing a personal challenge than the fate of the world on their hands.
It can also mean no longer needing "grand spectacle" as it's past time Marvel realizes nothing will top the ending of Endgame and stop trying to. The MCU started with more personal stories, origins of heroes learning to be better men (Thor and Tony Stark), embarking on adventures (Captain America), or more. Characters came first, and Marvel has gotten away from that.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 was, at its heart, the team trying to save their friend Rocket with his tragic backstory more compelling than stopping the High Evolutionary. The best parts of The Marvels weren't about saving Earth, it was seeing the wonderful banter of Carol, Kamala and Monica getting along. That character work is needed more as Marvel casts amazing actors, they just need to use them better.
Stop making the movies homework
One of the bigger issues with the MCU is what made it so great in the first place: how everything connects together. At first, it was fun to see the characters connect and bond, but as time has gone on, viewers feel a need to have to watch three or four shows and movies to understand the characters.
Marvel has to realize not everything has the time or desire to do this. They want to go into a movie a bit blind without having to see some shows first. They need things to be stand-alone adventures without the mass backstory.
It's why the upcoming Echo series looks promising, as it starts a "Marvel Spotlight" series that means fans can just plop right in without having seen Hawkeye first. It will stand on its own and even be the first MA-14 rated MCU project, showing it's going to be more daring and likely no stinger for a new project.
More of these projects can work well as the MCU can't have every project be so connected. Even Marvel Comics can separate the characters on their own adventures, it's past time the MCU did the same.
Fix the tone
The MCU has, to be frank, gotten rather silly in the last few films. Thor Love & Thunder was far too much on the comedy, marring the dramatic aspects. The Marvels had offbeat bits like a planet where everyone sings, but Quantumania was criticized for turning the light-hearted Ant-Man movies into a serious film.
Some light stuff is good, this is a comic book universe, but indulging either too dark or too light can be alienating. The Guardians movies are a great textbook for how to balance each almost perfectly. Trying to emulate that is tricky but can be done as getting back to the semi-realistic tone without making them full comedies can be better for the MCU.
There are still challenges for Marvel, from how to handle Kang to using the X-Men and Fantastic Four. However, this break in 2024 is just the opportunity Marvel needs to regroup and figure things out.
A good comparison is how Disney went overboard pushing Star Wars content, trying to make it a big project every year, only for movies to falter while the TV shows became better. Disney realized they had to hold back a bit to make Star Wars matter more when it does return to the big screen.
Marvel has to do the same, they need to remember what made them work in the first place, the great characters, sharp writing and fun tone. That's what folks want: something fun, not needing so much study.
2024 will be a critical year for Marvel, not so much for their slate but for how they handle things behind the scenes and determine if the MCU just had a rough patch to recover or finally meeting its end.