Why Marvel has fallen, and what they plan to do about it

Marvel Studios' AVENGERS: ENDGAME..L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.)..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2019
Marvel Studios' AVENGERS: ENDGAME..L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.)..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2019 /

This past September, Marvel creatives — including Marvel Studios president and franchise überboss Kevin Feige — met in Palm Springs to discuss the state of the MCU. Marvel employees regularly go on retreats like this to plan their next moves and, in years past, probably to light cigars with hundred-dollar bills and swim in swimming pools filled with gold doubloons, so mighty was their haul. After all, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most successful film franchise of all time. Three of the top 10 highest grossing films in history are Marvel movies, and another is Spider-Man: No Way Home, a joint Marvel-Sony project. Surely those good times would never end.

But they have, or at least, Marvel is going through a comparative rough patch. Once upon a time, you could count on pretty much any Marvel movie to score huge at the box office, and while that still happens with movies like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3, we’re also starting to see misses. Eternals didn’t take off like the studio was hoping, and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania — a movie that was supposed to be a turning point for the franchise — was the lowest-grossing Ant-Man film yet.

Mind you, these movies are still making hundreds of millions of dollars, but when you’re Marvel, the benchmarks are set very high, particularly when the budgets are so big. “Anything under a half billion dollars is viewed as a disappointment,” box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian told Variety. “And these overreaching expectations are a result of so much success over the years.”

Marvel has been struggling on the TV front too. The studio has released a lot of TV series on Disney+, but only the first — WandaVision — really caught on in the way that you’d expect a Marvel TV show to catch on. The rest have been hit and miss, and not driving enough revenue for the company. For instance, the sitcom-esque She-Hulk cost $25 million an episode to produce, well beyond what even an opulent show like Game of Thrones cost at the height of its popularity in its final season (around $15 million per episode). She-Hulk was not a pop culture phenomenon, didn’t have commercials and didn’t drive that many new people to sign up for Disney+, so that’s a large expenditure to justify.

Stuff like this is why Variety describes this year’s Marvel retreat as “angst-ridden.”

Why have Marvel’s VFX gotten worse?

How did Marvel get here? Well, the symptoms of the problem have been showing up for a while. For instance, there have been some flaps over the declining quality of the special effects in Marvel content, with a lot of discourse around Ant-Man 3 and She-Hulk in particular. According to Marvel Studios VFX assistant coordinator Anna George, who appeared before the Congressional Labor Caucus to testify about the studio’s untenable deadlines and working conditions, this was a result of employees being spread too thin. “The year 2023 was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “The pay and long hours at Marvel were the reason we had to start our unionization process there. The conditions were completely unsustainable.”

This resulted in Marvel VFX workers successfully voting to unionize in September, potentially sparking an industry trend. All of this has frustrated execs at both Marvel and its parent company Disney. Earlier this year, Marvel fired Victoria Alonso, the executive responsible for overseeing VFX and animation, purportedly because she produced a non-Disney film in breach of her contract, but Variety’s sources say it also had something to do with the declining quality of the VFX.

And yet another source thinks both of those reasons miss the point, underscoring the chaos at the studio. “The so-called bad VFX we see was because of half-baked scripts,” said one person involved with She-Hulk. “That is not Victoria. That is Kevin. And even above Kevin. Those issues should be addressed in preproduction. The timeline is not allowing the Marvel executives to sit with the material.”

The Jonathan Majors problem

Another issue is actor Jonathan Majors, who plays the new villain Kang the Conqueror (and many variants). Kang is being set up as a major player in the MCU, but Majors himself is embroiled in controversy; he’s due to stand trial for domestic violence late this month. For a company like Disney, which wants to maintain a family-friendly image, this is a nightmare.

Allegations against Majors came out when he was filming the second season of Loki, which apparently ends by setting up Kang (or a variant, we’re not sure yet) as the next Thanos-level bad guy for the MCU. “Marvel is truly f**ked with the whole Kang angle,” said one person who has seen the final Loki episode. “And they haven’t had an opportunity to rewrite until very recently [because of the WGA strike]. But I don’t see a path to how they move forward with him.”

It’s come to the point where Marvel is considering recasting the role, or perhaps pivoting to a different villain like Doctor Doom. According to Variety, they were already considering moving away from Kang when Ant-Man 3 underperformed. But whatever they do, they’re in a tricky spot.

Too much Marvel

But what is the source of all this trouble? How did Marvel go from the undisputed most powerful studio in Hollywood to a kingdom in crisis? Variety traces it back to 2020, when “the COVID pandemic ushered in a mandate to help boost Disney’s stock price with an endless torrent of interconnected Marvel content for the studio’s fledgling streaming platform, Disney+.”

Essentially, there’s just too much Marvel content out there. Not only does this mean that every individual movie and show is worse than it could have been had the employees really concentrated on it, but also that there’s too much for the average viewer to keep up with. “The Marvel machine was pumping out a lot of content. Did it get to the point where there was just too much, and they were burning people out on superheroes? It’s possible,” said Wall Street analyst Eric Handler. “The more you do, the tougher it is to maintain quality. They tried experimenting with breaking in some new characters, like Shang-Chi and Eternals, with mixed results. With budgets as big as these, you need home runs.”

Kevin Feige, too, is dividing his attention. “Kevin’s real superpower, his genius, has always been in postproduction and getting his hands on movies and making sure that they finished strongly,” said one source. “These days, he’s spread thin.”

You can see this reflected in how excited people are about Marvel nowadays, which is to say, not nearly as excited as they used to be. “I’m not prepared to call it a permanent fall. But based on the numbers that go with Marvel podcasts, Marvel-based articles, friends who do Marvel-based video coverage, all of these numbers are significantly down,” said Joanna Robinson, co-author of the New York Times bestseller MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios. “The quality is suffering. In 2019, at the peak, if you put ‘Marvel Studios’ in front of something, people were like, ‘Oh, that brand means quality.’ That association is no longer the case because there have been so many projects that felt half-baked and undercooked.”

How Marvel plans to get back on top

We’re seeing signs that Marvel is trying to right the ship. Disney CEO Bob Iger has admitted that making too many Marvel TV shows has “diluted focus and attention.” Feige is increasingly willing to go back to the drawing board on projects that aren’t working. For instance, the upcoming show Daredevil: Born Again is getting a major overhaul. Ditto for a new Blade movie starring Mahershala Ali, which may be made for less than $100 million, a sign that the era of giant Marvel budgets may be coming to an end.

Also, Variety claims that “sources say” that there have been talks to bring back the original group of actors behind the Avengers, including Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, whose characters Iron Man and Black Widow are both dead. (Which isn’t a huge problem; characters die and get brought back all the time in comics.) The studio hasn’t yet committed to the idea, in part because it would have to shill out tons of money; Downey Jr.’s upfront salary for Iron Man 3 was reportedly around $25 million.

The next big Marvel movie, The Marvels, opens on November 10. It’s not expected to make as much money as initially thought.

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