Wednesday 21 February 2024

Marvel changing plans to recapture the zeitgeist

In an in-depth article for the Hollywood Reporter, it has been revealed that Marvel Studios is pivoting hard as it tries to overcome a series of recent obstacles to recapture the zeitgeist it imperiously commanded for over a decade.

In 2008 Marvel Studios launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an interconnected series of superhero films which shared a single continuity, canon and cast of characters, who could pop up in one another's movies and occasionally team up for big "event" pictures. From 2008's Iron Man to 2019's Avengers: Endgame, a mind-boggling run of twenty-two films, the series rarely put a foot wrong. It dominated the box office and the cultural discourse of the time. Even its weakest entries, like Thor: The Dark World or Iron Man 2, remained watchable.

Since 2019, the franchise has faltered. Box office receipts have fallen - The Marvels became the first Marvel movie to definitively lose money at the box office in November 2023 - and critical acclaim has also dropped off sharply. Eleven further films have been released since Endgame and only a few of these - particularly Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) - have garnered the type of critical and commercial success the franchise once wracked up almost automatically. There has been much discussion over why the franchise has suddenly started faltering so badly, with several problems identified:

  • The loss of the franchise's most charismatic and best-written characters and the actors going along with them, most notably Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) in Endgame.
  • The failure of most of the succeeding new heroes in making an impression that they can pick up the slack moving forwards.
  • An increasingly tiresome inability to break free from the "Marvel format," namely a lot of quips, some action, some moderate character development and then a large setpiece CGI battle at the end, which is rarely outstanding. The few films which did experiment with this, such as Eternals adopting a more serious tone, ended up doing poorly with audiences.
  • The conclusion of the mostly straightforward and well-defined Infinity Stones storyline with a well-realised villain (Thanos) and their replacement with the much murkier, more confusing Multiverse storyline and a lower-key villain (Kang) who has not resonated as strongly.
  • Simple superhero fatigue: thirty-three films and ten TV series (sixteen, if you include the recently canonised Netflix series) in sixteen years is a lot, not to mention dozens more films and TV shows about superheroes from rivals DC and numerous other studios and streamers.
  • An over-expansion into television as part of the streaming wars and then during COVID, bombarding audiences with new shows every few months.
  • The increasing feeling that keeping up with the MCU requires having to do "homework," watching shows and films that don't appeal to you because they're going to be referenced in the next Spider-Man movie that you do care about.
  • Plans to use the always-popular Spider-Man as a lynchpin for the next generation of movies hit a snag with the Sony/Marvel legal disagreement of a few years ago, which means Marvel can't use Spider-Man as a key character moving forwards when they can lose access to him at almost any time.
  • The relatively rapid transition of films from the cinema to Disney+ now means that people can sit out films that look uninteresting or middling until they hit streaming, rather than having to see them in the cinema or risk falling behind the curve.

Marvel has also had to contend with a major problem from one of its tentpole actors for the next slate of films. Actor Jonathan Majors had debuted in the TV series Loki as Kang, a charismatic villain who exists in millions of different incarnations and versions across the Multiverse, a multitude of parallel universes and different timelines. The development of the Multiverse has been a major focus of the films since Endgame and has allowed Marvel to rule that other movie series using their characters - such as the X-Men and Deadpool film series from Fox and the Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man films from Sony - exist in the same Multiverse. Kang was supposed to be the lynchpin of this story moving forwards, as different versions of the character appeared in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Loki's second season, setting up a confrontation between Kang and the Avengers in two big movies coming down the pipe.

But in March 2023 Majors was arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend, whom he had met on the set of Quantumania. Marvel refused to take any action whilst legal action was ongoing. In December he was found guilty of two misdemeanour counts of assault and harassment. Marvel quickly confirmed they had terminated their relationship with the actor. Despite initial speculation that the character would be recast - previous different versions of characters across the Multiverse had been portrayed by different actors, with three versions of Spider-Man showing up in No Way Home to great success - it now appears that Marvel is moving away from the character and storyline altogether, minimising him in future projects and pivoting to another villain (speculated in other sources to be Doctor Doom) to be the "big bad" in the next two Avengers films coming down the line.

According to the HR article, Marvel are taking a number of further steps to address their issues. The first is a reduction of output: 2024 will see the release of just one Marvel movie, Deadpool and Wolverine, which will introduce the Merc With a Mouth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also cement the Multiverse connections between the older X-Men films and the MCU. Only one more TV show is expected this year, Agatha: Darkhold Diaries. 2025 is expected to focus hard on the arrival of Marvel tentpole characters the Fantastic Four in the MCU, with Pedro Pascal, Vanessa Kirby, Ebon Moss-Bachrach and Joseph Quinn recently announced in the starring roles for the film. Marvel is hoping that the integration of the Fantastic Four into the MCU, followed later by new versions of Blade and then the X-Men, will give their franchise new legs as it - improbably - heads towards its third decade of production.

Whether these steps are going to be enough to right the ship remains to be seen, or whether at some point Disney and Marvel will have to accept that the MCU's time has simply run out and it needs to be rested for a few years before the inevitable reboot with new actors playing Iron Man, Thor and Captain America.

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