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Marvel's latest movie will show if superheroes ever get tired

Thomas Buckley
Thomas Buckley • 8 min read
Marvel's latest movie will show if superheroes ever get tired
The US$4 billion acquisition of Marvel by Walt Disney Co in 2009 was masterminded by Disney CEO Bob Iger / Photo: Bloomberg
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On Nov 10, Marvel will release the 33rd film in its Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), The Marvels — a cocktail of intergalactic combat, superhuman powers and man-eating kittens with tentacles for tongues. It is the sequel to Captain Marvel, the 2019 picture starring Brie Larson in the lead role that made more than US$1 billion at the box office.

But The Marvels, which cost more than US$200 million ($271 million) to produce and millions more to market, is already looking challenged. Opening weekend is expected to pull in less than half the US$153 million in ticket sales Captain Marvel did in its debut, raising existential questions about the future of the Marvel franchise.

Shawn Robbins, an analyst at industry tracker Boxoffice Pro, says that Marvel “is, quite simply, miles away from the zeitgeist-capturing interest and enormous goodwill that for a time helped every film achieve automatic blockbuster status”.

Walt Disney Co acquired Marvel in 2009 for US$4 billion, gaining some of the world’s best-known comic book superheroes including Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk. The deal, masterminded by Disney CEO Bob Iger, who returned in November to lead the entertainment giant, is considered one of the savviest purchases in media history. Under the leadership of Kevin Feige, arguably the most successful producer in Hollywood, films in the MCU, which began in 2008 with the release of the critically acclaimed Iron Man, have generated close to US$30 billion at the box office, making it the highest-grossing movie series ever.

Their success, powered in large part by intertwining storylines in films based on Avengers characters such as Doctor Strange and Thor, inspired Disney to develop scores of affiliated rides, campuses and even a mock Broadway musical at its theme parks. Marvel adopted an Old Hollywood studio tactic of bringing writers and producers in-house and locking actors into contracts that committed them to several movies. Its two Black Panther titles won four Academy Awards between them.

The MCU set such a high bar in superhero film fandom that Warner Bros Discovery Inc’s DC Studios, home to Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, last year appointed filmmakers James Gunn, who penned and directed Marvel’s successful Guardians of the Galaxy pictures, and Peter Safran, who produced DC’s billion-dollar Aquaman, to build a rival ecosystem of interwoven movies and TV series.

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But Marvel, once the thoroughbred in Disney’s intellectual-property stable, is showing signs of fatigue after besieging audiences with too many sequels and spinoffs. The February release Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which cost more than US$200 million to make, failed to break even after selling far fewer tickets than previous instalments, leading Iger to question the need for any sequels of a film about a single character.

Meanwhile, some of the TV programmes made for the Disney+ streaming service, including She-Hulk: Attorney at Law and Secret Invasion, have struggled to connect with audiences and convinced Marvel management it needs a new team of experienced showrunners to develop its series.

Some critics and fans have panned the quality of the computer graphics in recent Marvel shows and pictures such as She-Hulk and Quantumania and see it as evidence of strain that is overwhelming the production process. And in September, Marvel’s visual effects artists, who have long complained of burnout due to an onslaught of projects bound for cinemas and Disney+, unanimously voted to unionise seeking better working conditions.

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“I think CG’s f----- everything because you feel like you’re watching a video game,” said Matthew Vaughn, who has directed 20th Century Studios movies based on Marvel comics including X-Men and Kingsman, at New York Comic Con in October. “Hopefully, Feige will go back to less-is-more and make fewer films and concentrate on making them great.”

The need to return Marvel to its past form has become more urgent with the waning success of other Disney studios. New releases from prized Disney franchises including Pixar’s Toy Story and Lucasfilm’s Indiana Jones, as well as new animation titles, have bombed in theatres over the past two years. But where Marvel has historically been able to pick up that slack, its own brand is now facing a similar test with moviegoers showing more interest in fresh, nonsequel fare such as Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.

The ramp-up in the number of superhero-themed releases seems to have saturated the genre, with audiences also losing enthusiasm for DC’s recent titles. In 2023, DC’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash and Blue Beetle all disappointed at the box office. (Its Aquaman sequel, due in December, could potentially be an exception — the original Aquaman in 2018 is DC’s highest-grossing picture, pulling in US$1.15 billion in ticket sales.)

Disney declined to make Feige or any member of the Marvel team available for an interview to discuss strategy. In a statement to Hollywood trade publication Variety about Disney’s centenary in October, Feige said that Marvel had “barely scratched the surface” of its roster of characters and storylines.

That echoed comments Iger made in March at a Morgan Stanley investment conference, on the heels of Quantumania’s disappointing performance, where he said that “there’s nothing in any way inherently off in terms of the Marvel brand. I think we just have to look at what characters and stories we’re mining, and when you look at the trajectory of Marvel over the next five years, you’ll see a lot of newness.” Still, in an interview with CNBC in July, he conceded that the soaring number of Marvel movies and TV shows, which he had encouraged as a means to drive and retain signups to Disney+, “diluted focus and attention.” (Marvel released one to two films a year in the late aughts and early 2010s. It has released 10 in the past two years alone.)

The Marvels is projected to open to ticket sales of about US$62 million in the US and Canada, according to Boxoffice Pro. That would be among the worst opening weekends ever for a Marvel film since Feige began his tenure at the studio. This summer’s promotional tour for The Marvels was also halted by the screen actors’ strike, which barred the cast from talking up the film in press interviews or attending red-carpet premieres.

An exception to the flagging interest in the superhero genre is the multibillion-dollar franchise of live-action and animated Spider-Man films but those stories about one of Marvel’s vintage comic book heroes have been made by Sony Pictures since 1999 when it acquired the rights to make movies based on the character for US$7 million. Disney gets only a fraction of box-office revenue from Spider-Man films.

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Marvel is planning to release three pictures in 2024, though none of them are based on characters that have not already appeared in the MCU. The newness Iger is seeking from the superhero division will instead come from titles such as Blade in 2025, the reboot of a Marvel franchise about a vampire hunter last seen in the early 2000s. Marvel is also developing new X-Men films for the first time since Disney gained the rights to make pictures based on the characters as part of its US$71.3 billion takeover of 21st Century Fox in 2019.

One aspect of Marvel’s reset seems certain: The future of the franchise will not be as free-spending as its past. As part of Disney’s wider cost-cutting efforts, Iger has pledged not only to make fewer Marvel products but also to spend less on the films it does make. That would be a big shift, since Marvel’s production and marketing costs have climbed ever higher, reaching into the hundreds of millions of dollars per title. Box-office analysts estimate that the 2018 and 2019 pictures Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame cost as much as US$400 million each. Such spending has made profitability more of a challenge for Disney’s superhero releases, especially at a time when audiences are questioning the calibre of the product on the big screen.

“Something has happened to the brand where, when you see that Marvel Studios logo in front of a film or TV show, it is no longer a guarantee of quality,” says Joanna Robinson, co-author of MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios, a book published in October about how Marvel conquered Hollywood. “Bob Iger ironically saying ‘Let’s scale back’ when he scaled Marvel up in the first place shows it’s the only move they have right now to win back the audience’s expectations of quality product.” — Bloomberg Businessweek

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