Yesterday, I went over the data on how well the MCU is doing. Read the whole thing here, but in short, it’s a mixed bag. The films haven’t done as well as they have in the past, especially with audiences’ ratings, but Marvel Studios is still cranking out huge hits. The TV side, though, has been a let down this year.
If you’re Bob Iger or Kevin Feige, what do you do? To me, I’d be proactive and try get things back on track. Which brings me to something completely different that I don’t think I’ve ever done before:
I’m going to play arm chair film critic and try to diagnose what I think is going wrong in the MCU.
Really, this is a franchise management issue, which means that data alone can’t solve it. (So much for the manager/creative dichotomy!) Managing a franchise requires understanding the creative issues, the production process, talent management, budgeting and the performance, which we reviewed yesterday.
I’ll add that pulling a franchise out of a slide is fairly important too. Often, once a franchise starts going south (see Fantastic Beasts) only a complete reboot can revive its fortunes.
(In case you missed this four-year-old article, I’ve given my strategic advice to at least one franchise before, Star Wars, after Solo flopped. It’s a good look at film franchises over time.)
There’s no one “cause” of the MCU’s problems, hence why I’m pulling out one of my favorite tools: a “blame pie” of issues for the Marvel Studios and the MCU. My estimates for this “blame pie” are far from scientific— it’s a rhetorical framework—but I will try to use data and bespoke visuals when and where I can. Otherwise, these thoughts come from a lifelong comic book and MCU fan who thinks this cinematic universe is in danger of losing its way.
Here’s the blame pie, in order of what I think is most interesting first.
10% – Luck/Randomness
You want a really underwhelming explanation for the MCU’s struggles? The law of averages. Basically, over a long enough timeline, even successful filmmakers/development execs will become average. Or bad luck comes in to play. (Like having actors pass away.)
Look at it this way: imagine Thor 4 is simply 5% better. And it gets an A on Cinemascore, and its box office is, say, 15% higher because of it. And then imagine that She-Hulk was a big, big hit. Basically, Marvel is almost completely out of their slump. We’re in the realm of “small sample sizes”, so having only one or two more hits (or misses!) can completely change the perception of a franchise.
Relatedly, the MCU could just be falling from incredibly high heights to just “very good” heights”. Phases one to three of the MCU were basically perfect, so it’s not surprising if Marvel Studios isn’t able to recreate one of the greatest string of hits in cinematic history. It’s probably impossible.
30% – There’s Too Much MCU! And Not Enough Feige
As others have noted, there’s way, way too many films and TV shows coming out every year. First, you can see this in the growth of the MCU films per year. Here’s the films by year, with the upcoming film slate in grey:
Three films a year? Four films in 2024? That didn’t work in 2021, then again, Covid-19. But that’s just the movies, what happens when you add in new MCU TV shows?
I know some of you will say, “Hey, Marvel made some shows before Disney+! Fine, here’s Marvel’s output including what I’d call “non-Feige TV series”:
After a certain point, Marvel movies and TV shows stop feeling special or “must watch”, even for die hard fans. I didn’t see Eternals in theaters. My editor, an equally die hard MCU fan, still hasn’t seen Eternals or Ms. Marvel. And a recent study showed this very thing, as Variety summed it up, “Over one-third of Marvel fans feel fatigued from the constant stream of content served in theaters and on Disney+ this year, according to a new study released on Thursday by the fan platform Fandom.”
Art depends on novelty to resonate with audiences. It’s hard to recapture the same magic again and again without audiences getting bored. Maybe one reason Top Gun: Maverick was such a huge hit was because it felt so different from so many other blockbusters these days. (Based on how long it takes to make big budget films, it could take a long time to test this hypothesis.)
Most likely, though, Kevin Feige doesn’t have the bandwidth to shepherd all of these projects. I’m notoriously skeptical about development execs; I’m not skeptical about Kevin Feige. His run over the last 15 years has been one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in cinematic history. There’s a reason I’ve compared him to LeBron James. And I’m guessing, based on all of the underwhelming MCU TV shows and films over the last few years, that this is the reason why.
15% – The MCU Universe Feels Directionless and the Multiverse is Confusing
For this next section, I’m lumping together two related problems together, but they’re all caused by the previous problem: too much MCU.
First, the MCU feels aimless.
Last summer, pre-ComicCon, a lot of fans/pundits/critics had no idea where the MCU was going. Who’s the big bad? Is it Kang the Conquerer, the multiverse-traveling super villain? That’s why people were so excited about Loki; it seemed to answer this question! Then Spider-Man: No Way Home (which featured multiverses), Doctor Strange 2 (which even had the word “multiverse” in the title) and Thor 4 totally failed to follow this up. Instead, the after credits just introduced more new characters! After Kang shows up in the next Ant-Man film in February, let’s hope they keep building him up.
Even now that Marvel Studios has announced new Avengers films coming in a few years…do you have any idea who’s going to be in those movies? (Please have Kate Bishop on the team. Seriously.) Thor doesn’t appear any closer to rejoining the Avengers. What about Shang-Chi or the Eternals? Does that even make sense for them to become Avengers? And who’s going to recruit these characters and when?
Multiverses are Confusing
If I’m being honest, the real issue is much more basic: “multiverses” are really confusing and, in general, alienating for wider audiences. Listen, I love multiverses—my favorite show on TV is Rick & Morty—but that doesn’t mean that my dad has any idea what’s going on when he watches these films anymore. (He liked Everything, Everywhere All At Once, but also was really, really confused the whole time.) With so many different characters and films and reboots, Marvel Studios probably thought introducing multiverses was the best way to solve a lot of thorny narrative issues, but I’m not so sure.
20% – They Ran Out of Popular Characters.
In the past decade, two separate ideas took hold among pundits and critics, both wrong:
– Guardians of the Galaxy proved that the MCU could make any character(s) popular.
– Iron Man, Thor and Captain America weren’t popular pre-MCU.
At this point, it’s clear that the Guardians of the Galaxy’s success was more of a one-off than the start of a trend. Niche characters like the Eternals, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk haven’t been able to launch hit shows or film series on their own. (This was actually what people were predicting would happen a decade ago.)
So how do you fix this?
Stick With Legacy Characters With a Long Track Record
Marvel Studios and critics fooled themselves into thinking that there wasn’t something special about the most popular Marvel characters. Maybe Iron Man wasn’t a household name in 2008 (Captain America certainly was), but he was a character who’d been around for five decades and had a continuously published comic book. Same with Hulk. And Black Panther. And Thor. And Daredevil.
But the recent crop of characters are either older characters which were never very popular or new characters who are untested, like Dr. Strange, Ant Man, Moon Knight, Shang-Chi and the Eternals. These characters have been around for decades but have never been able to anchor a monthly comic book, which indicates inherent issues with those characters.
Meanwhile, newer characters like Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan (created in 2013) Captain Marvel (rebooted as “Captain Marvel” in 2012) Riri/Ironheart (created in 2016) aren’t as popular as elite legacy characters (yet). Marvel Comics is addressing a lack of diversity, but this takes time.
To illustrate this, I wanted to figure out what comic book characters had the most appearances.
The top of the list isn’t very surprising to even non-comic book fans, featuring Wolverine, Spider-man and Captain America. Same goes for the bottom of the list.
If I’m Bob Iger or Kevin Feige, in 2022, the problem is clear: I need to embrace more classic characters. Luckily, a new crop is available! The X-Men and Fantastic Four, hugely popular characters, should fix this issue. I’d also consider giving Daredevil a proper film; looking at the graph, he’s clearly on the level of other very popular Marvel characters. Finally, stop giving films to unpopular characters, like the Eternals.
Introduce New Characters Before They Get a Film or TV Show
Just because an unknown character isn’t popular doesn’t mean that they can’t become popular. But it takes (screen) time to get viewers familiar with them. Compare the number of film appearances in 2021’s Disney+ TV shows to 2022’s:
Don’t skip steps! If you want to make a She-Hulk or Ms. Marvel TV show, introduce those characters in a movie (or two) first. It works! (And yes, this is why—though some critics didn’t like it—I love that RiRi was introduced in Black Panther 2 before her TV show!)
10% – Hiring Non-Comics Fans to Make Films and TV Shows
Recently, Matt Belloni had Nate Moore, Marvel Studios VP of Production and Development, on his podcast and one section really stuck out to me:
Nate Moore: Specifically for writers, I would say, a lot of times we’re pitched writers who love Marvel and, to me, that’s always a red flag…I don’t want you to already have a pre-existing idea for what it is…sometimes it takes someone who’s out of this culture.
It would be fun to test out Moore’s implicit hypothesis—comic fans make worse MCU films—scientifically, but that’s not really possible. But to my untrained eye, his theory certainly doesn’t seem to fit the data.
If you look at the initial crops of Marvel films, they were directed or written by people who were huge fans of either Marvel comics in particular, or nerdy, pulpy pop culture in general. Like Ryan Coogler and the Russo Brothers, who Moore mentions as avid comic book collectors. Do I think that Joe Johnston, who did concept art for ILM in the 1970s, knows and loves pulp storytelling? Yes, yes I do. Same for Jon Favreau, a notorious Star Wars fan. And James Gunn, who’s now helming DC. Do I think Kenneth Branagh or Louis Letterier, who made the worst of the initial MCU films, love comics? Probably not.
So yeah, hire people who “get story”. But these stories are comic book stories. And you have to know and love those types of stories. If you don’t love a film genre, you’re not going to make a great film in that genre, because you won’t know why that genre appeals to audiences. Just because you direct an Oscar-winning film doesn’t mean you’ll make a great big budget blockbuster.
(And believe it or not, I wrote that last sentence section without even thinking of Chloe Zhao, a filmmaker who set out to “upend/reinvent/deconstruct” superheroes and wound up making one of the least, if not the least, popular MCU film yet. (Then again, the Eternals are some of Marvel’s least popular characters of all time.) )
Hire Comic Books Writers
Listening to the whole interview, I think Nate Moore makes a categorical error, confusing two things:
1. A love for comics/Marvel comics
2. A willingness to try something new with the character/story.
But there’s good news! There’s already a crop of writers who love Marvel and know they need to keep their depictions of these character fresh:
Comic book writers!
Any half-decent comic book writer, when writing a comic book, is always adding in new ideas, experimenting with the characters, and so on, for better and worse. And if you follow the comic book industry, then you know that countless very, very talented comic book writers have left the comic book industry to write for films and TV shows in Hollywood! So they can write screenplays too!
It’s no accident that two of the best episodes of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law were written by, you guessed it, active Marvel comic book writers!
15% – Other Creative Issues
Okay, here’s some quick thoughts on other potential issues.
The MCU’s continuity is a mess.
Does this matter to anyone but super fans? Probably not, but it speaks to a general lack of attention to detail/coordination among the executives. Want an example? Where’s the giant Eternal’s hand sticking out of the Earth in any other MCU films or TV shows? Why weren’t the Egyptian Gods from Moon Knight in Thor 4?
To be fair, the MCU’s continuity has always been inconsistent— just watch this supercut of MCU post-credits scenes—but now it’s much more noticeable. Again, if you can’t get the little things right, you’re probably not nailing the larger things well either.
The MCU keeps killing its villains.
To be fair, this has always been a problem for the MCU since the first film, but as they keep killing villains (Ultron, Thanos, Red Skull, Klaw, Killmonger, honestly, the list is shorter of villains who are still alive) or introducing great potential villains as punchlines (like the Wrecking Crew. Read Fantastic Four #355 and compare that depiction of the Wrecker to his depiction in She-Hulk or the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Related, Marvel has turned some of their villains into good guys like Loki (and Namor probably), well, at some point, you run out of compelling villains to play off of your heroes. And you have to keep wasting screen time on origin stories for the new antagonists.
Every film and TV show is about grief now.
This is actually a personal pet peeve, but every film and virtually every MCU film and TV show is about grief. WandaVision and Dr. Strange 2 were about grief. So was The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And Hawkeye. And the second Spider-Man movie. And then the third one. Thor 4 had not one, not two, but five characters dealing with grief. Obviously, Wakanda Forever was about grief. Even films that don’t have to be about grief are still about grief, like Shang-Chi.
This is depressing. It’s a bummer.
And people go to MCU films to have fun. Setting that aside, it’s just repetitive and stifling, artistically, to have so many characters and their characters arcs motivated by the exact same thing. (This is actually an industry-wide issue these days.) Should some MCU films have dealt with grief? Of course. But nearly every single film or TV show? That’s too much.
For those who insist on a visual, here’s the blame pie altogether:
How Should Kevin Feige and Bob Iger Fix the MCU?
Back to the original question, what should Bob Iger and Kevin Feige do with the MCU moving forward?
I’d say do more by doing less. Yes, it’s a silly cliche to say “Make more good movies” but that applies here, if you mean: stop production on bad films. Frankly, it’s hard to see how anyone could have read an early draft of The Eternals and thought that it was ready for wider audiences. Especially for less popular characters, it’s unclear why Marvel should push forward on properties that don’t work. They need to be willing to axe films even if they’re on their release calendar. (This is something Marvel has bragged about not doing in the past, though in the past two years, they’ve been shifting their release schedule. Which is good!)
Then, lean back into the love for comic books. (Or comic book writers.) Marvel comics has decades of great stories which provide a blueprint for excellent storytelling. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Sure, update the dialogue and story beats, but hiring writers who are either skeptical of comic books or, worse, actively hate them, clearly isn’t working.
That’s what they did for the first decade of the MCU. They trusted the characters, didn’t change too much from the comics, made a few films a year, hired filmmakers and writers who love comics, and absolutely nailed it. Return to what works.
Or don’t. After all, I’m still pretty optimistic long term.