Marvel's stumbling blocks

A new report from Variety and a new book about the MCU detail Marvel Studios' growing pains

Marvel's stumbling blocks
Image: Andrew Liptak

Variety published a big feature earlier this week about the status and future of Marvel Studios, which generated a whole bunch of headlines. Amongst some of those revelations: there's a feeling that Marvel's lost its touch, that they've considered bringing back Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow (both of whom were killed off in Avengers: Endgame), that the legal troubles that Jonathan Majors has embroiled himself in has boxed Marvel into an unhappy place given the prominence that he'll be playing as the next phase's main villain, and that the upcoming film The Marvels is likely going to underwhelm at the box office.

The narrative that we're seeing "superhero fatigue" has been with us for a long time, and I don't really think that it's a thing. (A quick comparison between "Superhero Fatigue" and "Marvel Cinematic Universe" between 2004 and 2023 at Google Trends shows that they don't seem to go hand in hand.)

Red is "Marvel Cinematic Universe", blue is "Superhero fatigue". You'd think you'd see the blue line spike even more.

Superheroes have become a major part of the film industry for a bunch of reasons: the increase in CGI capabilities, the basic stories meld on well with a blockbuster format, the growth of theaters in the US and abroad, and the general shedding of the stigma surrounding genre content all contributes. It feels like anytime there's a superhero film about to hit theaters, we'll see commenters and critics say that audiences have been saturated with these types of CGI-driven narratives, and they're starting to get tired of them. The proof they point to is with the failure of DC's cinematic universe efforts, and the other superhero projects along the way that underwhelm.

Marvel's latest slate of projects does seem to be drawing less goodwill at the box office, something that Variety points to COVID as a factor. I think the reasons go a bit deeper than that: the incredible rise that Marvel saw was thanks to a larger, overarching plan that helped build momentum towards a larger end point – Avengers: Infinity Wars and Avengers: Endgame. The projects that we've seen since then, like Black Widow, The Eternals, Ant-Man 3, She-Hulk, Moon Knight, and a handful of others feel a bit aimless, like Marvel is throwing things at the wall to see what ends up sticking.

I recently picked up and blew through Gavin Edwards, Dave Gonzales, Joanna Robinson's MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios, which charts the story of how Marvel Studios came to dominate the film industry with its superhero franchise. (Another good listen that covers this is the Wall Street Journal's With Great Power podcast) The book looks at how Marvel got into the film adaptation business after it licensed a whole bunch of its intellectual property to other studios, and how it set out to create its own films as a way to keep some level of control over how those projects came out.

A big part of the book is centered on how important one person is to this entire franchise: Kevin Feige and his rise from assistant all the way up to the head of the entire studio at Disney.

In the book, Edwards, Gonzales, and Robinson explore how Marvel produced its films: haphazardly, with constant tinkering and changes throughout the production process, sometimes altering the film right up to the last minute. This is a strategy that seems like it's persisted as they've put each film into production: after finishing the book, I'm a little astounded that the entire franchise has been so successful, because it certainly feels like it's been put together by the seat of their pants – building the airplane while it's in the air.

It's a pretty good read, although there wasn't much in the way of surprises if you've followed the ins and outs of the various productions over the years as I have in my work as a journalist. It's a good, high-level overview of the entire story.

This feature from Variety also neatly dovetails with it. The book goes right up to Disney's efforts to break into streaming and Edwards, Gonzales, and Robinson point out that Feige's responsibilities have increased with that. There's a notable line in this feature: “These days, [Feige's] spread thin.”

I think that is the key reason for why Marvel seems to be having this sort of slump or moment. It's spread itself across films and TV shows (shows which Marvel ran in a very different way – there was a revelation from the book that a lot of these shows start off strong, but have weaker ends, because they're still writing as they're shooting.) The demand for content has outstripped the studio's ability to deliver it at a higher level of quality across all fronts: stories, acting, CGI, you name it. Certainly, I think that there are projects like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier or She-Hulk that deserved to be their own film, or at the very least, a couple of additional episodes to really get the stories to land in a satisfactory way.

It sounds like Marvel's trying to figure out how to get out of its self-imposed problems: it needs to re-figure out what its resource limits are, because it's pretty clear that they're butting right up against them. I suspect they'll figure it out somewhere along the way, but it sounds like they're going to be hurting for a little while as they do so.