Hwhen the Marvel Cinematic Universe entered its flop era? Certainly not from a box office perspective: the mounds of money Thor: Love and Thunder amassed over the past weekend – and the records broken by multiple generations of Spider-Men last Christmas – prove the public hasn’t lost their appetite for it Quippy Linked Spandex Goggles. But the reviews and even the reactions of premiere audiences tell a different story: the story of a franchise too big to fail and sliding into its roughest creative phase.
In the past year, Disney has released a whopping six new Marvel movies. Each was plagued with its own issues familiar to the MCU but amplified: superficial CGI highlights (Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), boring ensembles (Eternals), convoluted homework plots (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) and complete tonal incoherence (Thor: Love and Thunder). The best and most popular of the series, Spider-Man: No Way Home has the novelty of an exchange program that pulls fan favorites from other continuities to elicit a standing ovation. But it also has muddy green-screen action and an overloaded, MacGuffin-heavy story.
There’s a certain sweaty desperation in the films of what Marvel calls, in corporate boardroom parlance, phase four of its ongoing crossover event. These are tent pole entertainments that create laughter and excitement. They offer disappointing goodbyes to old characters, like Scarlett Johansson’s supercipher, Black Widow, and Elizabeth Olsen’s trauma-twisted Scarlet Witch, while screwing up the introduction of new ones. They transparently offer their fan base, pausing with screeches (and pausing for applause) during literal cameo parades. And they reinforce the limitations imposed on their directors, whose much-vaunted location shots or the occasional zombie slapstick overlay can’t hide the rigidity of the overall approach.
In theory, it’s not so bad that, for once, Marvel seems to be operating without an explicit, huge event on the horizon. After all, didn’t these films seem a little too chained to the architecture of their magnificent design, and at times felt like glorified trailers for an exciting film you’d have to wait until next summer to see? It’s not as if Marvel is suddenly investing in standalone, self-contained adventures. It still ties storylines (including those that stuck on TV) and teases future ones about post-credit stingers. The films basically remain serialized in nature, but without the urgency of, well, endgame. And that only added to the impression of a content mill, churning out stories without much purpose or plan.
Of course, the films released by this studio have always been shiny, nimble products – a collection of splash panel action comedies enlivened less by a spark of great inspiration than by the brilliant synergetic business strategy of tying them all together. The very thing that has made Marvel films so successful is also what has prevented them from exceeding a certain ceiling of competent fun: they are designed to be familiar and digestible to offer streamlined variations on a model that audiences already love and expect.
Earlier this rose just blossomed more, more promise of solid entertainment in the blueprint. Five years ago, Marvel filled a year of release dates with the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy, the first of its Spider-Man films, the laugh-fest Thor: Ragnarok, and the real-life phenomenon (and Oscar-winner) Black Panther – a string of hits, showing how the well-tried template could be bent without breaking. These were films that delivered on the promise of a shared sandbox, a place where filmmakers could play around with the Avengers action figure line a bit and push the bigger bow, while still indulging in some of their own visual and thematic interests.
The new Marvel movies aren’t devoid of personal or idiosyncratic touches. (If anything, the new Thor’s flaws may be too identifiable as the work of Taika Waititi.) But they feel compromised. Each in their own way has demonstrated the controls imposed on anyone hoping to make a film in this world; What’s rarely, nominally, fun about them — Black Widow’s spy family sitcom reunion, Shang-Chi’s martial arts flourishes, Multiverse of Madness’s occasional Raimi-isms — are at odds with the demands of the larger formula, of the things a Marvel film needs to do.
Plus, Disney really lets this formula dry. “Marvel fatigue” is a phrase people were using well before this particular bumpy chapter in the studio’s history, but it’s especially applicable to a time when, thanks to one slate, nothing more than a month or two goes by without that a new Marvel story is coming that is now bridging the gap between movies with television spinoffs being beamed straight into people’s homes via Disney+. It’s the deadline aspect of Marvel’s business model that’s being taken to a new extreme of harmful over-saturation. What hope do these films have of feeling fresh or exciting when they arrive at a pace that can match the release of their comic book source material?
If Marvel is in trouble, the easy fix would be to slow down the production schedule. A little more development time couldn’t hurt the movies, too many of which lately have felt like placeholders in a calendar, created just to fill the gap in content. And absence might be heart-pounding – a year off, thanks to Covid, may actually have whetted the audience’s thirst for the bottleneck of entries that followed – and perhaps more forgiving for the boilerplate, which is easier to notice when you see a half – Dozens of variations of it each year.
But why would Disney take a breather? With opening weekends like the just-logged Love and Thunder, there’s little incentive for the studio to slow down its assembly line, or even pay much attention to the individual quality of the entries it turns out. Maybe these films are a little worse than they used to be because they can be; The brand is so strong, so tightly gripping the public’s imagination and wallet, that the basic quality assurance that once characterized it is no longer essential. If Marvel builds it, people will come. Until they don’t, we can probably expect creative entropy to continue.