Kristen Parraz still gets teary when she talks about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As co-owner of Geoffrey’s Hi De Ho Comics in Santa Monica — the oldest comic book shop in L.A. County — Parraz has heard just about every conceivable opinion on the MCU. Launched in May 2008 with “Iron Man,” the Marvel Studios juggernaut has produced 31 films and eight TV series (plus two specials, and 12 more related shows during the Marvel Television era), garnered 26 Oscar and 42 Emmy nominations and earned more than $28 billion at the global box office. It’s been celebrated as the catalyst for a new golden age of superhero stories and derided as a glorified assembly line of screen content. Lately, it has become an object of concern.
Is Marvel in its “flop era”? “A rut”? “Dying”?
Not if you ask Parraz.
“I want to see more of the same,” she says, citing both “Black Panther” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” for centering superheroes who are also people of color. “With [“Spider-Man’s”] Miles [Morales], in the books you don’t see the embracing of his Latin side the way he did in the movie. Just to sit in the movie theater — I’m going to get misty — and hear Miles speak Spanish like that was a big deal. I was so happy.”
A commitment to diversity and inclusion in superhero fare is just part of Marvel’s track record. Indeed, from interviews with loyal fans, analysis of box office returns and other measures of audience demand, examination of the films’ critical reception and more, the picture that emerges of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not of a franchise in crisis.
Still, at a moment when both parent Walt Disney Co. and the industry as a whole are in flux, creative missteps, personnel issues, labor disputes and overexposure have demonstrably weakened the dominant force in American pop culture and raised questions about whether the franchise that reshaped Hollywood in the last 15 years can sustain that influence over the next 15.
‘They lost momentum’
Though hand-wringing over the state of Marvel has become de rigueur, one group of Marvel watchers doesn’t seem terribly surprised, or worried, about the franchise’s stumbles: its fans. After all, they contend, the studio’s recent fourth and current fifth phases came after the completion of the long-gestating Infinity Saga, which turned culminating crossover movie “Avengers: Endgame” into a nearly $3-billion smash.
“The emotional connection that you have to ‘Infinity War’ and ‘Endgame’ is the result of 10 years of investment,” says Lawrence Persky, owner of Pdot’s Comics in Pasadena. “Now we’re getting into a situation where they’re kind of restarting the storytelling, and they’re planting seeds again for a different branch or a different tree of story. And while we are impatient and we want the immediate payoff, we’re comparing what’s being planted to the trees that have already sprouted. You have to remain patient. You have to see where this goes.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also contributed to the sense that the franchise is on its heels. At a time of uncertainty about movie theater safety and experimentation with simultaneous theatrical and streaming releases — much to one Marvel star’s chagrin — three 2021 releases, “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Eternals” fell short of the lofty expectations set by previous Marvel fare, despite performing well in the circumstances: “In the early days of theaters reopening, some of the biggest films were Marvel films,” says Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com. (Five of 11 films to open with $100 million or more domestically in the pandemic era are from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)
“I don’t think [the MCU has] necessarily jumped the shark, they’ve just [been affected by] the pandemic and the year or whatever of quarantine and not going anywhere,” says Alicia Sol, an employee at Comics Factory in Pasadena. “They lost momentum. Everyone wanted to go see ‘Black Widow’ and then [the] pandemic hit. Everyone goes into lockdown, and then the only way you can see it is on television — on Disney+.”
Although the box-office uncertainty caused by the pandemic is on the wane, it has been swiftly replaced by uncertainty of another, perhaps more intractable sort: tumult within Marvel Studios itself. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” filmmaker James Gunn is now co-chief executive at rival DC Studios after his initial firing from the film led to him to helm 2021’s “The Suicide Squad.” Longtime Marvel Studios producer and executive Victoria Alonso was abruptly fired in March. “Loki” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantamania” star Jonathan Majors — who has been hyped up the franchise’s next big supervillain — is facing misdemeanor assault and harassment charges in New York. And visual effects artists have spoken out about working conditions on Marvel projects amid criticism of the films’ quality.
‘Pumping out stuff to make money’
Marvel‘s foremost challenge now may be the one it created for itself: Expanding an interconnected onscreen world across the multiverse in a way that satisfies both MCU completists, who want to be rewarded for faithfully tuning into every installment, and occasional viewers, who don’t want to feel like they need to do homework before a night at the movies.
The problems posed by this juggling act have only been compounded by the company’s breakneck pace of production. In 2021 and 2022, Marvel released seven films and eight series, leading to complaints that its storytelling had become directionless, disjointed, even lazy.
There have been exceptions, of course — such as Marvel’s breakout TV hit, “WandaVision,” which brilliantly melded the characters’ comic book backstories with allusions to iconic sitcoms. But more than one study has found that even the most ardent Marvel watchers have begun to feel some fatigue in recent years with the seemingly never-ending flow of MCU content hitting theaters and Disney+.
Though Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige has largely rejected the idea of “superhero fatigue,” he has acknowledged that the sheer volume of films and TV series has made it more difficult for the company’s output to “hit the zeitgeist,” and previewed a change to the pace of Disney+ shows’ release that will allow them a better “chance to shine.” Marvel declined to comment for this story.
Data from Parrot Analytics, which measures audience demand for television and film by tracking a number of factors (including social media engagement and search trends), also appear to show that the average audience demand for Marvel films has been declining.
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” — the first Phase 4 Marvel movie release after pandemic shutdowns — attracted 263 times more demand globally than the average movie worldwide in the first 30 days following its release, according to Parrot. For February’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” the first entry in Phase 5, the multiplier was just 93.3. That’s still among the top 0.2% of movies across all platforms, but compared to Marvel’s halcyon days it amounts to a recession of interest.
“It just feels like this continuing grind of capitalism, essentially, with the whole universe,” says Kenzie Bizon, who works at Revenge Of, a comic book shop and arcade in Eagle Rock. “I find good stories I like and there are some movies I enjoy, but I do feel like sometimes they’re just more concerned with pumping out stuff to make money than actually caring about the world that they’re making.”
The consequences of this grind are not exactly dire. Marvel Studios had four of the top 10 domestic releases in 2022, and any decline in absolute terms took place against an overall box office down 44.1% from 2019. But both receipts and critical reception suggest that the MCU is not quite as bulletproof as it was. The two sequels — “Thor: Love and Thunder” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” — that concluded Phase 4, for instance, earned significantly less than their predecessors worldwide and came in with lower scores on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
Pandya, who points out that “Love and Thunder” was hurt by its exclusion from China’s lucrative theatrical market, says “Quantumania” more clearly underperformed, grossing less than both previous “Ant-Man” films.
“The upfront demand was clearly bigger than ‘Ant-Man’ I and II; more people came out on opening weekend, but it eroded quickly,” he says. “They liked it but didn’t love it. Fans didn’t convince their friends to see it. … Marvel’s fans are always there, and they just want good movies. Keeping the quality of the movies high is the most important thing; if that quality falls off, so will the box office.”
Not every MCU movie can be “Black Panther,” of course — and a film like the entertaining, adventurous send-off “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” opening this week, is likely to dispel fears that Marvel is losing touch, at least for now. If the Multiverse Saga is to match the Infinity Saga at the box office, with critics, or with fans, however, the company will have to set its house in order and ensure that fans are going to the movies out of enthusiasm, not obligation, in Phase 5 and beyond.
“I’ve started to skip them,” says Lucas Lee, another worker at Revenge Of. “I’m just kind of tired of going to see them [just] because they’re Marvel movies, because it doesn’t feel like the world exists. It just feels like there’s so many coming out all the time. They’re of dubious quality. I kind of feel guilty a little bit when I miss one, which I don’t love that feeling because I know that I’m going to have to know what happened in that movie to even understand the next five. It makes me not want to go see any of them, even though I do. But I’m at that tipping point.”