How Disney can save the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 24: President of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige took part today in the Walt Disney Studios presentation at Disney’s D23 EXPO 2019 in Anaheim, Calif. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)
Jesse Grant | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

What is the Marvel Cinematic Universe without heroes like Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow? A little lost, it seems.

It’s been just four years since “Avengers: Endgame” tied a neat bow on a decade’s worth of interconnected blockbuster storytelling. Since then, Marvel has released 10 more films on the big screen and nearly a dozen streaming series on all to set up the next wave of the MCU.

However, for die-hard and casual fans alike, life after “Endgame” has been riddled with inconsistency and uncertainty. That’s taken a toll on box office returns. “The Marvels” posted the worst opening of a MCU film ever over the weekend, leaving the industry and audiences questioning how Disney can save its own superheroes.

The company knows it’s a problem. CEO Bob Iger suggested as early as March that the company should decrease the number of sequel films Marvel releases in favor of bringing newer characters and stories into the mix. More recently, he indicated that Disney would focus more on quality over quantity.

“At the time the pandemic hit, we were leaning into a huge increase in how much we were making,” he said during Disney’s earnings call last week, days before “The Marvels” hit theaters. “And I’ve always felt that quantity can be actually a negative when it comes to quality, and I think that’s exactly what happened. We lost some focus.”

The company will also need to figure out how to make the most of popular characters – like the X-Men, Deadpool and the Fantastic Four – joining the MCU after years of fan anticipation. It also likely has to rethink its marketing as the generation that made the franchise a box office behemoth ages and raises kids of their own.

Box office analysts aren’t ready to wave the white flag on the MCU, which has left rival DC, owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, in the dust.

The Marvel franchise, overseen by producer and executive Kevin Feige, has recovered from a string of lackluster films before and has a deep well of stories and characters to pull from. Its box office track record is unrivaled. In just 15 years, this franchise has released 33 films and generated nearly $30 billion in global box office. Not to mention, Marvel has its own theme park lands at Disneyland in California and in Shanghai, and is one of the top-selling properties in the retail market right now.

“A less-is-more approach is exactly what the MCU needs and given the longer duration between films over the next few years,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “And with a renewed corporate emphasis on quality over quantity, fans should truly be excited for what comes next for this never-to-be-underestimated brand that has provided so many fantastic moviegoing experiences over the years.”

Representatives from Marvel Studios declined to comment.

What went wrong?

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany star as Wanda Maximoff and Vision in Marvel’s “WandaVision.”
Disney

Part of Disney’s strategy in the wake of “Endgame” was to bring its bigger-than-life heroes to the small screen. The Covid pandemic, which stranded millions at home with their TVs and loads of free time, fueled the production boom. Disney packed its fledgling streaming service with shows featuring the Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, as the next Captain America, fan-favorite Loki and introduced a handful of new heroes like She-Hulk, Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel.

The promise was that the events of the shows would come full circle and influence the content of Marvel’s films. In reality, for many, the inundation began to feel more like homework than entertainment.

“The problem is that they’ve created a wonderful creature and now they don’t quite know how to feed it,” said Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and a pop culture expert.

For example, in order to fully understand “The Marvels,” audiences would need to be caught up on most of the MCU’s film slate, which has ballooned to 33 movies, as well as the Disney+ series “Secret Invasion,” “Ms. Marvel” and “Wandavision.” Just catching up on those three limited series would take nearly 15 hours.

“A brilliantly conceived but often confounding connectivity of characters, situations, and universes on screens both big and small has diluted the appeal of the some of the MCU films,” said Dergarabedian.

The post-“Endgame” output has suffered from inconsistent quality, as well.

This year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” boasted an 82% score on Rotten Tomatoes, while “Ant-Man 3” held a 46% score. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” reached 89% while “Thor: Love and Thunder” only hit 63%. On streaming, “Secret Invasion” only reached 53% while “Ms. Marvel” was at 98%.

This mixed track record, box office analysts told CNBC, is a key reason that “The Marvels” likely had a lower-than-expected opening weekend. Fans, particularly post-pandemic, are less likely to head out to the cinema if they are worried about a film’s caliber. Poor initial reviews can keep even the most ardent MCU fans away the first weekend.

And Marvel is still heavily relying on “Endgame” to sell tickets to new movies. The final trailer for “The Marvels,” released in the week before the film’s debut, featured a number of shots and sound clips of characters Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, who are no longer part of the franchise.

“It felt like the marketing team was on strike,” said Robbins. “Were they trying to sell nostalgia for the original Avengers team? Was it a reminder to audiences they need to catch up on a couple of Disney+ series? There was a lot of mixed messaging.”

What about the multiverse?

Paul Rudd is Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, alongside Johnathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror in “Ant-Man and the Wasp in Quantumania.”
Disney

Marvel executives may have a grand plan, but the easily-followed threads that connected the Infinity Saga, which concluded with “Endgame,” aren’t so apparent. The new Multiverse Saga has yet to cohere around the villainous Kang. (Jonathan Majors, who plays Kang, also happens to be facing legal issues stemming from assault allegations, which he denies.) 

“Everybody knew the Infinity Saga was going to take time,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “Marvel earned their audience during that lead-up by staying true to character-driven story threads that weaved around each to form the bigger picture.”

The first 23 films in the MCU were centered around the Infinity Stones, six glowing objects tied to different aspects of the universe. The overarching villain, Thanos (Josh Brolin), sought to collect all six stones so that he could instantaneously erase half of all living creatures from existence. “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame” wrapped up this story.

In the wake of “Endgame,” Marvel’s films and TV shows centered on grief, loss and how to move forward in a world without Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).

Interspersed within those stories was the promise of an infinite number of parallel universes, and the potential for those realities to bleed into each other. “Wandavision,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (produced with Sony), “Loki,” “Doctor Strange in the Mulitverse of Madness” and “The Marvels” have in some way teased or directly dealt with the multiverse. Yet none of these shows or films have proven to be the definitive catalyst for a wider event within the franchise.

Disney will have to consider this as it introduces more characters to the MCU in the coming years. Classic superhero teams the X-Men and Fantastic Four are apparently on the way. Disney is slated to release “Deadpool 3,” featuring Hugh Jackman returning as Wolverine, in July. “Fantastic Four” is set for May 2025.

Who is watching the MCU these days?

Brie Larson stars as Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel in Disney and Marvel’s “The Marvels.”
Disney

In Hollywood, the MCU is a relatively new franchise, compared to Star Wars and James Bond. It’s just 15 years old. Which means the moviegoers who packed cinemas in 2008 now have more mature tastes. Likewise, today’s younger audiences may not have much of a connection to the MCU.

“The majority of audiences were over 25,” said Robbins of the opening week traffic for “The Marvels.” “That confirms that younger audiences and parents are starting to be more selective with Marvel. That’s a problem because they need that young audience to ensure the franchise lives up to its potential for endurance, not unlike Star Wars did for decades.”

Unlike Star Wars, though, Marvel hasn’t had a significant break between films, even with the delays caused by the pandemic. There hasn’t been time for the franchise to collect nostalgic dust on a shelf or for one generation to pass it down to the next.

This is why it’s become important for Marvel to introduce so younger and more diverse characters. Introduced in recent shows and movies, America Chavez, Kate Bishop, Kamala Kahn, Cassie Lang, Skaar and Riri Williams are all potential members of a Young Avengers team, one that was teased in a post-credit scene of “The Marvels.”

Disney also needs to be smarter about how it markets its movies, especially those that are centered on female protagonists and stars, like “The Marvels” lead Brie Larson.

“They didn’t make a strong pitch to women,” Robbins said of Disney’s marketing for “The Marvels.” “This should have been their most female-driven film to date, across a variety of ages. It actually ended up having a greater share of male audiences than the first ‘Captain Marvel,’ which is quite surprising.”

After the success of Warner Bros.’ “Barbie,” the year’s highest-grossing film, it’s clear that audiences will turn up for stories featuring women. The first “Captain Marvel” surpassed $1 billion globally in 2019.

What comes next?

Ryan Reynolds stars in “Deadpool 2.”
20th Century Fox

After the missteps of “The Marvels” and other hit-or-miss films and TV series, box office analysts see Iger’s new focus on quality over quantity as a good start.

“A less-is-more approach is exactly what the MCU needs,” said Dergarabedian. “Given the longer duration between films over the next few years and with a renewed corporate emphasis on quality over quantity, fans should truly be excited for what comes next.”

The next entrant into the MCU is a streaming series called “Echo” centered on Maya Lopez, a deaf amputee heroine first seen in 2021’s “Hawkeye” series. A mentee of Wilson Fisk, aka the villainous Kingpin, Lopez returns to her hometown to reconnect with her Native American roots and come to terms with her past.

“Echo” is rated TV-MA, which is the equivalent of an R rating on television, a rarity for Marvel Studios. “Echo” will debut on Disney+ and Hulu at the same time.

There is only one Marvel film slated for 2024, the much anticipated “Deadpool 3.” Featuring Ryan Reynolds as the title character, box office analysts see the film as a barometer for the future of the MCU. It is expected that this Deadpool film will follow carry an R rating, which would be a first for a Marvel Cinematic Universe feature. (The first two Deadpool movies, released by Fox before Disney acquired the studio, were also rated R.)

Future MCU titles
  • “Echo” — streaming in January 2024
  • “Deadpool 3” — theatrical release in July 2024
  • “Agatha: Darkhold Diaries” — streaming in late 2024
  • “Captain America: Brave” New World” — theatrical release in February 2025
  • “Fantastic Four” — theatrical release in May 2025
  • “Thunderbolts” — theatrical release in July 2025
  • “Blade” — theatrical release in November 2025
  • “Avengers: Kang Dynasty” — theatrical release in May 2026
  • “Avengers: Secret Wars” — theatrical release in May 2027
  • “Ironheart” — streaming TBD
  • “Daredevil: Born Again” — streaming TBD

How Disney handles Deadpool will be telling, according to BoxOffice.com’s Robbins.

“Disney needs to allow Marvel, Reynolds, Jackman and that entire team to make a movie that doesn’t feel like something many perceive the studio would have ever would have released during their strictly family-friendly days of moviemaking,” he said. “If the movie feels managed or watered down, and if Ryan [Reynolds] and the rest of the team are censored creatively, it could be very damaging to the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”

After next year’s relative lull, 2025 is set to bring four new MCU movies – which will test the idea of whether Marvel and audiences just needed a break.

“I think one could argue that, no, we’re not tired of superheroes,” said Thompson. “Are we tired of Marvel superheroes? We’ll have to see. I don’t think ‘Ant Man’ and ‘The Marvels’ and a couple of the other ones are enough to completely write it off.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Rotten Tomatoes.

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