I was going to use this intro to make jokes about Joe Biden reportedly getting serious about AI concerns after seeing Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One—not “Chubb Insurance” funny, but close—but then more things happened this week. For one thing, HBO honcho Casey Bloys copped to having an employee make sock puppet accounts on Twitter to clap back at TV critics who were less than positive on HBO shows like Perry Mason and The Nevers. This report stemmed from a Rolling Stone article about a wrongful termination suit launched against HBO, and while Bloys is not named in the suit itself, we now know he’s every bit as thin-skinned as his boss, David Zaslav.
But this week’s Variety cover feature is about Marvel and their myriad ills, and several people have asked me about it across multiple platforms, so let’s talk about the question Variety asks: Is Marvel in trouble?
The short answer is yes, obviously, anyone who pays even a little bit of attention has seen both the drop in quality in their films and especially TV shows, and the growing audience disinterest in the glut of Marvel stuff available at any one time. But there is a more complex answer, too, which jumps off a truism for any film studio—all you need is one hit.
Variety goes through a number of Marvel’s problems, from their VFX pipeline meltdown and resulting dismissal of Victoria Alonso, to the declining quality, both creatively and physically, of their films and TV shows, to worries that The Marvels will be their latest underperformer, to the Jonathan Majors of it all. Let’s go through a few of these issues.
The Marvels is, succinctly, f-cked. With no press to support it, there is no hype. This is exactly the kind of film that would benefit from an energetic press tour to gin up audience excitement for a film that is not a direct sequel to Captain Marvel, but also a sequel to two TV series, WandaVision and Ms. Marvel. As much as I like the idea of teaming up “all the Marvels” for a movie, let’s not forget that Captain Marvel made over $1 billion in 2019. While, yes, this was an unexpected overperformance, the movie was also generally well received by audiences (despite what corners of the internet are determined to believe). In approaching a sequel, it might have been nice to unburden Captain Marvel 2 of TV stuff and let it stand more on its own, but it’s too late now, this film, like many of Marvel’s recent works, over-committed to the idea of “it’s all connected”, which was originally a marketing gimmick, not a storytelling mandate.
The report that director Nia DaCosta left the film during post-production to begin working on her next film, Hedda starring Tessa Thompson, isn’t encouraging, either, but Marvel has a way of turning off directors. (Sources told Collider that DaCosta remained involved with editing despite relocating to London.) It’s not exactly new to hear a director more or less tapped out after the process of working with Marvel became too cumbersome, and perhaps over-managed by Kevin Feige (and his minions).
As for Jonathan Majors—they just need to recast him. He’s supposed to anchor a multiverse story, just recast Kang and call him a variant. Literally no one will care except Jonathan Majors, and I’m not worried about him.
But here’s why I am not 100% down on calling Marvel over just yet. For one thing, they do have some cool stuff coming down the pipe, they’re still taking some chances and doing some things just for the sake of doing them, not expecting massive returns on it, and that’s always a good sign. It means there’s still a creative spark somewhere within the machinery.
But really, what’s going on with Marvel right now reminds me of the immediate post-Avengers phase in 2013-2015. After the high of The Avengers, people were divided on Iron Man 3, and no one liked Thor: The Dark World. They rebounded in 2014 with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, but then Avengers: Age of Ultron didn’t quite match The Avengers’ impressive box office or unanimous audience support, and Ant-Man was a cute but middling bit of filler.
And yet, after those rocky years, Marvel came back and crushed all competition through 2019. It took a global pandemic to disrupt their flow. It also took Bob Chapek, unnamed in the Variety report but the man in charge when Disney+ launched, who brought a LOT of pressure to bear on Disney’s golden goose to fill the Disney+ carousel with new Marvel stuff. People want to blame Kevin Feige for the entire mess, and he does certainly share in a large portion of it by virtue of being the boss, but he has a boss, too. And when Bob II was in charge, Marvel was pressed to make as much sh-t as possible. When Bob Iger returned to the helm, one of the first things he did was take the foot off the Marvel gas and okay a pipeline slowdown.
Audiences stuck out the rough patch in 2013-2015, but the current rocky road has already lasted twice as long as that, and it will take at least another year to course correct. There is still a lot of stuff slated to come out in 2024 as Marvel works through releasing series that were pushed back like Echo and Agatha: Darkhold Diaries, as well as patch up their feature film schedule following the strikes (Blade is in trouble!)
We’re far from smooth sailing. But it just takes one hit and they’re right back in the game. Maybe the days of total cultural domination are over—but that wouldn’t be the worst thing. If we’re talking about long term sustainability, being the biggest thing in the world isn’t it. No one stays on top forever. If Marvel is going to bounce back, it will be about returning to its reputation as a reliably good producer of entertaining films, and that will take time. The real question isn’t “is Marvel over”, it’s “will audiences stick with Marvel long enough to recover”?
Live long and gossip,
PS...we're talking about this on The Squawk.