Home Economy Marvel heroes take risks. Too bad its executives don’t.

Marvel heroes take risks. Too bad its executives don’t.

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BLURB: The casual moviegoer has to be part of the equation, and to that market, these films no longer sound like fun. They sound like homework.

It’s been a dizzying few years for those of us who aren’t all in on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or, as it’s known to fans, journalists, industry professionals and just about everyone with a pulse, the MCU). Probably only die-hard fans are keeping up with all of the brand’s installments, spinoffs, and ephemera.

The interlocking big- and small-screen iterations of Marvel’s superhero characters are not, to be clear, without their charms — particularly early on, when formulas were not yet set in stone, and idiosyncratic filmmakers were able to slip something resembling a touch of personality, wit, and auteurism into these pre-sold blockbusters.

With each passing year, however, the Marvel playbook of vapid wisecracks, muddled third acts, murky CGI, and “multiverse” mumbo-jumbo has congealed into a lifeless exercise in corporate branding and anticipatory fan service. What’s more, their product (and those of the many rival studios who’ve vied to create their own MCUs) has dominated the marketplace to such a degree that if you’re interested in going to see a major motion picture about people whose wardrobes aren’t spandex-heavy, your options are increasingly limited.

And now some chinks are finally showing in the armor. Variety published a well-reported chronicle of the “crisis at Marvel,” and it’s not pretty: shuffling release dates and massive reshoots for recent and upcoming films, expensive miscalculations among their Disney+ series, existential questions about where to go in the next “phase” of the comic-book-movie dynasty. As a result, box office receipts are down, and the brand’s cultural dominance is faltering.

What went wrong? Put simply, overkill — exacerbated by COVID-19 lockdowns. Shuttered theaters meant that the money-making “cinematic” piece of MCU was on hold. Marvel stakeholder Walt Disney Co., faced with the pandemic also halting its production, cruise ships, and theme parks, had to pivot and do it fast. Variety reports that a mandate was issued to boost the company’s stock price. The big idea was to give the public “an endless torrent of interconnected Marvel content for the studio’s fledgling streaming platform, Disney+.”

There were two results here, neither of them positive. First of all, the saturation strategy undid what separated Marvel movies from the films they were regularly trouncing at the box office: They were events. As blockbusters have continued to dominate the global box office, audiences have codified around the idea that “event movies” like these are the only things worth leaving the house and venturing to a theater for. You have to see big movies on the big screen, the conventional wisdom goes, and everything else (i.e., movies where people only talk to each other) can wait to be watched at home. It’s a philosophy that’s grown even more pervasive post-COVID when the already minimal 90-day window between theatrical and home viewing shrunk considerably.

So, for Marvel to eliminate the essential bigness of their product by literally turning it into television seems a fairly spectacular case of a company shooting itself in the foot. (See also: Disney’s handling of the Star Wars saga.) Add in the middling quality and muted reception of most of these shows — when was the last time you heard anyone talk about Moon Knight, Hawkeye, or The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? — and you’ve got a textbook case of devaluation.

Secondly, in creating not only a glut of Marvel-adjacent film and television but a deliberately interconnected one, Disney has wildly overestimated the interest and dedication of its audience.

It’s one thing to build up to an Avengers movie with a handful of previous blockbusters. It’s another to ask viewers of The Marvels, coming to theaters on Nov. 10, to consume hours of television programming (and remember minor details). That’s no problem for the superfans, of course; they’ll always watch everything at least twice. But contrary to the volume of their voices in the cultural discourse, die-hards alone do not amount to billion-dollar grosses. The casual moviegoer has to be part of the equation, and to that market, these films no longer sound like fun. They sound like homework.

It would be premature to write off Marvel in particular or the superhero movie in general (though DC Studios’ current outlook is about as bleak as Marvel’s, if not bleaker). But there certainly seems to be a sense of panic in the industry that the superhero movies that have been their bread and butter for a decade and a half are no longer a sure thing. And if there’s one thing that makes studio executives nervous, it’s a lack of sure things.

Yet they must bear in mind that, evidence to the contrary, audiences aren’t always predictable. When Star Wars broke records in 1977, big-screen sci-fi was floundering. Part of why Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was a hit in 2002 was that there wasn’t an abundance of superheroes at the multiplex, and this formulation doesn’t just apply to comic book movies. How many epic historical romances were out there in 1997 when Titanic was released? Tastes change, and fads pass, but the execs who write the checks get so wrapped up in replicating the last big thing that they’re never on the lookout for the next big thing. They might be wise to start that search now. — Bloomberg Opinion

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