The Marvel Cinematic Universe is in a hole, but just how deep is it?

Share this Article:

Record-breaking box office drop-offs and very poor critical reviews: is this a bump in the road or a full-blown crisis for the Marvel Cinematic Universe?


Try three issues of Film Stories magazine – for just £1: right here!

If your eyes have flashed past a screen at any point in the last year, you’ll likely know that Jonathan Majors’ Kang the Conqueror is the new Marvel big bad, a villainous successor to Thanos who will surely drive the next few phases of Marvel Studios’ unending superhero soap opera.

You probably know that he crops up in the newly-released Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania and yes, you also probably know that a variant of the same character proved to be the arch-nemesis in 2021’s Disney+ series Loki. After all, the ‘M’ in MCU might as well stand for ‘Multiverse’ these days, so it’s conceivable that a different version of Kang could pop up in every single Marvel movie, live action show, animation, video game and breakfast cereal.

It’s ironic of course that the ‘limitless storytelling opportunities’ that accompany a multiverse are narratively hamstrung by those same opportunities. What does overcoming a big bad like Kang even mean anymore if there is an endless amount of them? How does it impact your story’s stakes if the same thing can just happen over and over and over?

In a way, the same thing is true of the MCU itself.

Disney’s golden goose it may be, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is currently enduring its rockiest stretch with the critics since the interconnected films and shows began, some 40 titles ago. Of late, release after release has been met with middling to negative responses, a critical consensus that seems to have repeated itself over and over again during most of the MCU’s Phase Four.

But does it matter? Have we reached a point where like a multiverse villain, the MCU is simply review-proof, destined to spew more episodes no matter how many times critics reject it?

Whoo, that’s a big question for a weekday morning. Let’s start by acknowledging that yes, to some extent there’s an argument that all blockbusters are review-proof. Loyalty, curiosity, FOMO, schadenfreude, there are all sorts of human reasons why, even when the voices we trust tell us not to bother parting with our cash, we find ourselves doing just that.

Jonathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror in Marvel Studios' ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

Jonathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror

By that logic then, it shouldn’t matter what the reviews say about MCU films. Surely we’ll just go and see them anyway, right?

So far, the reviews for Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania have not been kind. Using any of the major review metrics, the film sits either near to (or at) the very bottom of the pile of Marvel Studios’ cinematic releases. Is it as bad as Thor: The Dark World? Nope. Is it as hard work as Eternals? Not by a long shot for this writer, but all of that is naturally, a matter of opinion and let’s be honest, exceeding the quality of those films is a very low bar.

Amalgamate mass opinion into some kind of overall narrative and small differences aside, the consensus is that the film has tanked critically. But what does it matter? The MCU’s trail of reviews has been decidedly whiffy for an entire phase now and what’s changed? Not a lot from where we’re standing. If there are concerns behind the scenes, Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige’s poker face isn’t betraying any of that. In fact, only last month he grandly declared that audiences would never tire of Marvel movies.

And what of those audiences that Feige speaks for? Well, despite the limp critical reception to Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania (be assured I’m using copy and paste for this title), the film did brisk business during its opening weekend. Despite insiders like Matthew Belloni predicting in his podcast The Town that the film would ‘open under’ in the US, the film actually exceeded box office expectations. However, in the US the film is facing a precipitous (and record-breaking, for all of the wrong reasons) fall in box office as it enters it second weekend. Plus, the film’s international take is being viewed as on the disappointing side as well, some $30m below projections but that’s is largely due to a soft opening in China where Quantumania has only scooped up around a third of the box-office of its predecessor.

Still, will this be bothering Disney too much? As we’ve covered before, the Chinese box office is little more than a lottery these days, so the Mouse House won’t have been banking on hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into the coffers from that region. Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania has the strongest opening of any Ant-Man movie yet, so what dies it matter if reviews are not particularly good and if there’s a few less quid in the Disney vaults?

Of course, that is far from the entire picture and there’s good reason to believe that behind the scenes, the Mouse House may be more than a little concerned about the direction that the MCU’s numbers are heading in. Last year, both Thor: Love and Thunder and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever fell some way short of their predecessors’ box office, the former by $100m, the latter by a colossal $500m. There are of course, mitigating factors here but some are more valid than others and some of the problems Disney has devised for itself.

Yes, there was a global pandemic which has hit cinema grosses, but the unbridled commercial success of Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water have proven that if audiences take to the film, billion dollar grosses are still ripe for the taking. Yes, some Black Panther fans may not have come back for the sequel when the face of the franchise, Chadwick Boseman, tragically passed away. But to the tune of half a billion dollars?

(L-R): Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man, Kathryn Newton as Cassandra "Cassie" Lang, Evangeline Lilly as Hope Van Dyne/Wasp in Marvel Studios' ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

Ant-Man And The Wasp Quantumania

Then there’s the Disney+ factor: the company has created a streaming platform that has hastened the pace of MCU films hitting subscription-based streaming. Whilst Disney may see this as a win for its streaming platform, it is beginning to look increasingly obvious that rushing the films onto Disney+ to continue attracting new subscribers is having an impact on the studio’s theatrical performance. It’s also diminishing the brand somewhat, removing what makes them feel ‘special’ as they quickly stack up on the streaming platform, rows of unending ‘content’, far removed from the event movies that they once were.

Yes, Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania may have initially bucked this trend of downward commercial performance but we can’t see Disney breathing a sigh of relief. The film released on a holiday weekend in the US, was the first film in the MCU’s Phase Five and has been loudly heralded as the beginning of the saga’s next major event. All of those factors may have given the film a box office boost out of the traps but it clearly isn’t going to sustain that boost over the next couple of weeks, especially given the poor reviews.

The fact that we’re talking about whether Marvel Studios can sustain a so-so box office performance over the next fortnight rather than through 2023 and beyond, shows you how much things have changed. Marvel Studios really needs a billion dollar-grossing film to build some momentum towards a 2024 in which the all-conquering MCU of old would have looked to clean house, considering it consists of a Captain America movie, an Avengers-style team-up film (Thunderbolts) not to mention the MCU introduction of Blade, a popular character that needs no introduction thanks to Wesley Snipes’ beloved trilogy.

In years past, that’s the kind of potent combination that would enabled Disney to help itself to the lion’s share of the box office pie. These days though, it seems more prudent to examine things on a film-by-film basis or even week-by-week earnings rather than calendar years of multi-film phases.

In short, the company needs to walk again before it can run, using this year’s other two releases to shore up some confidence in the MCU’s future.

Examine the rest of Marvel’s 2023 slate and all eyes fall on The Marvels. Sure, we’ve got James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy swansong first, but along with the Russo Brothers, Gunn is the MCU’s most trusted deliverer of quality. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 should be a commercial and critical hit, returning the MCU to the Billion Dollar Club.

However, The Marvels has the potential to derail any further momentum, facing down the hurdle of a middling first film whilst also dealing with the narrative complications of introducing more casual MCU fans to Kamala Khan, a character who has already gotten a whole series of her own in the Ms Marvel Disney+ show. It’s with narrative entanglements like this that superhero fatigue also seems to be setting in, audiences feeling like they have to watch hours of television just to understand a film’s wider context. Despite Ms. Marvel earning rave reviews on Disney+, The Marvels feels like it could be the one where the wheels really fall off. Interestingly, Marvel has just bought itself a bit more time with the film – perhaps in the light of continued criticism of the state of Marvel VFX work – and delayed it by four months.

Marvel logo

Yep, Marvel is in a sticky spot, alright. Whilst Kevin Feige might be putting on a brave face and denying the existence of superhero fatigue, Disney CEO Bob Iger pretty much confessed to believing in it in the company’s recent earnings call, stating that Disney would be pulling back on Marvel shows.

Whilst he cited fiscal responsibility as the primary reason, a desire to give the shows a greater ‘event’ feel was also mentioned. On the movie front, it’s not like the company can even rearrange its slate to give each of its films more breathing space like Lucasfilm has found itself doing with the Star Wars franchise. Marvel’s slate is to a large degree, locked in for the next four years. Changing that now would seriously spook investors and that’s the last thing Disney needs as it faces a rocky road navigating its Disney+ streaming platform away from being a $4bn black hole.

How much of this sticky spot that the MCU finds itself in, then, is down to poor reviews? Clearly, negative critical response is playing something of a role here, feeding into the wider narrative of Marvel fatigue. However, that’s a beast with many faces that a few wonderfully-reviewed films are going to struggle to slay. Yes, Top Gun: Maverick may make it look like releasing a crowd-pleasing, money-spinning blockbuster is a fairly straightforward business, but that’s a different case entirely. If by now we’d seen 30 preceding films in the Top Gun series, it’s fair to say Maverick may not have captured our hearts and minds in the way that it did.

The MCU has a clear identity crisis on its hands. Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania is not a terrible film but it is utterly, utterly formulaic and the audience’s lack of appetite for that is beginning to show. However, when other Marvel projects such as She-Hulk or Eternals have tried to deviate from the Marvel playbook, there’s been precious little success there either (although you can number this writer among those who enjoyed Shulkie’s MCU series).

Furthermore, some small but vocal sections of the fanbase are ideologically opposed to the MCU expanding and speaking of expansion, the inevitable widening of the universe’s physical parameters is leading to more and more films being set in what our reviewer Lauren rightly called a ‘brown mush’, a rootless CGI-mess that makes you pine for Phase One when it all felt so very tactile.

Then there’s the multiverse problem.

There’s a very good reason why DC Comics used 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths to contract their growing multiverse back into one single reality: it was leaving readers behind, confusing writers and editors who were trying to juggle continuity across multiple Earths and not producing great stories. Sound familiar? Yes, the multiverse concept may have initially sounded like fun, punctuated by the appearance of multiple beloved Spider-Men in Spider-Man: No Way Home but that’s the part of the iceberg above water: it’s a rare and picturesque sight and is something wonderful to behold. However, the nine tenths below the surface that you don’t see is where all of the problems lie. Jumbled continuity, confusing alternate incarnations of characters, a lack of overall stakes. These are the real hallmarks of the multiverse.

So in short, yes. Poor critical response is hurting the MCU. No longer is the mighty Marvel machine a bulletproof juggernaut that can shrug off critical barbs without slowing down. Profits are down. Interest is down and if you’re foolhardy enough to think something can be too colossal to fail, let me point you back to icebergs and ask you to consider another film back in cinemas at the moment.

What is the Marvel Cinematic Universe made of do you think? Bold storytelling or a fading formula? Rich and unique characters or increasingly homogenised heroes? It all comes down to the same question, down to whether you believe the MCU is constructed from the weightless narrative gossamer of movie dreams or rigid iron, sucked slowly down by the weight of its own inflexible ambitions. Somewhere beyond the horizon sits 2026 and the end of Phase 6, perhaps the final harbour for the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Unlikely, of course. Have no doubt though, the journey between here and there could be anything but plain sailing…

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Share this Article:

Related Stories

More like this