Commentary: Marvel has entered its latest phase: Exhaustion


The Marvel fatigue has set in.

The colossal franchise that has ruled the movies since 2008 is feeling less like a celebration these days and more like a slog.

That’s understandable, given that this month’s release of “Thor: Love and Thunder” marked the 29th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s 29 films in 14 years, or for comparison’s sake, four more films than the James Bond franchise has pumped out in the last 60 years.

Business is still brisk — “Love and Thunder” grossed a sizable $144 million at the domestic box office its opening weekend, a record for a Chris Hemsworth-led “Thor” outing — but enthusiasm for the film has been tepid. Only three Marvel movies have earned lower scores on Rotten Tomatoes (one of them is 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World”), and audience reaction to the Taika Waititi-directed film has been all over the place.

It has led to questions about where all this is headed, and how much longer Marvel can or will continue to rule the roost. It’s telling that in a summer where MCU big hitters Doctor Strange and Thor have already lined up to the plate that a fighter pilot named Maverick, who has nary a superpower to his name, has managed to fly circles around them both in ticket sales.

Superheroes weren’t always the be-all, end-all at the movies. Their utter domination is a relatively recent phenomenon, kicking off when Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” hit screens in 2002, bringing with it a true comic book sensibility to the multiplex.

With few exceptions, before that you had to be named either Batman or Superman to make any noise as a superhero in Hollywood, and by the late ’90s, Supes had burned out and Bats was skating on very thin ice.

Then came that first “Spidey” film, which was released as the power of geek culture, emboldened by the rise of the internet, began to influence the types of movies that were being made by Hollywood. It was also released in the wake of 9/11, which marked a major shift in the rise of pure fantasy and escapist fare, as well as a reliance on sequels and intellectual property to bolster studios’ bottom lines.

It wasn’t obvious at the time, but the arrival of “Iron Man” in theaters in May 2008 marked another major shift for Hollywood.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. as the billionaire playboy Tony Stark, “Iron Man” was a surprise smash, grossing $318 million at the domestic box office and becoming the year’s second highest grossing film, behind “The Dark Knight.”

The Edward Norton-starring “Incredible Hulk” opened the following month and didn’t fare nearly as well (it’s one of the other movies with a lower score on the Tomatometer than “Love and Thunder”), and it wouldn’t be until 2010 when “Iron Man 2” would hit screens. “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” entered the chat in 2011, and the all-hands-on-deck posse cut “The Avengers” showed up and topped the North American box office in 2012 with a colossal $623 million.

Since then we’ve been drowning in Marvel product; Marvel movies have topped the yearly box office six of the last 10 years, and the rise of guys just casually wearing Captain America T-shirts out in public has skyrocketed.

The franchise’s various characters and plot threads all culminated in the one-two punch of 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” which grossed a combined $4.8 billion at the worldwide box office, while the latter sits at No. 2 on the list of all-time domestic earners, behind only “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.”

But “Endgame” didn’t mark an endgame, it was just another beginning for Marvel (that of Phase Four, as it’s known in Marvel’s creepy overlord speak). And it’s been since “Endgame” that things in the MCU have felt, well, off, with signs of desperation creeping in from the sides.

The last 12 months have given us six Marvel movies — “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Eternals,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and now “Thor: Love and Thunder” — none of which have been an example of Marvel firing on all cylinders, and at least one of which (looking at you, “Eternals”) was a downright headache.

But wait, there’s more! Marvel has also rolled out seven TV series on Disney+ since January 2021. That’s six movies and seven series in 18 months, with another series, “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” set to arrive next month, and another movie, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” due in theaters in November.

That is a tsunami of content and it’s extremely difficult to keep up with it all, let alone remember what happened in previous installments of various stories and which parts connect to others. (To fully understand Elizabeth Olsen’s character in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” you need to have seen all of 2021’s “WandaVision,” and even then you still might not remember that 14 Marvel films ago, in the first “Doctor Strange,” Benedict Cumberbatch’s character had a fling with Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer.)

Aside from that, Marvel’s storytelling is stuck in wheel-spinning mode; “Thor: Love and Thunder” is particularly listless, despite Christian Bale’s villain character presenting a formidable foe for the hero. And both “Thor” and the recent “Strange” are reliant on big cameo surprises, which are designed to pop audiences and make the internet argue amongst itself but don’t carry much beyond their initial reveals. (The recent “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was better with its cameos, as the characters were able to play off of both their on-screen and off-screen personas.)

There are big things, ostensibly, in the pipeline for the MCU: rights clearances from Disney’s acquisition of Fox are set to clear the way for the arrival of characters such as the X-Men and the wisecracking Deadpool alongside your favorite current Marvel heroes. That should pump some life into the characters, draw new lines in the sand and reinvigorate the franchise, as it heads into (gulp) Phase Five and beyond.

Oh yes, beyond: these characters will likely outlive us all, and Marvel’s not going anywhere for a long, long time. But its domination of the culture may loosen as tastes adjust, culture shifts and people tire of the same kinds of storytelling. Nothing stays on top forever; that’s one superpower that has yet to be harnessed.

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