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Is the Marvel Universe about to implode? Its blockbuster formula was a poisoned chalice

The Marvels, destined to flop.

The Marvels, destined to flop.


November 13, 2023   5 mins

Even for this recovering comic-book fan who left the community two decades ago, it’s impossible to escape the Marvel Comic Universe. Reinforced by quippy banter, diversity-by-quota casting and passable CGI, its money-making “formula” has conquered the world. The strategy is straightforward: conjure enough comics-related content to draw casual viewers in, yet never too much to risk challenging or alienating them.

One such casual — my cousin — has an approach to the MCU that embodies this form of “detached involvement”. He buys tickets to each new release, not for the cinematic journey but for the shared cultural moment. He engages with the films peripherally, often multitasking on his phone, sometimes snoozing or even leaving to eat a meal in his car. He only goes so he can watch the post-credit bonus scenes so he can talk about them at the water cooler. To him, the rest of the film is a palatable time-waster.

Yet relying on this was never going to be enough — and finally the Marvel Universe is starting to unravel. Its latest instalment, The Marvels, which reportedly cost $250 million, looks set to be a flop, joining the ranks of its other failures this year, Ant Man and The Wasp. Meanwhile, one its new stars, Jonathan Majors, whose portrayal of the time-bending villain Kang the Conqueror was intended to revitalise its brand, now faces domestic violence charges.

Marvel’s imperilled big-budget approach to superhero cinema is a far cry from my comic-crazed youth, spent in the rolling hills of rural Pennsylvania and the tidewater of North Carolina. Back then, collecting comics was more than a hobby; it was a rite of passage. I remember the visceral thrill of the hunt, driving from town to town, seeking the next instalment of narratives plotted by unsung creators such as Mark Gruenwald and Jim Starlin. These stories — particularly Starlin’s multi-part, multi-crossover Infinity Gauntlet saga — wielded a raw energy that their cynical deployment in subsequent movie adaptations could scarcely capture. In the pages of Starlin’s decades-spanning magnum opus, characters were not just avatars of power but embodiments of philosophy and human frailty. Thanos, with his nihilistic love affair with Death, was a villain of Shakespearean complexity, his every move in pursuit of power a stroke in a grand, dark saga of narrative ambition.

Crucially, these quests weren’t crafted for universal accessibility on the big screen; they were a haven for us nerds, a testament to our dedication to trivia, continuity, backstory, and our little imagined community. And as soon as they were repackaged into a blockbuster formula, they alienated those of us for whom every detail was a breadcrumb on the trail to the heart of a vast and intricate universe — our universe.

My pilgrimages to San Diego’s Comic-Con from 1998 to 2004 charted a similar journey from niche to mainstream. With each visit, the infiltration of Hollywood became more pronounced. The Comic-Con I first stepped into was a labyrinth of cardboard boxes overflowing with dog-eared comics, a place where the most valued currency was knowledge of back issues rather than the sheen of new video games or action figures. The comic vendors, custodians of this lore, guided us to hidden gems and long-sought-after back issues. Artists and writers, the unheralded architects of worlds and weavers of dreams, sat slump-shouldered at cluttered tables, ready to discuss the art of storytelling with anyone who held a passion for the craft.

As the years progressed, however, the tide began to go out. One could watch, almost in time-lapse, as the old guard of vendors began to vanish, their places taken by the glimmering displays of upcoming blockbusters and the latest video-game tie-ins. Promotional materials, once modest handouts, grew into towering banners and ostentatious set pieces. Discussions of Jack Kirby’s artistry and the nuances of his Fourth World saga were edged out by panels dominated by sound bite-spewing celebrities and sneak peeks of next summer’s tentpoles.

By 2003, the transformation was nearly complete. The convention floor, once a haven for the comic faithful, became a temple of multimedia franchising meant to captivate not just fans, but a global audience. And yet, the Comic-Con of that era still retained vestiges of its roots — the sight of cult icons such as a then-controversial Kevin Smith, who mingled with fans in a way that would seem alien amid today’s polished celebrity walkthroughs.

But this evolution wasn’t just about a changing industry; it was personal. It marked the end of an era when conventions were a crucible for forging individual identities within the collective of fan culture. Each of us, clutching our own satchel of back issues, could craft a unique persona built on the esoteric knowledge of story arcs, character histories and creator biographies. Two decades ago, you could count on your fingers the number of individuals who could navigate the complex mazes of various crossovers — but when you met them, it was like meeting a brother.

And then came the beginning of a new, albeit less intimate, chapter. Soon everyone would get to be a vague Captain America fan, clad in a shirt with his logo, without knowing any of the hundreds of unique tales that Mark Gruenwald had told about the character. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, considering that Starlin, one the Greats, did not attain vast wealth from his creation due to the nature of work-for-hire agreements.

As for the future of comics, can Marvel reclaim its former glory? While Disney, with its billions invested, might be hoping for a resurgence, it’s hard to see what it might look like. Despite Marvel’s continued efforts to extract fresh concepts from its comic division, the process seems strained. Currently, its loss-leading print division is going through yet another of its frequent “reboots” — a laborious effort that feels more like a tired publicity stunt than a thrilling narrative reset. Timeless, a new series designed to lay the groundwork for Marvel’s forthcoming tales, is set in a dystopian future that features a showdown between “Power Man” and “Immortal Moon Knight”. Such a trite narrative, for all its attempt at grandeur, smacks of desperation — a flamboyant plea for fans to hold on just a little longer in the hope that we’ll have something else for you, another place to park your money.

But perhaps it also speaks to the only way forward for Marvel: to see its decline not as a cause for mourning, but an opportunity for a reinvigoration of creativity. After all, comics still possess the potential for remarkable storytelling — provided the creators’ vision is given centre stage. Consider Amazon’s admirably faithful adaptation of Invincible, the blood-and-guts superhero story that catapulted its creator Robert Kirkman into the limelight. Or take Adi Shankar’s The Guardians of Justice, an overlooked Netflix jewel that makes Watchmen seem practically pedestrian. It was a spectacle of creative freedom, one that somehow attracted an extraordinarily diverse cast without pandering to the patronising, focus-grouped tropes of the big studios.

And outside of Marvel’s studios, the brilliance within the superhero genre also still sparkles. Japan is leading the way here — in the extraordinarily inventive manga of My Hero Academia and One-Punch Man, both flourishing under the stewardship of their Japanese creative teams rather than corporate interests.

Yet perhaps the greatest solace can be found closer to home. More than anything, the twilight of Marvel reminds me of the death throes of another genre: the Western. And how did that end? In Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and David Milch’s Deadwood — masterpieces of genuine passion rather than commercial viability.


Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work

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Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
6 months ago

Watching Disney crash and burn has been way more entertaining than any “content” they have put out in over half a decade. Let’s see here… Terrible writing? Check! Obnoxious identity politics? Check! Hating their own fans? Check! Hating their own properties? Double check! Awful effects? Check! Oversaturation of low quality content? Check! Garbage editing? Check! Boring action sequences? Check! Terrible acting? Check! Massive plot holes everywhere? Check! Blatant political messaging over storytelling? Check! Zero consequences for repeated failure? And we have a bingo! Disney forgot one important lesson. The opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy. If someone is angry about their favorite franchises getting destroyed, they still care. When they no longer care, then you are never getting them back. Enjoy the dumpster fire and stock crashes ladies and gentleman!

Last edited 6 months ago by Matt Hindman
Andrea X
Andrea X
6 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I have had Disney+ for a couple of months and it is not that bad, however I have not watched nor am I interested in watching any of the marvel stuff, and neither are my kids.
However I do watch the boys (along with the new gen V) and Invincible on Amazon and I do like them, so maybe there is hope…

Emre S
Emre S
6 months ago

How do you write about this and not mention the new South Park episode about it at least in passing?

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
6 months ago
Reply to  Emre S

Simple, it’s Bateman.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
6 months ago
Reply to  Emre S

I came here to say exactly that. It was a good episode.

N Satori
N Satori
6 months ago
Reply to  Emre S

How do you mention South Park without acknowledging the fact (at least in passing) that its ‘fearless, irreverent and iconoclastic’ creators ducked out of satirising muslims and opted instead for taking the mick out of Mormons?

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
6 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Have you not seen any of their numerous references to the unnameable prophet that appears only as a silhouette?
They had a whole two part episode parodying Family Guy having a script with Mohammad that triggered terrorist attacks. This was also satirising the studios who would put pressure on what was acceptable content so as not to cause offence.

N Satori
N Satori
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Nope, I’ve not seen it. I’m confused. Did they parody Mohammed or just Family Guy having a script with Mohammed? Or what?

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
6 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

The plot was roughly this:
They had a parody version of Family Guy, in which there was a plotline containing Mohammed. Islamic terrorists were threatening Jihad if the show wasn’t pulled or Mohammed removed. Unfortunately Family Guys script writers, which turned out to be Manatees, would get very upset if the episode content was changed.

In much earlier episodes, the super friends group (consisting of various religious figures, including Jesus, Krishna etc) included Mohammed, but he would only appear as a silhouette covered in question marks.

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
6 months ago

Is the Marvel Universe going to implode?
Let’s hope so. It’s dire!

John Riordan
John Riordan
6 months ago

Maybe it’s my age, but I find all these films to be incomprehensible now anyway. About 10 years ago the first one with Thor in it came out, and it was both funny and spectacular, so I was quite pleased I’d gone to see it.

But now I have absolutely no idea what’s going on even if I watch the movies with the Wikipedia plot guide to hand. I suspect it’s that the whole thing takes itself too seriously: spandex-clad oddballs with superpowers can never by anything much beyond a joke, and trying to make them serious just makes the movies ridiculous without being funny.

Laura Pritchard
Laura Pritchard
6 months ago

I think the writer should recognise the one universal fact of living one’s youth in a nerd world. When it feels like that world is disintigrating, it probably just means you’re getting old. Or growing up. Or some such other trope about time passing.

Last edited 6 months ago by Laura Pritchard
Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
6 months ago

That level of commercial success has not continued. Marvel has not caught the imagination of Generation Z. It may be that they prefer the stars of YouTube and immersion in sophisticated video game fantasy worlds like that of the Elden Rings. They may very well not be interested in high-concept TV either.

Graeme Crosby
Graeme Crosby
6 months ago

You mean adults watch these films? Without children?

Jeez.

Geoff W
Geoff W
6 months ago
Reply to  Graeme Crosby

In case you hadn’t noticed, they also write about them endlessly, and in pitiless detail.

R M
R M
6 months ago

Like Mark Twain, rumours of the death of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been greatly exaggerated. Often in similar articles to this in The Guardian, where the pseuds lap up any perceived affirmation of their conviction that the masses really would prefer to watch a foreign language film about an Iranian orphan’s lost bicycle, if only the hated Tories hadn’t shut down all the libraries.
It is true that the MCU probably passed its peak cultural and commercial moment with the release of the Avengers: Endgame. But there’s lots of money to be made from continuing to produce films which are merely profitable, rather than all-consuming box-office behemoths. After all, (pre-Daniel Craig) James Bond films arguably peaked critically and commercially in the mid-60s with Goldfinger and Thunderball. Then followed 30 years of churning out a profitable formula, interspersed with occasional high points (The Spy Who Loved Me, Goldeneye), before Casino Royale supercharged the franchise again.
A rule of thumb formula is that major Hollywood blockbusters must earn 3 x production budget at the box office to break even on initial release. The MCU numbers are staggering. Just under $30bn combined box office on total production costs of less than $7bn. Apply the 3 x rule and the break even point is about $20bn-$21bn, so the MCU has earned something like $9bn+ profit in just 15 years since Iron Man came out. And remember, this is after everyone who matters gets paid but before revenue from tie-ins, DVDs, streaming etc etc.
It is fair of course to say that the commercial performance of the MCU films have overall become patchier since Endgame. Partly due to escalating costs, partly due to audience fatigue, and partly due to some lacklustre or ill-thought out product like Black Widow and Eternals. But the numbers are still impressive. Not including The Marvels, 10 MCU films have been released since Endgame. They have taken approx. $8.2bn in box office against production costs of about $2.2bn. Apply the break even at 3 x production cost rule, and that leaves clear profit of about $1.7bn in just 4 years.
Or to look at this another way, collectively since Iron Man MCU films have taken 4.28 x their production costs. Since Endgame, MCU films have collectively taken 3.8 x their production costs. A bit less profitable, but still eminently worth the effort when dealing with such huge raw numbers. It bears repeating that this is before revenue from other sources like streaming, commercial tie-ins and so on.
There may well come a time when interest in the MCU declines so much that the big production costs are no longer justified. But it isn’t now and I very much doubt it will be soon.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
6 months ago
Reply to  R M

Actually every film bombing means you are at that point.

R M
R M
6 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

You might have a point if every film was bombing. But they’re not. Working back through Phase 5 and Phase 4, from the most recently released:
The Marvels (only just released but not looking great)
Guardians 3, $845M (on a $250M budget)
Quantumania, $476M ($200M)
Wakanda Forever, $860M ($250M)
Thor: Love and Thunder, $760M ($250M)
Multiverse of Madness, $955M ($200M)
Spiderman NWH, $1.9bn (200M)
Eternals, $400M ($236M)
Shang-Chi, $432M ($200M)
Black Widow, $380M ($200M)
So Spiderman: No Way Home turned a massive profit. MofM turned a big profit. Guardians 3 and Wakanda Forever turned solid profits. Thor: L&T broke even.
Quantumania, Eternals and Shang-Chi underperformed (a shame in Shang-Chi’s case because it was really good). Black Widow was just a bad idea they didn’t really want to make but were tied into it.
Marvel are much like Pixar these days. They can no longer rely on every release being a hit, but like any other studio they have a mix of massive hits, moderate hits, break evens, and misses. The overall result is that they are still making lots of money, they’ve just settled into that stage where they accept the hits will have to cover the misses.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
6 months ago
Reply to  R M

Nice to see you posting the shill numbers that somehow do not include advertising or reshoots. Looking at your numbers one might even get the crazy idea that Quantumania and The Eternals weren’t massive flops.

R M
R M
6 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Feel free to post the “real” numbers then.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
6 months ago

Impressive.
You managed to write an article about another woke failure story without mentionning wokeness.

Joshua Sterling
Joshua Sterling
6 months ago

Comic books have always struck me as niche. In that vein, it is surprising they have had such mass appeal at the cinema for so long. I would also posit that comics were historically aimed at kids, so naturally they would run out of steam for adult audiences. Also, Hollywood usually ruins great ideas through repetition / sequels.

Josh Allan
Josh Allan
6 months ago

‘The Marvels, which reportedly cost $250 million, looks set to be a flop, joining the ranks of its other failures this year, Ant Man and The Wasp.’
Great article, but just wanted to point out Ant Man and The Wasp is one film, rather than two separate films. It also came out in 2018. The 2023 film is Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania.

Last edited 6 months ago by Josh Allan
R M
R M
6 months ago
Reply to  Josh Allan

Leaving aside the misidentification of the films, Ant-Man is a great example of why its a mistake, often made in articles criticising the MCU, to concentrate too much on the performance of individual films in the franchise when trying to make the claim that the MCU is crashing and burning.
Quantumania unperformed and probably marks the end of the end of the separate Ant-Man films, but collectively the 3 Ant-Man films have taken about $1.62bn in box office against production costs of $492M. Apply the 3 x production costs rule and collectively Ant-Man films net a profit of about $150M. Not spectacular by superhero blockbuster standards, but certainly a nice enough earner which justified going back to the well a couple of times.
Here’s the thing though. Ant-Man was never expected to or required to be a big hit. Its main purpose was to fill the space in the schedule between Ultron and Civil War (which together grossed $2.5bn+) and also introduce characters and plot points which were going to be needed later in the franchise. Obviously Marvel want all their films to make money, but the fact that Ant-Man (and its sequel) turned into a big hit in its own right was more like a bonus than the plan.

Ali W
Ali W
6 months ago
Reply to  R M

I liked the first 2 Ant-Mans more than most of the other Marvel movies, although I haven’t watched the 3rd installment. I’m not a huge Marvel fan so I guess I’m not the target audience, I just thought the movies had more “heart”, and maybe that’s because they weren’t meant to be the giant blockbusters. So, writers could actually be creative instead of bouncing their ideas off an algorithm.

Last edited 6 months ago by Ali W
Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
6 months ago

Wait, what…? The Western is dead?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
6 months ago

“Even for this recovering comic-book fan who left the community two decades ago”
Anyone who admits to having been a comic-book fan cannot have any credibility