2023 has seen the shocking but inevitable happen: two major superhero films have underperformed at the box office. After opening to respectable numbers, Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania collapsed in its following weekend, hindered by bad reviews and weak word-of-mouth. This past weekend, DC’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods debuted with a highly disappointing $66.4 million worldwide gross from a reported budget of around $110 - 125 million. We’re so used to these franchise flicks hitting $1 billion worldwide with ease, their status as critic-proof safe bets for profit accepted without a second thought. That’s never been entirely true, of course, but now, we’re seeing that reality play out in a big way.
The blame game has already begun for both films’ performances. Victoria Alonso, a long-time Marvel Studios producer who has been with the company since the first Avengers movie, has left the company. The struggle of Quantumania was not directly named as a reason for her exit but her work overseeing the company’s VFX efforts came under fire with recent projects. Her firing, which is what Variety have now officially labelled it, will certainly dominate industry headlines for the next few months. Over at DC, Dwayne Johnson is facing heat for reportedly hindering both Shazam! and Black Adam with his desires to have the latter be his stand-out headliner without the character’s actual nemesis featured in any way.
We’ve seen how cinema attendances were slowly slipping downward long before the COVID-19 pandemic made its impact. It was getting tougher and tougher for studios to convince people to pay their $20, plus parking and babysitting and snacks, to leave the house for a film, especially when streaming services were offering dozens of new works every month. The only movies that seemed immune to this change were those big-budget IPs, typically ones owned by Disney such as Star Wars and, of course, Marvel Studios. If viewers needed a proper Event to get into theaters, then the MCU seemed to offer a new one with every release, even if they were pushing out three films a year.
It’s inevitable that audiences will get tired of even the most popular things. This happens all the time. What makes stuff like the superhero boom, but especially Marvel, so different is how much they dominate the modern cultural landscape and how quickly they managed to do so. We’re only 11 years past the first Avengers film, and in that time there have been dozens of superhero films hoping to ride the wave. They ended up in TV shows, merchandising, theme park attractions, fast food offers, video games, and everything you could slap Captain America’s face on. It was a level of saturation that not even George Lucas managed to pull off. We’ve seen fads come and go but something on this scale, something that has now become embedded into the very foundations of the entire entertainment industry? That’s new, and its increasing shakiness seems like something Hollywood is almost hilariously unprepared for.
The budgets for these films get higher, as do the stakes. Marvel’s intricate continuity is two-dozen films deep, plus all the TV shows, and their latest phase requires them to develop a new ensemble of stars to take the place of the original core Avengers. DC is on its nth reboot and is struggling to plug its various gaps with a new leadership. Sony is increasingly desperate about getting audiences to care about Spidey villains without Spidey there to fight them (remember Morbius?).
It’s hard to escape the tangled web of these franchises. Dipping in and out for the stuff you want and missing the ones you’re indifferent to feels less and less like a viable option for audiences. It doesn’t help that so many of these projects don’t even feel like cohesive narratives on their own. They’re less stories than set-ups for a bunch of other stories that may or may not actually get made in the near-future. Remember the Dark Universe? Or the Robin Hood franchise we never got? Those projects failed for various reasons but a key one was that their origins weren’t concerned with telling a good story so much as building shaky foundations for five or six other ones. Even if you’re familiar with the characters these franchises are being built around, why on Earth should you care about their stories if the studios clearly don’t?
It’s easy to downplay the indomitable might of the MCU. After all, they’re by far and away the most financially successful film franchise of all-time. They created the new formula, one that no other studio has been able to replicate with any success, and established an ambitious narrative across dozens of projects that hopes to do for cinema what Marvel did for comics. It’s a minor miracle that it worked, given the scale and long-term commitment from Disney, a company not exactly known for taking risks. Now, the MCU is on rails, and they’re hesitant to stray too far from what works. The result is a cycle of films that aren’t aiming to be good, necessarily, so much as good enough.
The homogeny is now stifling, not just narratively but aesthetically. The VFX look increasingly wobbly thanks to overworked artists forced into impossible deadlines, the cinematography seldom steers away from saturated greys, and many of the actors seem to be phoning it in. Some of the most beloved performers in cinema today are forced to act against green-screens, often with no context for scenes or dialogue because the studio is so obsessed with secrecy that they’re often not given the entire script.
The Marvel formula only works for Marvel, and even then, it’s not a guarantee of success. Some titles feel like sure-fire smashes, such as the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but where next? With DC, they’ve put all their eggs in the broken basket of The Flash and the inevitable Ezra Miller non-apology PR tour for it has already left a sour taste in our mouths. Batgirl being deleted as a tax write-off is a blunt reminder of how these films are viewed more as content than anything else.
I’m sure once the next Guardians of the Galaxy film breaks a few box office records, we’ll see a slew of think-pieces telling us that Marvel is mightier than ever. This cycle is wearily predictable. Yet the larger question remains. What goes up must come down, and superheroes aren’t exempt from our basic human attention spans running out of patience. What will be the straw that break’s the camel’s back, and how will the film industry cope once its well runs dry?