Try for minute, if you can, to remember a world where Marvel films weren’t the absurdly anticipated, all-consuming critical and commercial cinematic Viagra they are today. When Captain America was just a dim-witted high school quarterback with whipped cream on his dick and the contents of Mia Kershner’s colon on his chest. When the guy who worked the drive-thru window at the Hollywood Arby’s had a more impressive IMDB profile — and checking account balance — than Robert Downey Jr. When an incurious, grossly unqualified Southern lunkhead, not an uncurious, grossly underqualified Northern lunkhead, led the Republican Party.
In the eight short years since audiences packed theaters to watch an armored billionaire take on The Dude, Marvel Entertainment has become the standard by which all film franchises — spandex-based or otherwise - are judged. The studio’s 13 feature films, when adjusted for inflation, earned nearly as much worldwide ($10,243,592,393, with Civil War dumping doubloons into the coffers as we speak) as the total annual domestic grosses of every movie released stateside. Only once since 2008 has a Marvel property not finished as one of the three highest grossing movies of the year, a streak that’s almost certain to continue in 2016 given Captain America: Civil War’s projected box office tally.
To borrow a line from Drake, Marvel on that Vince Carter through-the-legs, arm-in-the-hoop shit. They’re flawlessly executing their A-list properties and Rumpelstiltskining stories about gun-toting maple trees into box office gold. This may seem simple, but DC’s struggles getting their shared universe off the ground, despite owning two of comics’ all-time popular comics characters, prove Marvel’s successes aren’t preordained.
Given their history, it’s tempting to assume Marvel will forever be a Hollywood blue chip stock. Keep cranking out event movies, make sure the popular A-list characters show up in the second-tier films, change into a banana hammock, and swan dive into the Scrooge McDuck vault. But there’s reason to wonder if the roller coaster has reached its apex. Marvel faces numerous challenges in the near and long term, ones that aren’t easily surmountable even for a company with a braintrust as gifted as Kevin Feige’s crew. There’s a real possibility Marvel experiences a severe popularity drop at the end of the decade. Here’s why.
Key Actors Are Approaching the End of their Contracts
If there’s one player whose value to Marvel is absolute, it’s Downey. The OG Avenger practically birthed the MCU and remains a wisecracking fan-favorite to this day (Civil War didn’t introduce Tom Holland’s Spider-Man through Tony Stark by accident). Iron Man is Marvel’s most lucrative standalone property; the trilogy earned more than a billion dollars domestically, and each film outperformed all its in-house peers except the two Avengers films and Guardians. Downey deserves much of, if not all, the credit for the franchise’s triumph. But how much longer is the 51-year-old actor willing to suit up?
Downey is contractually obligated to appear in Infinity War, but afterward he’s a free agent who can negotiate on a film-by-film basis. Downey raked in $50 million for Avengers, $75 million for Iron Man 3 and $80 million combined for Civil War and Ultron (plus an additional cut when Civil War inevitably outgrosses Winter Solider). Pulling down over $200 million goddamn dollars for four films is a pretty good reason to keep signing on the dotted line. It’s also enough money for him to engrave his resignation letter into blood diamonds and give everyone who’s ever worked at Marvel their own stone. In late April Downey told ABC News he could “probably do one more [Iron Man],” but given Marvel’s meticulously crafted release schedule, the earliest a fourth film would hit screens is 2020…when Downey is 55. The Stark Knight Returns, perhaps?
Chris Evans, Marvel’s other indispensable star, is nearing the end of his six-picture contract, while Chris Hemsworth has one more movie left on his deal after 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. Even if Marvel’s legal team successfully argues that the two-part Infinity War counts as one movie, the linchpins of the Avengers could all be eating shawarma at the unemployment office after their showdown with Thanos unless the actors or the studio renegotiate. For a LOT more cash. Evans, Hemsworth and Downey demanding — and getting — at least $50 million each per movie plus backend profits isn’t inconceivable.
And they’re worth every Tubman. Audiences originally came to see their childhood icons brought to life on an 80-foot screen. Who filled the spandex didn’t really matter. Now it does. Despite Ghostface’s best efforts, Downey is Tony Stark. Evans is Captain America. Hemsworth is Thor. Marvel has the best casting eye this side of Game of Thrones — Hawkeye misses more often — but they’ve never had to replace anyone consequential. Terrence Howard, who played Rhodey in Iron Man before leaving the MCU to take on a more tangible opponent (arithmetic), is their highest-profile departure. Sticking someone else in the suits, even familiar faces like Falcon, Bucky, or Rhodey, is a risky proposition.
What’s Left in the Pantry?
Then there’s the matter of where the MCU goes after Infinity War, Marvel’s $300 million WorldStar video. The studio has spent over a decade building toward this cosmic brawl with the all-powerful Thanos, a battle that’s likely to double as an exit door for the aforementioned trio if they choose to use it. Regardless, the MCU will undoubtedly undergo a significant makeover. New, less established characters will need to shoulder the box office load without an obvious through-line to connect their stories. So far, it’s unclear which characters can carry a film beyond Iron Man and Captain America. Both Thor films and last summer’s Ant-Man performed perfectly fine at the box office (over half a billion combined, domestically), but didn’t threaten Winter Soldier or any Iron Man offering.
Marvel’s next phase includes Doctor Strange, whose trailer makes it seem like the Uncle Martian version of Inception, a third Thor, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and sequels to Guardians (duh) and Ant-Man (sure fine whatever). Outside of Spider-Man and maybe the Ryan Coogler-directed Black Panther, are there any surefire $300 million moneymakers on that list? Do these characters have large enough built-in audiences to ensure nine-figure opening weekends? The answer remains to be seen. Obviously. It’s not like I have the 2020 Grays Box Office Almanac in the backseat of my DeLorean, morons. Why don’t you make like a hermaphrodite, and go fuck yourself.
Increased Competition from DC Coupled with Superhero Fatigue
Whether we’ve reached peak superhero is an argument only history can settle. Objectively, studios are releasing more comics-based films than ever before. This year’s slate includes two Marvel movies, two DC movies, and another X-Men sequel. The 2017 schedule is even more crowded: three Marvel films, two from DC, and the R-rated Wolverine (with a potential June premiere for Deadpool 2). At some point, ticket buyers will have to prioritize their time and dollars. And DC has more A-list properties left to debut than Marvel. If — and this is an etched-into-the-moon-with-one-billion-point-font “if” — Visionary Filmmaker™ (citation needed) Zack Snyder learns from the BvS debacle and fulfills DC’s potential, Marvel will face a real threat for the first time since the studio’s inception.
Compelling counterarguments exist for every opinion laid out above. The Big Three could re-up tomorrow. Smart casting may alleviate any potential box-office dropoff; Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland, in roughly 20 minutes of Civil War screentime, probably pre-sold $50 million in tickets to their respective films. DC is framing out its shared universe as fast as possible, but Marvel’s lived in the neighborhood for years. Strategically inserting established characters into introductory narratives is a damn good way to bolster interest in theoretically less popular standalone films (Downey is set to appear in Homecoming, and it’s safe to assume Bucky wasn’t stashed in Wakanda on a whim). DC lacks that cinematic atropine and its absence may well prove fatal.
Marvel has earned every possible benefit of the doubt. The results speak for themselves. But for the first time, it’s fair to wonder how much longer they can hold the throne.