What “The Marvels” Box Office Disaster Tells Us of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Well, who didn’t see this coming?
Anticipation for the post-Endgame era in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was tinged with skepticism from the start. But, at least, such optimism was still glowing. It’s Marvel.
That light has since been dimmed by an uninspiring history following the Infinity saga. And it brought with it dire consequences for Disney’s latest release, “The Marvels.”
The follow-up to the 2019 blockbuster “Captain Marvel” – which sees Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Kamala Khan/ Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani), and Monica Rambeau/Photon (Teyonah Parris), battle the formidable Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) – hit theaters on November 10, 2023, to a positive response from audiences but has failed to impress the most crucial demographic: cinemagoers.
Heading into its ninth weekend, “The Marvels” has raked up just $84 million domestically and $121 million internationally for a measly $205 million total–set against a $200 million-plus budget. For an average superhero outing, these numbers would be abysmal; for a Marvel tentpole, they are catastrophic.
Directed by Nia DaCosta, the phase 5 film has inadvertently marked several undesirable records for the franchise. It is the first Marvel film to fall short of the $100 million threshold at the domestic market, has the lowest opening weekend at $47 million, witnessed the steepest second week drop at -78%, stands as the sole movie unable to recoup its production costs (something previously unthinkable for Marvel outlet) and, now, according to Variety, is the outright lowest grossing movie of the 33-movie franchise.
While it did achieve some positive milestones (notably, DaCosta securing the largest opening for a black female director), Disney’s recent decision to cease reporting ongoing box office numbers, despite the movie still being screened globally, suggests that the studio has all but lost faith in any margin of profit. The movie would be, as Forbes put it, “lucky” to snatch a $200 million finish–significantly below the 2.5x multiplier typically required for a movie to break even.
Box office analysts have rightly pointed fingers at the SAG-AFTRA strike which hindered key stars like Brie Larson from promoting the film during its release, as reported by Variety. This analysis indeed carries some truth but with one “little” problem: a franchise as colossal as Marvel should not rely on SAG-AFTRA as a scapegoat, given its unparalleled ability to promote movies.
No, this is not dismissing the impact the strike may have had on the film’s numbers. Since the strike, movies have suffered from an anemic promotion and there is no reason to firmly conclude that this sequel’s numbers wouldn’t have been affected.
But even if that’s the case, it’s unlikely to result in the “unprecedented box-office collapse” that David A. Gross, head of movie consulting firm Franchise Research Entertainment, aptly labels “The Marvels.” Even less “loved” entries like “Ant-Man” (2015) and the initial installment, “Captain Marvel” have garnered more enthusiastic turnouts.
So, who – or what – is to blame?
The primary culprit that pops up on the radar is Disney itself. Over the past 24 months, 10 Marvel films have debuted in theaters with nine shows gracing Disney+ since 2019. If the plan was to spam the MCU fans with tens of hours of mediocre-to-decent content, then it was successful. But at what cost?
Instead of slowing its clock and maintaining an air of suspense, at a time when the nuances of comic book movies are starting to gradually get exposed, Disney executives grew too confident in the dedication of their fanbase and tried to shove everything (from “Black Widow” to “She-Hulk”) down their throats. And they vomited. Horribly.
This reasoning is echoed not only by analysts and critics but even by Disney’s own CEO, Bob Iger, who openly admitted that the emphasis on increasing output had negatively impacted Marvel’s quality and box office performance. He acknowledged, “Quantity, in our case, diluted quality — and Marvel has suffered greatly from that.” The fact that no comic book movie has topped the year-end charts since 2019’s “Spiderman No Way Home” is proof that this tide has swept beyond Marvel’s shores. Gross observed this trend, noting, “Over the last three and a half years, the growth of the genre has stopped.”
Contrary to suggestions that superhero fatigue has etched as deep as the Black Death of the 1300s, the successes of Disney’s own “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”, Sony’s “Spiderman: Across the SpiderVerse” and DC’s “The Batman” demonstrate the resilience of the genre.
Much like a guest at a buffet, fans choose what they consume no matter the overload, which is why 2024’s “Deadpool 3” is expected to join the successful club as it rhymes with their taste buds.
With fans and fatigue exonerated (the latter not completely), one cannot ignore the elephant in the room: quality. If rumors about the MCU reaching its peak were easily dismissible a year or two ago, they aren’t anymore.
Before 2020, questions about Marvel’s quality were a rarity. And even when they do, they are hastily quieted by a legion of great outings. But of late, they have reached a crescendo, lending credence to the belief that MCU writers have reached the end of the creative barrel. Is that truly the case?
Fortunately for Marvel, DC has been grappling with similar issues forever, failing to capitalize on Marvel’s momentary dip in form to attract larger audiences. The latter’s curtain drawer on its failed cinematic universe, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” is even worse off with the whole Amber Heard saga and the presales hint that it would struggle to match the mammoth cume of its predecessor.
“The Marvels” wasn’t bad. But it isn’t great either. A 62% Rotten Tomatoes score and a “B” Cinemascore are not substantial numbers for a franchise that once boasted an average of 75%. Then again, its current predicament is bigger than Brie Larson, DaCosta, or the fans who are quick to blame misogynists and racists. It’s simply a case of timing—precedence aligning with prevailing social trends at an inopportune moment.
Had “The Marvels” been released five years earlier, it might have easily tripled its budget or even crossed the billion-dollar mark like “Captain Marvel,” which performed exceptionally well despite mixed reviews. However, it now contends with a changed landscape and a more critical audience.
“The Marvels” will launch on digital platforms on January 16th, 2024.