Let us not sugarcoat things here: The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is in trouble. The days when any Marvel Studios feature hitting theater screens could enjoy widespread social media buzz, adoring critical praise and a guaranteed billion dollars at the box office seem all but a distant memory. The once-unstoppable hype train started in 2008 with Robert Downey Jr.’s inimitable performance as Tony Stark appears to be slowing to a crawl. It seems with almost every new installment in the MCU saga comes more fan disappointment and critical chiding. Thus, what was once an unthinkably silly question becomes more pressing by the day: is the MCU on its last leg?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe can’t keep delivering this fast
But before we begin detailing the film studio’s worst-case scenario, we should note that the MCU is still a profitable enterprise for Disney. In many ways, the franchise is a victim of its own success. When analyzing the MCU’s trajectory, fans and industry insiders only have the dominant 2010s to use as a control group, making the current slump appear more damning than perhaps it should be. After all, films like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Spider-Man: No Way Home raked in box office returns that wouldn’t look out of place throughout the MCU’s Infinity Saga heyday.
Still, there are overarching statistics that any Marvel diehard should find concerning. For example, five of the ten highest-grossing films of the 2010s were Marvel Studios features, but thus far, only two MCU installments have made the cut in this new young decade. On an even more alarming note, films like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Eternals either lost money or barely broke even at the box office. The prospect of an MCU feature losing money was unfathomable in the 2010s, but nowadays, it’s commonplace.
Perhaps worst of all, there’s the increasingly sticky situation unfolding within Marvel Studios’ streaming branch at Disney+ to consider. While the MCU doesn’t deserve the sole blame for the House of Mouse’s ongoing subscriber freefall, its recent string of mediocre miniseries certainly hasn’t helped grow the platform as much as Kevin Feige or Bob Iger envisioned. In 2021, buzzy, well-crafted series like Loki and WandaVision injected the fanbase with hope and excitement for the franchise’s post-Endgame prospects. Unfortunately, each subsequent series seemed to generate less interest and more frustration within the fan community, with the most recent streaming entry, Secret Invasion, earning the worst single-episode Rotten Tomatoes score in the history of the platform.
Compounding all of these issues is the ongoing criminal trial of Jonathan Majors – the man Kevin Feige once believed could replace the generation-defining big bad of the MCU’s Infinity Saga, Thanos. By the time of his March arrest for allegedly assaulting a romantic partner, Majors had clocked in two electrifying performances as the time-traveling villain Kang the Conqueror – but reps from Disney and Marvel Studios have been surprisingly tight-lipped about his employment status as one of their franchise’s most prominent faces in the months following. Perhaps we will hear more concrete plans after Majors’ upcoming lead role in Loki season two, but regardless, having a marquee performer with assault charges does not bode well for a franchise with obvious aspirations to bolster its progressive bona fides.
With all these bad vibes on the MCU’s doorstep, how can the future be anything but turbulent? Will the franchise even get the chance to pivot into that rumored soft reboot that set the fan community ablaze a few weeks ago? Will fans ever see a return to form for this saga? Only time will tell, but we can still pop on some tin foil Iron Man helmets and speculate.
Secret Wars and the mother of all production budgets
During the summer of 2022, Kevin Feige announced at San Diego Comic-Con that the next three Phases of Marvel Studios entertainment would be leading up to one climactic conclusion in the form of Avengers: Secret Wars. As one of the most beloved team-up runs in Marvel Comics history, Secret Wars features a labyrinthine plot, a star-studded cast of heroes and villains, and multiversal implications for future comic issues. As was the case with almost every major adaptation in the MCU, fans can expect the Marvel Studios creative team to play fast and loose with the comic canon. But if the MCU’s Secret Wars even marginally resembles its progenitor, it will most likely necessitate the largest production budget in comic book film history.
The CGI costs are just the tip of the iceberg. Exceptional and competitive VFX for your garden variety comic book team-up film costs a pretty penny, but it’ll be a drop in the bucket compared to the costs required to secure the ever-growing laundry list of A-list talent rumored to be attached to this behemoth of a popcorn flick. Since Feige’s announcement last year, we’ve heard whispers of retired Phase One mainstays like Downey Jr. and Chris Evans coming back for cameo appearances in Secret Wars. Insiders also reported that legacy performers from Fox’s old X-Men and Fantastic Four continuities might show their faces. Throw in a few of Sony’s Spider-Men of yesteryear, all of the MCU’s post-pandemic roster, and you have yourself a more expensive film than Endgame based on the IMDB page alone.
To put things in perspective, Endgame had an estimated budget of $356-400 million to accommodate the pay stubs of its 38 named characters. The MCU’s rumored call sheet for Secret Wars will be considerably longer than that – and it will have to be meaty enough to allocate sufficient funds to coax retired MCU alums like Downey Jr. and Evans to rejoin the fray. Securing budgets like these back in the Infinity War/Endgame days was a piece of cake, but with all the turmoil, superhero fatigue, and diminishing returns plaguing the franchise right now, can we be certain Feige will even be allowed to make Secret Wars the way he wants to make it?
In recent months, Disney CEO Bob Iger has made multiple comments about slowing down the MCU content machine. One can rightfully accuse Iger of being many less-than-desirable things, but he didn’t snag the top job at one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the world by being unable to read the writing on the wall. Iger knows Marvel content doesn’t capture the public’s imagination – or pocket change – as effectively as it once did. Don’t be surprised if Feige and company have a trickier time getting Iger to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars for their Avengers films than they did in 2017.
Despite the steep downturn we’ve been discussing, in all likelihood, the MCU will continue chugging along for the foreseeable future. It will take more than a two-year string of subpar installments for this mammoth of a movie series to meet its curtain call. Still, the chances of the franchise ever reaching the heights of cultural relevance and profitability it once enjoyed continue to evaporate in a mist of mediocrity. But perhaps that isn’t the worst thing in the world for Marvel Studios.
For many reasons, the MCU’s chart-topping success in the 2010s might be an anomaly. To this day, Marvel Studios remains the only major production company to start and maintain a thriving, interconnected cinematic universe. Both attempts to recreate the MCU formula from Sony and Universal were non-starters, while Warner Brothers’ DCEU is currently being scrapped for parts. If the current MCU flounders when stacked up against the ghost of its former glory, does it really matter if it still blows all its actual competition out of the water?
Instead of continually injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into overstuffed productions as a stopgap against waning public interest, maybe the best move for Marvel Studios is to embrace a niche position in the entertainment landscape. Aside from sporadic spurts of box office dominance like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, superheroes and comic book content in the pre-MCU era have always occupied a niche carve-out of the overall entertainment sphere. Perhaps these lackluster returns for the post-pandemic MCU aren’t heralds of the franchise’s death rattle – but simply markers of a long-awaited backslide to the superhero status quo.
It can be easy to forget while gawking at Endgame’s $2.8 billion box office haul, but all this stuff is inherently nerdy, weird, and specific. And there will always be an audience for nerdy, weird, and specific things in media. Maybe Marvel Studios and Disney simply need to ready themselves for that audience to shrink down to a more sustainable size.