The most dominant franchise in movie history just had its worst weekend ever. The Marvels, the 33rd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, opened to an estimated $47 million at the domestic box office, a catastrophically bad showing for a series that had already been showing signs of strain. That’s less than half what Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opened with earlier this year, and a staggering fall-off for a sequel to 2019’s Captain Marvel, which earned over $1 billion worldwide. It puts The Marvels dead last in the 15-year history of the MCU, out-flopping even 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.
Only a month ago, industry tracking predicted that The Marvels would open closer to $80 million than $40 million. So, what went wrong? There are plenty of theories, ranging from the “superhero fatigue” that also afflicted The Flash and Shazam! Fury of the Gods (the latter had the worst opening for a theatrically exclusive release in the DC Comics universe) to the fact that the actors strike kept the movie’s stars, Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and massively charismatic newcomer Iman Vellani, from promoting the movie until the day before it opened. It’s likely those factors all played some part, as perhaps did a “Go Woke, Go Broke” conservative backlash aimed at a movie with a Black female director, Nia DaCosta, and two women of color as protagonists. But superhero fatigue didn’t stop Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse from making almost $700 million five months ago, and Barbie and Oppenheimer, the year’s first- and third-biggest movies, respectively, both had their casts yanked off the promotional trail by the beginning of the strike. As for the backlash, although right-wing trolls may try to claim victory, it’s unlikely that the audience that put Black Panther and Captain Marvel in the MCU’s top 10 box-office hits has suddenly swapped sides in the culture war.
Numbers aside, maybe The Marvels is just … bad? It did, after all, get some of the worst reviews in Marvel history. The trouble with applying that logic to an opening weekend is that by definition you’re attributing theatergoers’ behavior to knowledge they don’t yet possess. Bad movies open big all the time—and this one, as Sam Thielman wrote for Slate last week, has plenty to love, including well-staged fight scenes, an engaging rapport between its leads, and, well, lots and lots of space cats. The movie’s CinemaScore, which measures audience satisfaction, was a lowly B, but that rating has as much to do with expectations as it does with quality. It is, fundamentally, a reflection of whether moviegoers got what they thought they were paying for.
Online, I saw fans of The Marvels expressing frustration that the movie wasn’t being taken “on its own terms,” but in the home stretch, Marvel stressed its interconnection to the wider storytelling universe, issuing a new trailer days before release that deployed Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme and teased a cameo by Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie. That’s not to mention that Parris’ and Vellani’s characters would be familiar only to viewers of the Marvel TV shows WandaVision and Ms. Marvel. As satisfying to its massive core audience as some of the MCU’s individual movies have been, what has held the series together and fostered its unprecedented growth is a potent mixture of anticipation and FOMO. In the 15 years since Nick Fury showed up at the end of the first Iron Man with a proposition for Tony Stark, Marvel has made mid- and end-credits scenes offering a taste of what is coming next practically mandatory for franchise films. (On the rare occasion when an audience sits through 10 minutes of small-print names without being thrown the expected tidbit, you can practically hear the air rush out of the room when the lights come up.) The Marvels includes a midcredits scene as well, this one featuring the return of Kelsey Grammer’s Beast from Fox’s X-Men movies. But given that procuring the rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four was one of the prime motivations behind the 2019 acquisition of what is now 20th Century Studios by Marvel’s parent company, Disney, Grammer’s appearance is less a surprise than an inevitability, executed with the smug panache of a spoiled TikTok kid showing off their latest haul.
Part of the trouble is that the teases are piling up faster than Marvel can pay them off. In the past two years, we’ve been treated to fleeting appearances by Harry Styles’ Eros (Eternals), Brett Goldstein’s Hercules (Thor: Love and Thunder), and Charlize Theron’s Clea (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), plus The Marvels’ Beast and Binary, a superpowered alternate-universe version of the MCU’s late Maria Rambeau. And that’s not counting the loose threads left by the nine Marvel TV shows released over the same period. That’s a lot of setups, and with Marvel announcing Friday that it will be pushing most of its upcoming movies into 2025 and beyond, a long wait for the payoff.
But the bigger problem is how rote and inessential those payoffs have come to feel. When Marvel was releasing movies at a pace of two or three a year, fans felt an obligation to keep up, and there was just enough of an overriding story to reward their loyalty without repelling more-casual viewers. You wouldn’t be entirely lost if you, say, skipped one Thor movie, but you might be confused about why he was suddenly hanging out with the Guardians of the Galaxy. But by releasing 69 episodes of TV in a span of less than three years, Marvel made missing out practically inevitable. And that forced its fans to discover the one thing Marvel couldn’t afford for them to know: It didn’t matter. Sure, if you haven’t seen an episode of Hawkeye, you won’t know who that bow-toting young woman Vellani’s Kamala Khan seeks out in the last minutes of The Marvels is. But how long will it be till we see either of them again, let alone arrive at the Ms. Marvel/Hawkeye team-up the scene is hinting at?
In the days before streaming and DVD collections, I was a methodical watcher of network TV shows, tuning in every week and taping when I couldn’t, even keeping lists of episodes from past seasons I could check off when they turned up in reruns. Because I was so invested in completism, I was loyal to a fault, sticking with shows I didn’t even realize I’d stopped enjoying, because I was so dedicated to my streak. But I had a simple rule for when it was time to drop a show: when I accidentally missed an episode and realized I didn’t care. Marvel has put its fans in the position of realizing that keeping up isn’t worth the effort. They’re unlikely to abandon the franchise as a whole, but the lackluster turnout for The Marvels suggests that they’re feeling free to be a lot more selective than they’ve been in the past, to pick and choose, knowing the worst that could happen is they catch up with a thing their friends liked a little bit late.
Last week, Marvel announced it would use the January launch of the TV series Echo to debut a new subsidiary, Marvel Spotlight, to highlight stories with no connection to the Marvel Universe at large. “Just like comics fans didn’t need to read Avengers or Fantastic Four to enjoy a Ghost Rider Spotlight comic,” said Marvel’s head of streaming Brad Winderbaum, “our audience doesn’t need to have seen other Marvel series to understand what’s happening in [the] story.” Given that the series’ title character was introduced in an episode of Hawkeye, Marvel could well have presented Echo as a spinoff—and in an earlier era, it almost certainly would have. But instead of stressing the need to catch up, Marvel is now telling fans, whether current, lapsed, or potential, that they needn’t worry about it. Come one, come all. Just come, please.