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The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Oldest Law of Physics – What Goes Up…

Does Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania prove the MCU is losing steam?

Maybe it’s a generational thing.  I mean my attitude about some of these the-sky-is-falling articles I’ve seen creeping up on the internet in the wake of the latest Marvel offering, Ant-Man and the Wasp:  QuantumaniaThere seems to be a feeling that, as the MCU makes the turn into its Phase 5, maybe the brand is losing some steam; maybe not everything Marvel touches turns to gold; maybe – is it possible?  Could it be?  Is this the beginning – oh my God! – of the end for Marvel?

We probably won’t know until a couple of more entries show whether this is just a momentary (and moderate) sag or a consistently downward trend, but my initial feeling is a rather blase, “No kidding.”

When I say my response might be generational it’s not because I’m dismissive of the whole superhero phenomenon.  I always thought Scorsese and Coppola and some other cinema elites were a little harsh in their stink-eye view of superhero flicks.  On the other hand, I’m also not one who thinks they ever were the be-all-end-all in big screen entertainment requiring my religious attendance for each roll-out.

Look, I was there when the whole franchise thing began.  I loved the first two Star Wars flicks (but gave up on the series as early as Return of the Jedi [1983]).  Star Trek?  I went from a love-hate thing with the original TV series to watching all of the original cast movies, even the sucky one (Star Trek V:  The Final Frontier [1989]), but had no use for the movies that came after any more than I had any interest in the multiple follow-up TV series.  I loved Superman:  The Movie (1978), but even by Superman II (1980), I was done.  Batman?  I watched the TV series as a kid but the iconoclastic camp of the 1966-67 first season pretty much wore thin by the second season and the show was running on fumes by the third, but I came back for the Tim Burton Batman flicks, but gave up on them by Joel Schumacher-directed Batman Forever (1995).  Spider-Man?  I watched the cartoon as a kid, gave the 1970s live-action series a pass, but watched all of the Tobey Maguires, but was getting tired by Spider-Man 3 (2007), came back for The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) because I was a fan of (500) Days of Summer (2009) and wanted to see what its director Marc Webb could bring to a superhero franchise, liked it but saw no reason to come back for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) and the only web-slinging movie I’ve seen since is Spider-Man:  No Way Home (2021 – a hoot for someone who has been around for all three big-screen incarnations!).

Maybe my limited tolerance for the genre’s redundancy (and to me, after nearly a half-century of them they have become overwhelmingly redundant) has more to do with growing up in a time when space jockeys and over-muscled heroes in tights were not the everywhere-you-turn media cornerstone they are today.  Still, I want to make the point that I’m not someone who has automatically turned up his nose at these big budget FX extravaganzas.  But if Marvel is, indeed, beginning to lose some of its box office muscle, maybe it’s for the same reason every franchise since the beginning of cinema eventually slumped and often completely faded out.  Superhero movies routinely violate the laws of physics, but the oldest one still applies to the box office:  what goes up…  Well, you get the idea.

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There’s nothing new about movie franchises or the arc they follow.  Early on in Hollywood history, movie studios realized the value of brand names which could put an audience back in theater seats on a regular basis to watch familiar heroes do familiar things.  Oh, they didn’t call them franchises back then, and they didn’t look like the franchises of today, but they were plentiful.  Every studio had its movie series (or several), and they ranged from adventure brands like The Saint to mysteries like The Thin Man and Boston Blackie to flyweight comedies like the Maisie and Blondie series to goofs like The Bowery Boys flicks.  With the exception of MGM’s Thin Man movies, they were typically B-productions made to fill out the bottom of double bills, produced on tight budgets with second-tier talent, and they didn’t have the continuing, criss-crossing multi-episode multi-platform plotlines of today; they were entertaining but eminently disposable.

When the James Bond movies began rolling out in the 1960s, it didn’t essentially change the model.  Although they had an A-picture big-budget spectacle gloss, they were still, more or less, stand-alone entries like their cheaper predecessors.  I suppose the first series that most closely resembled today’s franchises were the original Planet of the Apes movies.  Beginning with the 1968 original, there were four more movies, an animated and live-action TV series, and a ton of merchandising.  Still, this was more like 20th Century Fox milking a hit of every last drop of box office than the long-term planning behind the MCU.  There had never been a plan to extend the plot of the original, so, consequently, each succeeding Apes entry actually took the series further and further from the intent of the original, and were made on smaller and smaller budgets.  This wasn’t nurturing a franchise; this was beating a brand name to death.  Still, the essential building blocks of the modern day franchise were there.

I think the guy who deservedly gets the credit for how franchises work today is George Lucas who set the pattern with the first Star Wars trilogy:  continuing plots over an ever-extending series of movies, a web of interlocking stories spreading into TV series, videogames, etc., and, of course, a billion dollar merchandising empire (even by the end of the first SW trilogy, Lucas had made more money from merchandising than from the movies).

But whether a studio was making them on the cheap or spending megabucks to make each sequel bigger and more spectacular than the entry before it, if you look at the history of movie series/franchises, one thing becomes clear:  eventually, they stumble.  Sometimes it’s a temporary sag (the second Star Wars trilogy), sometimes it dies so completely (the Batmans kicked off by Tim Burton) that a generation has to go by before they can be completely overhauled and rebooted for a new generation of audience (the Christopher Nolan Batmans).  The difference between then and now might be that there has never been such an extended generation-spanning run of humongous success as the MCU has experienced under the guiding hand of Kevin Feige.

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The modern Marvel cinematic universe launched in 2008 with the first Iron Man and has since run for 21 movies 70% of which have been rated A- to A+ on CinemaScore.  Throw in live and animated TV series and you can’t find another brand that has ever achieved such a king-of-the-media-hill status so consistently.

Is it a big deal that a few Marvels have only earned bazillions instead of kajillions?  A recent Quantumania piece in The Hollywood Reporter made the observation that besides generally positive but hardly enthusiastic reviews, the latest Ant-Man “only” had a “B” CinemaScore.  On its own, maybe that’s nothing, but the same article pointed out that only five Marvels had ever received a “B,” but four of them have been among Marvel’s last six releases.  Put together with that bazillions-instead-of-kajillions arc, this does start to look like a trend.  But if Marvel is experiencing a bit of a creative and commercial sag (keeping in mind that the guys over at Warners trying to launch a DC universe would love to be peaking at Marvel’s sag), well, gang, they’ve been at this for 15 years.  Time takes a toll. 

Here’s the thing.  Let’s say you went to that first Iron Man when you were, oh, say 15 years old.  Now you’re 30.  You’ve seen all 21 of these Marvels.  Maybe, just maybe, you reached your saturation point?  That after a couple of seen-this-before experiences, you feel like you can start skipping them and not feel like you’re missing out?  I don’t want to say you’ve outgrown them because that sounds a bit like old-farty-snottiness, but we can see parallels in popular music where a generation of audience ages out of their youthful faves.  Put another way:  nobody’s buying Debbie Gibson records anymore.

Audiences age out.  And, a brand can become creatively exhausted (unless a superhero star’s multi-picture contract is up or he/she is too old for the physical demands of superherodom, you pretty much know how most superhero movies will play out; let me guess – he/she wins in the end?  Surprise!).

I don’t think Marvel is dying because the other thing the recent history of series/franchises shows us is that resuscitation is always possible; one audience ages out, but a franchise can be re-introduced to a new audience aging in:  Nolan resurrecting Batman, and there’s been three incarnations of Spider-Man in the last 21 years.  

I think the good-God-they’re-FAILING! stories are just as overstated as the overly-defensive Quantumania-is-good-enough stories.  It’s just that this is new ground for an entire generation of audience and the press that serves them and it’s a little disoriented for them all.

Image: Marvel

I had a friend who worked for Wang Computers in the 1980s.  At the time, Wang was state of the art in office computers.  Their first years were Midas years; they were golden, these guys were the future of office technology!  When they stumbled in the mid-1980s, according to my friend, panic ripped through the company.  Another friend of mine who, at the time, was working for IBM, told me the problem at Wang was they had no experience with things going bad.  IBM, a much older company, was more experienced with ups and downs and could roll with the downs better.  Maybe that’s why IBM is still here, and Wang isn’t.

I went through something like this in my time at HBO when the business hit a wall in the late 1980s.  Up until then, the company had been growing exponentially year after year, and when the market finally grew saturated and had stopped expanding…Good God, it’s the end of the world!  But like IBM, HBO figured it out and that’s why they’re still here.  You’re seeing the same thing going on at the streaming services who, after a few years of stratospheric growth now find themselves in a crowded and saturated marketplace and getting bitten in the ass by the underpricing strategies which fueled that incredible growth.  Sooner or later, every long-running success hits a bump…or bumps.  Ask Elon Musk.  The bumps are inevitable; the question they raise is, how well can the bumpee navigate the bumps?  

Marvel’s not going away.  It may need to take a breather, give people a chance to miss its stuff, stop feeding an audience that’s now getting married and staying home with their own kids who’ll want their own celluloid heroes.

Or maybe this is all a lot of over-interpreting of a simple slump.  After all, even Babe Ruth didn’t hit a home run every time he came up to bat.

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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