With “Spider-Man: Far From Home” crossing the $1 billion line at the box office and “Avengers: Endgame” being the highest grossing movie of all time, plenty of pundits have questioned if and when Marvel Studios will fail.
You’ll find plenty of these pieces online, comparing the industry’s current superhero movie trend to that of westerns, noir, and the action films of the 90s and the early 2000s, citing the fact that audiences go through phases as to what they like in the cinema, and there is nothing saying that modern audiences will move on from superhero films to the next best thing.
People have complained about superhero fatigue since “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and indeed, to the casual film viewer, all these Marvel films can get exhausting, as since 2017, there have been three Marvel films released every year, some in close proximity to each other (note how both “Captain Marvel” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” were in theaters at the same time as Endgame). Marvel also features an overarching continuity with all its films, making every film it releases a must-see for those that want to understand the grand narrative of the MCU, to the point where some characters in its recent Avengers releases receive little to no introduction, banking off the fact that the general population knows who these characters are even if they didn’t see their standalone movies.
Had Marvel stuck to their original formula that saw their films erode to soft mediocrity in Phase Two of their releases, I might agree with the pundits that the superhero’s days are numbered, but Phase Three’s introduction of genre-defying and outright weird films like “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Black Panther,” and their excellent last two Avengers installments have proved to me that Marvel is willing to change and evolve, and as such, it’s hard to predict if a genre that is willing to adapt will get cast aside in the near future, if ever.
When we talk about other former dominant Hollywood genres such as the western, the noir, the Arnold Schwarzenegger-era action films of the 80s and 90s, the “Blade” and “The Matrix” action movie clones of the 2000s, and many others, such as the many phases the horror genre has gone through, they all share one thing in common: genre inflexibility. When you watch films of dead genres, there are always a certain number of things you expect in a good example of a film pertaining to it. For westerns, we want to see a gun-slinging antihero. For a Schwarzenegger-era action film, we expect tense, well-choreographed fights with a muscular hero or villain. Schwarzenegger films were particularly flexible which allowed them to last, as they traverse science fiction and present-day live action, with plots similar to those of traditional superhero films. There’s even some humor, as Schwarzenegger and those like him (such as Sylvester Stallone) play off the silliness of the genre, and their acting. Matrix-era action films were extremely inflexible, giving us a few mixed gems like the Fox X-Men movies, and many turds, like all of the sequels to “The Crow.”
Before the MCU took off, it was unusual for a studio to release multiple films in a series the same year, and films in some ways were much bigger risks. The Chinese box office had yet to connect with American blockbusters, so you’d see a lot of films that had to rely off of their domestic sums alone. Promising scripts were (and still are, especially by incompetent studios like Warner Bros., who butchered the DC Extended Universe) rewritten and edited to adhere to generic genre conventions if there was any risk in a film at all, whether those changes made sense or not in order to (often unsuccessfully) protect the film’s investors. Some of the Fox X-Men films and the 2003 “Daredevil” movie are great examples of genre conformity shoved in otherwise unique works, and it can be found in “Pearl Harbor,” both live action”Scooby Doo!” movies, the live action “Garfield” movies, “Son of the Mask” and countless romantic comedies.
For years, licensed movies got shafted, as film executives didn’t understand what made the properties they just bought the rights to great, instead opting to use them as a skin to peddle generic narrative garbage. The upcoming “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie is a great example of this.
Then Marvel and the 2010s came along, and people slowly began to realize that faithful comic book movies could work, as do faithful licensed movies in general. Marvel was lucky enough to launch their cinematic universe, heralded by 2008’s breakout hit “Iron Man” the same year Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Batman trilogy won critical acclaim at the academy awards not only on technical merit, but off of an Oscar-winning performance by the late Heath Ledger as The Joker. It was the first time people took the superhero genre seriously as a medium capable of high art, and Marvel used that momentum to solidify superhero films as the next natural evolution of the action movie, which, while still put out blockbuster works such as the Michael Bay Transformer movies, The Pirates of the Caribbean films, the breakout Harry Potter cinematic saga, and more traditional action films like the Bourne and Mission Impossible films (not to mention the Fast and the Furious franchise), the most successful films tended to be franchise films with strong branding and continuing narratives.
Superhero films in the 2000s often suffered from two extremes. Either they weren’t faithful enough to their source material, like the aforementioned 2003 Daredevil movie, or they were faithful to the point where general audiences couldn’t get on board, such as the 2006’s “Superman Returns.” Neither made for good cinema, and Marvel realized with the ascension of “The Dark Knight” and films like “Watchmen” that if many of the properties they owned were to succeed, they had to stand on their own based on their own merits as films. It’s hard to remember Iron Man’s presence before his portrayal in 2008 by Robert Downey, Jr., but without his casting and the film’s interesting use of CGI to realistically portray his armor, very few people would have been excited to see the film. Before 2008, Iron Man was not at the caliber of Spider-Man or Batman or Superman, the only tried and true cinematic superheros at the time, whose franchises struggled sometimes despite their immense star power. Iron Man had little to no superhero credibility to coast off of; it had to be built from the ground up, and that is the key to Marvel’s continued sucess.
Marvel’s age old competitor, DC, has realized that it can create awful films and still make a profit so long as Superman or Batman is attached to it (i.e. “Batman v. Superman” and “Suicide Squad”), but Marvel realized that the best way to sell movie tickets and build a cinematic brand for their licenses was to make good movies. The costumes, the heroes’ names, and even backstories were all window dressing, and along the way they realized that audiences will accept some detours off of a character’s original road map so long as it makes for a better product (such as the MCU’s Spider-Man having his origins linked to Iron Man), realizing that the characters they own have already starred in hundreds of different comic and television interpretations, so long as the core of what made those characters work is still there.
And also along the way, Marvel earned creative freedom to try whatever story they want to, allowing them to add subgenres such as horror (which will be seen in the upcoming “Doctor Strange” sequel), humor (both MCU Spider-Man films are arguably comedies) spy thrillers (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and the upcoming Black Widow movie); even meshing genres when they see fit (“Thor: Ragnarok”), allowing the MCU to adapt to whatever audiences want.
Will they be able to keep this up forever? Only time will tell us that. Maybe Disney+ will cannibalize the MCU, locking all the continuity that will make the Phase Four movies make sense behind a paywall everyone who is already paying for Netflix and Amazon Prime aren’t ready to pay for. For the near future, they seem to be standing on solid ground with tried and true franchises and relating plot threads (such as the real Mandarin appearing in the upcoming Shang-Chi movie), and plenty of new properties at their disposal thanks to the Disney-Fox deal that will undoubtedly make the studio billions of more dollars.
Right now, Marvel is somehow having their cake and eating it too. Their ensemble Avengers movies are among the highest grossing movies of all times, and their cinematic universe movies not only work together but also independently in their own franchises. We’re beyond the point of planning one film out for years and putting all your money into that one film; we’re at a time where you must plan and bank on one successful film spawning many others. One-off films aren’t good enough anymore, which is ironic because the only way to make a franchise is to make multiple films that work well as standalone products.
Marvel is a hydra that is very unlikely to lose even one of its arms, because while the studio has put out some under-performing movies like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Thor: The Dark World,” they are all of a base quality and they all earn their money back and then some. Success often spawns even greater success, and Marvel has used their gains to invest in more of their properties, and their commitment to quality in their theatrical releases have earned them their status as the modern gold standard of blockbusters. Even if half of their franchises were to fail, the other half they have could perceptibly keep them afloat. Any studio would kill to have even one of Marvel’s cinematic franchises, and so long as quality is not lost and its films are able to evolve, Marvel might be too big to fail, perhaps now, perhaps ever.