A few weekends ago, multiplexes were welcoming movie buffs in for Martin Scorsese’s latest epic, Killers of the Flower Moon. Ironically, some played The Marvels’ promotional trailer ‘Journey To The Marvels’ before it. The striking thing about it was that it essentially recapped the events of Ms. Marvel and WandaVision — similar to how the Avengers: Endgame trailer dusted off the Infinity Saga’s history to prepare viewers for its finale.
As I watched, a sinking feeling set in. This is the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to bank on you having seen two Disney Plus shows, and one of them had the lowest viewership out of the bunch (Ms. Marvel).
There’s no shortage of fans or critics describing the myriad of ways Disney has shot itself in its spandex-wearing foot in the past few years. But this layup for The Marvels, which practically invites a disastrous opening weekend by Marvel’s standards, feels particularly grim, and the box office tracking isn’t dispelling any queasy concerns.
And of course it would happen to this film. What else? It’s not like The Marvels already had an uphill battle with a four-year wait after Captain Marvel, two main characters swaths of moviegoers haven’t met, and a leading lady that has captivated the attention of the worst corners of the internet (not her fault).
Monica Rambeau and the lovable Kamala Khan are not in themselves the problem. Monica’s resentment towards Carol Danvers is a compelling reason to buy a ticket for those of us who want more juicy character drama in this universe, and Ms. Marvel was one of the best Marvel series, so Kamala bringing some bubblegum pop energy is welcomed.
The problem is glaringly obvious: The Marvels requires the viewer to have sat through the series to fully grasp the dynamics or get hyped to the fullest extent. And that viewer probably hasn’t sat through them.
The hope is the film does a good job of providing ample context, so you don’t have to do homework. But the MCU’s entire brand is based on homework, and its biggest challenge yet — even harder to navigate than a big bad you might have to shunt at the last minute — is the degradation of brand loyalty. Without people watching every entry, this whole machine breaks down.
Plenty of people saw Endgame without having checked off every project proceeding it but that was a once-in-a-lifetime cinematic event that will likely never be replicated (not even by Avengers: Secret Wars, if you ask us); in 2019, Marvel’s grip on pop culture was at its tightest, and most of the MCU characters pulling focus had delivered multiple hits watched by silly amounts of people.
Oh, how the turn tables… Even the most loyal fans are struggling to make space for middling Disney Plus shows, box office returns are not what they were pre-Endgame, and general sentiment has taken a hit that put upcoming Marvel movies at risk of being the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
There are people who want The Marvels to fail, regardless of whether Nia DaCosta surprises anyone with its quality, but Disney has set it up with an additional hurdle.
Multiverse of Madness borrowed heavily from WandaVision, but not even its writer bothered watching the show — screenwriter Michael Waldron admitted as much. We saw how that turned out, but it still had a fan-favorite character in Wanda, Doctor Strange leading it, and a multiverse hook to help it rake in over $900 million.
This time, people who have connected with Captain Marvel once in earnest (her cameos in Avengers were cool, but not even Brie Larson had a grasp of who the character actually was yet) are being asked to spend their hard-earned money on expensive tickets to see a movie that’s emblematic of all the ways Marvel’s Phase 5 is losing its hold on the public.
We’re certain The Marvels will do some sort of X-Men, Secret Wars, or Binary tease to try and recapture the speculative juice that has kept the MCU going. Still, its main hook in the footage we’ve seen is rightly the dynamic between its three heroes who are struggling to mesh. A character-first approach is great… when people actually know who the characters are.
Everyone and their mother recognized Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, so you could put him in Captain America: Civil War and expect him to prop it up instead of potentially harm it. Again, things have changed. And we are sorry about that because characters this likable deserve better.
When your business model relies on over a decade of past movies, what happens when your existing customer base drops off and you can’t replace them because young moviegoers might not be interested in watching 32 movies and eight TV series? Catastrophe. But don’t take our word for it, we’ll soon find out.
It feels cynical to discuss numbers like this and barely mention the value of the storytelling in isolation. But this is a business, and Marvel will not pursue threads that don’t make the studio money. It would be nice if the more unique new movies were given every chance to succeed, instead of whatever this is.
Maybe we’re wrong, and The Marvels will overperform thanks to positive first reactions, and we finally have a movie befitting of the iconic photon-blasting character. Or we’ll just have to pick up A-Force and read that again.
For more on The Marvels cast, see what the producer told The Digital Fix about Kamala Khan’s “bright” MCU future. We’ve also got guides to the best way to watch the Marvel movies in order and the best Marvel villains.