The Marvels’ box office is a new low for Marvel Studios, opening at $47 million domestically. It now sits at the bottom of the box office totem pole, under 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. The why and how is a mixture of industry-wide issues, problems specific to the superhero genre, and the degradation of an audience who, in large parts, are uninspired to buy tickets — or, in smaller parts, actively campaigned against the movie.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not at risk of shuttering in the immediate future — despite streaming woes with Marvel series, new movies are yet to lose money — and there’s too much left on the table for Disney to consider abandoning ship. Clearly, though, something went wrong with The Marvels.
Captain Marvel cracked a billion in 2019, sandwiched by the two biggest event films ever released — Infinity War and Endgame — while this team-up was reportedly circling the drain months before it hit screens. Things have changed for the franchise since then, and the results are evident in The Marvels falling short of its predecessor.
The ‘woke agenda’
Some people are blaming the female ensemble, diversity, and sniffs of LGBTQ+ representation for the film’s failure. And, of course, the term ‘woke’ has lost all meaning and is now used to demean any attempts at inclusivity. Still, in a year when Barbie was on everyone’s lips, that scapegoat sounds less credible.
We’ve heard bad-faith arguments stating that movies that uplift women are doing so at the expense of men, as if elevated women on screen are inherently emasculating.
This argument is supplemented by the idea that to make money with female leads, they need to be sanded down enough to be palatable for the most feminism-sensitive viewers and that there has to be a leading man to combat the perceived imbalance.
It sounds a lot like, “Hey, you should smile more!” Unfortunately, there are thousands of people online grumbling about Carol Danvers‘ lack of smiling, so it’s not a joke.
We shouldn’t overlook the power of four-quadrant filmmaking, where a movie is made appetizing to the broadest range of moviegoers possible. But labeling female ensembles, racial diversity, or any slight hint of LGBTQ+ characters as “woke” and making them the problem to be solved is misguided at best and malicious at worst.
In my opinion, as an entrenched fan, it’s more likely that the constant barrage of negativity aimed at the film’s stars and conceit hurt The Marvels more than three female leads did.
We’ve already considered how we could blame MCU shows for The Marvels flopping, but post-release, this element looks weightier than ever. MCU die-hards who have seen every episode of TV to come out of the universe are unlikely to be the young girls this movie primarily makes attempts to connect with.
Monica Rambeau, Kamala Khan, and even Carol are underbaked in comparison to the MCU characters who have shown up countless times. WandaVision and Ms. Marvel are arguably the best TV series in the IP, but the latter scored the lowest viewership. Ultimately, from a business perspective, there’s an argument that The Marvels was ill-conceived.
The target audience
This genre has relied on a core audience that is quickly dwindling. A loud number of them have stated they’re not interested in these characters for reasons that are often fair. Less often, they take issue with the general concept of empathizing with people from different backgrounds.
The fans most primed to take inspiration from this sort of film would have had to wade through layers of internet misogyny and YouTube’s toxicity-encouraging algorithm to naturally build any positive noise, and they shouldn’t have to enter into a one-sided debate with obsessed adults to enjoy a movie.
The more movies like The Marvels become sociopolitical battlegrounds ripe for discourse, the further we get from a vision of Hollywood with organic representation.
Some might feel this representation is being forced down their throats, but by loudly complaining about diverse characters, they’re perpetuating the alienation that studios then want to be seen combatting for PR reasons.
A good film critic understands that just because something isn’t for them, it isn’t against them. In a world without bloated budgets and massive expectations, perhaps we’d see more risky franchise ventures like Joker, Logan, and Birds of Prey.
They might not appeal to everyone, but they have room to splinter off and really speak to the audience they have in mind. That sounds better than movies that everyone likes but nobody loves.
This should be the obvious one. But we’re so used to talking about movies like they’re toys to be picked up off the shelf, judged by the colors of the packaging and product description rather than what’s inside, it ends up further down the list than one might assume.
The first reactions were better than expected, and The Digital Fix gave the entertaining place-switching ride four stars in our The Marvels review. A lot of us were expecting a review bombing disaster on Rotten Tomatoes, which seems to have been avoided by the aggregator’s new processes.
The consensus is that The Marvels is a flawed but fun entry that can’t rival the best movies in the franchise but doesn’t sink to its worst lows. Word of mouth can be a saving grace for films that aren’t tracking well pre-release, but even if this had been a masterpiece, it wouldn’t have necessarily provided the juice needed to save face.
Post Infinity Saga, expectations went through the roof. So far, Marvel has been unable to recapture the magic and is hemorrhaging fans.
Pundits and insiders for months alleged The Marvels was hampered by poor test screenings, reshoots, and the usual ‘indie filmmaker hates their movie’ franchise trope. Discussion around DaCosta swiftly moving on to her next project taking center stage in the days before release surely didn’t help.
Whether you pay attention to this kind of thing or not, bad sentiment’s tendrils reach far and wide. “Oh, I’ve heard it’s bad. Not even its director likes it” might be enough to dissuade many on the fence from buying cinema tickets.
Marvel’s machine is oiled using fan speculation. The Marvels, perhaps more than any other recent MCU movie, had so little of that in the way of word-building and too much in the way of behind-the-scenes gossip.
There’s unlikely to be a solution for films like The Marvels that do want to extend olive branches to people who might not typically engage with the genre, that doesn’t negatively impact the existing core audience who historically have been tended to by superhero films.
We’re in a difficult space where culture wars and box office numbers are at the front of minds with Marvel’s Phase 5. With so much attention paid to dehumanizing, bigoted talking points, and money deciding whose stories deserve to be told, we’re staring down an ugly barrel.
Fly higher, further, faster with our recommended Marvel movies in order watchlist or ranking of the best Marvel villains. For more on the movie, we’ve got spoilery guides on The Marvels ending explained, are the X-Men in The Marvels, and an interview with The Marvels producer.