I'm no superhero fan when it comes to movies. I can't understand their appeal, though I readily admit that I've only seen the first Wonder Woman movie, the first Iron Man movie, and the first Black Panther movie.
When someone in my Tai Chi class asks me if I've seen the newest Guardian of the Galaxy movie, what goes through my mind is, Good god, no; if I was confined to solitary confinement and had a choice between seeing Guardian of the Galaxy or staring blankly into space, I'd choose the blank stare.
But instead I just say, "I'm not into superhero movies. Is this one any good?" That stimulates an excited description with names of characters like Thor I've vaguely heard mentioned, but couldn't care less about.
After all, I'm 74, not seven. I grew up watching Superman on a black and white television. I enjoyed his exploits. Until I became old enough to appreciate different sorts of TV shows and movies. So it baffles me how so many adults these days are obsessed with comic book characters.
A story in the June 12 issue of The New Yorker both explained the appeal of one set of superhero movies, the Marvel variety, and the deleterious effect these movies have had on other kinds of movie-making. Here's some excerpts from Michael Schulman's How the Marvel Cinematic Universe Swallowed Hollywood.
Whether you have spent the past decade and a half avoiding Marvel movies like scabies or are in so deep that you can expound on the Sokovia Accords, it is impossible to escape the films’ intergalactic reach.
Collectively, the M.C.U. [Marvel Cinematic Universe] movies—the thirty-second, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” opened in May—have grossed more than twenty-nine billion dollars, making the franchise the most successful in entertainment history. The deluge of content extends to TV series and specials, with an international fan base that scours every teaser and corporate shakeup for clues about what’s coming next.
As in the comics, the M.C.U.’s chief innovation is a shared fictional canvas, where Spider-Man can call on Doctor Strange, and Iron Man can battle Thor’s wily brother. Hollywood has always had sequels, but the M.C.U. is a web of interconnecting plots: new characters are introduced, either in their own movies or as side players in someone else’s, then collide in climactic Avengers films.
In the seventies, “Jaws” and “Star Wars” gave Hollywood a new model for making money: the endlessly promoted summer blockbuster. The M.C.U. multiplied the formula, so that each blockbuster begets another. David Crow, a senior editor for the Web site Den of Geek, calls it a “roadmap for a product that never ends.”
Twenty years ago, few people would have bet that a struggling comic-book company would turn a bunch of second-string superheroes into movie icons—much less swallow the film industry whole.
Yet the Marvel phenomenon has yanked Hollywood into a franchise-drunk new era, in which intellectual property, more than star power or directorial vision, drives what gets made, with studios scrambling to cobble together their own fictional universes. The shift has come at a perilous time for moviegoing.
Audiences, especially since the pandemic, are seeing fewer films in the theatre and streaming more from home, forcing studios to lean on I.P.-driven tentpoles like “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” Kevin Goetz, the founder of Screen Engine, which studies audience behavior, pointed to Marvel’s sense of “elevated fun” to explain why it gets people to the theatre: “They’re carnival rides, and they’re hefty carnival rides.”
Marvel’s success, he added, has “sucked the air out of” more human-scaled entertainments. Whole species of movies—adult dramas, rom-coms—have become endangered, since audiences are happy to wait and stream “Tár” or “Book Club: The Next Chapter,” or to get their grownup kicks from such series as “Succession” or “The White Lotus.”
Yet even prestige television has become overrun with Marvel, “Star Wars,” and “The Lord of the Rings” series, which use the small screen to map out new corners of their trademarked galaxies. Hollywood writers, who are currently striking over the constricted economics of streaming, also complain of the constricted imaginations of TV executives: instead of searching for the next “Mad Men,” they’re hunting for Batman spinoffs.
Marvel’s fanciful house style has rubbed off even on Oscar winners. This year’s Best Picture, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” had a Marvel-ish meld of walloping action, goofy humor, and multiverse mythology; it could have easily functioned as the origin story for a new Avenger. Marvel, meanwhile, has colonized nearly every other genre.
“WandaVision” was a pastiche of classic sitcoms; “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” was a feminist legal comedy. Detractors see the brand’s something-for-everyone approach as nefarious. An executive at a rival studio, who called the M.C.U. “the Death of All Cinema,” told me that the dominance of Marvel movies “has served to accelerate the squeezing out of the mid-range movie.” His studio’s comedies had been struggling at the box office, and he groused, “If people want a comedy, they’re going to go see ‘Thor’ or ‘Ant-Man’ as their comedy now.”
This is sad for movie lovers like me who aren't into comic books adapted for the big screen. The only good news I could find in The New Yorker story came near the end of it.
All this followed Iger’s comments, at an investor conference, that Disney would reduce its content, including endless Marvel retreads. “Sequels typically work well for us, but do you need a third or a fourth, for instance?” he said. With all the oversaturation, palace intrigue, and brand deterioration, the M.C.U. juggernaut finally appeared to be showing cracks.
The release, last month, of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”—which grossed twenty-eight million dollars less on its opening weekend than the previous installment—did little to dispel the feeling that Marvel fatigue is real, and that Feige is spread too thin for the avalanche of content.
“The one downside to Marvel is that it all bottlenecks at Kevin,” the former executive said. “I think everyone’s agreeing that this is not the optimal amount of stuff.” Scientists predict that our own universe will begin to contract in the next hundred million years; the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having reached its outer limits, may be subject to a similar law of nature.