After 'The Marvels' flop, questions mount for Disney over MCU's future

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Walt Disney Co., whose latest superhero film “The Marvels” concluded last weekend as the lowest-grossing film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is closing out a year that has served as a rude awakening for the once-unshakeable Marvel brand.

Just three weeks after its Nov. 10 release, “The Marvels” fell out of the top 10 at the domestic box office duringthe weekend and cemented its place as the lowest-grossing film in the MCU. As of publication, the film — which opened to a disappointing $46.1 million domestically — has grossed $197.2 million worldwide, with $80.8 million coming from U.S. theaters.

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Those figures pale in comparison to the studio’s 2022 releases like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” ($859.2 million in worldwide box office), “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($955.8 million) and "The Marvels'" 2019 predecessor, "Captain Marvel" ($1.1 billion). And perhaps in anticipation of lackluster numbers abroad, Disney said on Sunday that it will stop reporting its weekend international grosses for the film, though it will continue sharing its domestic figures.

“The one thing that everyone in this industry can agree on is that [“The Marvels”] was an extremely disappointing performance from a film that really should have done better,” said Daniel Loria, the senior vice president of content strategy at the BoxOffice Co..

The underwhelming performance of Disney's Marvel productions comes at a difficult time for the entertainment company. After the costly pandemic and billions of dollars spent to supercharge its streaming service, Disney+, the Bob Iger–led company has spent the last year trimming costs and cutting jobs in an attempt to build back its stock value and placate Wall Street.

But this year's slate of Marvel projects — whose complicated, interconnected stories span across film and TV and juice Disney's parks and consumer products business — has shown some vulnerability for the company at a time when the Marvel brand, one of the linchpins of Disney's studio business, needs to be as strong as ever.

So what went wrong? Most notably, “The Marvels” marketing efforts lacked the typical promotional blitz featuring the film's stars Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and “Ms. Marvel” breakout Iman Vellani due to the SAG-AFTRA strike. Disney also opted to keep the film’s Nov. 10 release date, even as rival studios pushed back the release of major fall tentpoles in response to the strike, as Warner Bros. did with its “Dune” sequel. The actors union reached its tentative deal with the studios Nov. 8.

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“There's a way you market these things,” Loria said. “Disney has been great at marketing these types of movies. They weren't able to do it the way they used to. Every other major studio stepped back from attempting it. Disney stuck with a date and, unfortunately, it didn't work out.”

“The Marvels” wasn't the first sign of trouble for the MCU. “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” which arrived in theaters in February to poor reviews, quickly lost momentum after a promising opening weekend, raising concerns over the quality of the studio's films. James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3," however, was a big hit.

Viewers were also inundated with a deluge of new Marvel releases on Disney+, like the second season of “Loki” and the Samuel L. Jackson–starring “Secret Invasion” miniseries. Combined with the mixed reception for 2021's "Eternals" and 2022's "Thor: Love and Thunder," even Iger has admitted that the studio's quality has “suffered greatly” from its increased output of Marvel-branded projects across film and TV.

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In an interview at the New York Times' DealBook Summit last week, Iger blamed the pandemic and unrealistically high standards for "The Marvels'" disappointment.

"We set the bar so high," Iger said. "Year after year after year, we had the best performance in the business probably for a decade, and I’m not sure another studio will ever achieve some of the numbers that we achieved.... I mean, we got to the point where if a film didn’t do a billion dollars in global box office, we were disappointed. That’s an unbelievably high standard, and I think we have to get more realistic."

He also suggested that viewers' streaming habits contributed to lower turnout at the theaters for "The Marvels," a factor analysts cited as well.

“One of the downsides of the Disney+ series and releasing so much Marvel content around the calendar is that the theatrical experience has been somewhat de-emphasized, so you're seeing that [box office decline] as audiences have somewhat been trained to expect blockbuster MCU content at home,” said Brandon Katz, an analyst with the data firm Parrot Analytics.

“The Marvels” may benefit from a streaming bump when the film lands on Disney+, as has been the case for other recent MCU releases, Katz said.

“You see more people catching up at home, you see more people watching MCU TV series alongside the MCU movies,” Katz said. “So there really has been that shift. And I think what we're seeing with Disney now, since basically mid-Phase Four, is they are slowly trying to retrain audiences to prioritize the theatrical experience once more.”

It’s not immediately clear how Disney may begin pulling back on its volume of Marvel material. The company has previously outlined a release schedule through 2025 for what is known as “Phase Five” of the MCU driven by films including “Deadpool 3,” “Captain America: Brave New World,” and “Fantastic Four.”

Due to production delays caused by the strike, "Deadpool 3" is set to be the only Disney-released Marvel title planned for next year, though audiences will still see Marvel characters on screen via Sony Pictures' "Madame Web," "Kraven the Hunter," and "Venom 3."

Other entries — like those featuring the villain Kang the Conqueror, who was previously touted by Marvel boss Kevin Feige as a key character for "Phase Five" — remain in limbo as star Jonathan Majors is currently on trial for misdemeanor assault.

When it comes to the quality of Marvel's next productions, Disney will be tasked with refreshing the superhero category it catapulted into the mainstream for increasingly discerning audiences.

“I don't think that it's audiences being done with superhero movies,” Loria said. “I think it's audiences expecting something different from their superhero movies or franchises.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.