What Victoria Alonso’s Mysterious Marvel Exit Means as Unrest Builds at Disney

Marvel Studios

In the summer of 2019, at a home video day for “Captain Marvel,” Victoria Alonso, the then-chief of production at Marvel Studios, bristled at a question. The innocuous query referred to Kevin Feige, president of the studio, as her “boss.”

“He is not my boss,” Alonso asserted, before answering the question. She had a point: She technically reported to co-president Louis D’Esposito, not Feige. Yet it was a moment when her cool veneer cracked, if only for a moment, and the flinty executive within was exposed.

Her tenacity was a tool. She started out as a visual effects supervisor on movies for DreamWorks Animation and Ridley Scott before joining Marvel Studios as a co-producer and visual effects producer on the company’s first-ever in-house production, 2008’s “Iron Man.” She’s been a key part of every Marvel Studios film and streaming series since, and in 2021 was given the title of president of physical, post production, VFX and animation at Marvel Studios.

Her ascent was even more impressive given that she’s a woman of color and a member of the LGBTQ community (she’s married to Australian actress Imelda Corcoran, who appeared in Marvel’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”). And while her exit is still shrouded in mystery, it comes at a particularly fraught time for the company, and for Alonso herself.

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Wrecked by effects?

In February, Marvel Studios released “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” a splashy adventure through inner-space that served as the official kick-off for the company’s Phase 5 as it barrels towards two more star-studded “Avengers” movies. But the movie underperformed at the box office (internally, Disney is worried that the movie won’t make $300 million domestically) and in terms of critical reception.

Most — if not all — of the reviews singled out the movie’s visual effects, which felt rushed and muddy. (“If you told me that the actors had been shot before the filmmakers decided what they would be looking at or interacting with, I’d believe you,” quipped Bilge Ebiri in his review for Vulture.) That critique fell squarely in Alonso’s turf.

“Quantumania” is a rare dent in the armor of the seemingly unstoppable Marvel Studios box office machine (November’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” made nearly $860 million) and its underperformance and the response to its visual effects are deeply intertwined.

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Marvel Studios has come under fire before for its approach to visual effects, what has been described as “pixel-f–king” — a micromanaging process that saw Alonso and Feige personally overseeing every shot, piling on work and demanding changes up until the last possible second. After Alonso’s dismissal, Chris Lee, a Vulture reporter who has extensively covered the post-production woes of Marvel Studios (and introduced the phrase “pixel-f–king” to the general populace), said his sources described her as “singularly responsible for Marvel’s toxic work environment: a kingmaker who rewarded unquestioning fealty with an avalanche of work, but who also maintained the blacklist that kept FX pros wild-eyed with fear.”

Just as soon as this explanation bubbled up, it was quickly shot down. Joanna Robinson, a writer for the Ringer who has been working for the last few years on a book about the history of Marvel, quickly refuted Lee’s claims. “This is just the absolutely opposite of what I’ve heard from every person who has ever worked with her. I’d call it a gross mischaracterization,” Robinson tweeted.

One thing is for sure: The state of the visual effects industry is at a tipping point and Marvel Studios, as a place that demands a truly insane amount of work for both its movies and streaming series, is wrapped up in that.

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Since shooting on film and television resumed in fall 2020, Hollywood studios have faced a post-production backlog of projects that started both prior to and after the COVID shutdown. This has led to an overwhelming demand for VFX work, with some major blockbusters seeing their releases delayed as studios have failed to find VFX houses available for work.

With this increased demand has come growing complaints from VFX artists about excessive hours and workloads, along with increased disorganization, leading to a new campaign called VFX-IATSE that seeks to unionize this key sector of blockbuster post-production with the below-the-line workers union.

Earlier this month, VFX-IATSE published a survey of VFX artists that painted a picture of an industry with poor wages and working conditions: “For VFX workers employed directly by film productions (and it is worth mentioning that the VFX department’s budget is generally the biggest single line item of any production’s budget), only 12% have health insurance which carries over from job-to-job, and only 15% report any kind of employer contributions to a retirement fund,” VFX-IATSE wrote. “On average, 70% of VFX workers report having worked uncompensated overtime hours for their employer. Overall, 75% of VFX workers reported being forced to work through legally mandated meal breaks and rest periods without compensation.”

Whether or not Alonso’s exit is tied into her role as the overseer of visual effects for the company, it signals the biggest shift, behind the scenes, at the studio since 2017, when producer Jeremy Latcham, who had also been with the studio since “Iron Man,” departed for a production deal at 20th Century Fox. Feige is known for cultivating a core team of loyal producers, many of them promoted from within (Trinh Tran, executive of production and development, started as Marvel exec Louis D’Esposito’s assistant). Alonso’s exit marks a huge shift for the company.

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Diminishing returns

For the first time, possibly ever, the bulletproof veneer of Marvel Studios is starting to dim. Between the underperformance of “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” the rumored visual effects revolt and Alonso’s exit, the studio is a long way from the world-conquering vibes of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” a satisfying culmination to the studio’s storytelling thus far and a box office juggernaut that was, for a time, the most successful movie ever.

Now, Marvel Studios is facing diminishing returns (in part because of the perceived aimlessness of Phase 4), a crowded marketplace and a pledge from Disney CEO Bob Iger to cut costs. The tighter environment could push several Marvel Studios projects (including a number of marquee streaming titles) into 2024.

These days, Marvel Studios is entering territory scarier than any Quantum Realm or alternate dimension. And it’s down one of its original executive Avengers.

Jeremy Fuster contributed to this article.

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