Have we gone from Marvel fatigue to Marvel exhaustion? † superhero movies

huhwhen the Marvel Cinematic Universe entered its flop era? From a box office perspective, certainly not: the mounds of money Thor: Love and Thunder amassed over the weekend – and the records shattered by multiple generations of Spider-Men last Christmas – prove the public hasn’t lost their appetite for this one. . funny interlinked spandex glasses. But the reviews and even audience reactions on opening night tell a different story: the tale of a franchise too big to fail in its most gritty creative patch.

Disney has released no fewer than six new Marvel movies in the past year. Each was plagued with its own problems, familiar to the MCU but amplified: perfunctory CGI climaxes (Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), dull ensembles (Eternals), complicated homework plots (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) and complete tonal incoherence (Thor: Love and Thunder). The best and most popular of the bunch, Spider-Man: No Way Home has the novelty of an exchange program, pulling fan favorites from other continuities to elicit standing ovations. But it also has muddy green screen action and a packed, MacGuffin-heavy story.

There’s a certain sweaty desperation in the movies of what Marvel, in the corporate world, calls the fourth stage of its ongoing crossover event. These are tentpole entertainment that puts in the effort of laughter and excitement. They provide disappointing broadcasts for old characters, such as Scarlett Johansson’s super figure, Black Widow, and Elizabeth Olsen’s traumatic Scarlet Witch, while screwing up the introduction of new ones. They transparently give in to their fan base, screeching to a halt (and pausing for applause) during literal cameo parades. And they reinforce the restrictions placed on their directors, whose vaunted location shots or stray flashes of zombie slapstick cannot disguise the rigidity of the overarching modus operandi.

In theory, it’s not such a bad thing that Marvel seems to be operating for once without an explicit, gigantic event on the horizon. After all, didn’t these movies once seem a little too chained to the architecture of their grand design, feeling like glorified trailers for an exciting movie you’d have to wait until next summer to see? Still, it’s not like Marvel is suddenly investing in self-contained, stand-alone adventures. It’s still tying down plot threads (including the ones that stick on television) and teasing future ones via post-credits stingers. The films remain fundamental serialized in nature, but without the urgency of a, well, endgame. And that has only underscored the impression of a content mill, producing stories without much purpose or plan.

characters looking at the camera in the forest
A scene from Eternals. Photo: Marvel Studios/AP

Of course, the films released by this studio have always been a shiny product – a collection of splash-panel action comedies, animated less by a spark of grandiose inspiration than the brilliantly synergistic corporate strategy of tying them all together. What has made Marvel movies so successful is also what kept them from soaring above a certain ceiling of skilled fun: they’re designed to be familiar and digestible, to offer tweaked variations on a model audiences already like. finds and is used to.

There was just more bloom on that rose, more promise of hearty entertainment in the blueprint. Five years ago, Marvel filled a year of release dates with the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy, the first of its Spider-Man films, the laughingstock Thor: Ragnarok and the bonafide phenom (and Oscar-winner) Black Panther — a string of hits showing how the tried and tested template could be bent without breaking. These were movies that delivered on the promise of a shared sandbox, a place where filmmakers could play a little with the Avengers action figures, pulling the bigger arc while still indulging in a few of their own visual and thematic interests.

The new Marvel movies are not devoid of personal or idiosyncratic touches. (If anything, the new Thor may be too recognizable, in its flaws, as the work of Taika Waititi.) But they feel more compromised. Each, in its own way, has shown the controls to anyone hoping to make a movie in this world; what’s rarely, nominally fun about them—Black Widow’s spy-family sitcom reunion, Shang-Chi’s martial arts bloom, Multiverse of Madness’ occasional Raimi-isms—are at odds with the demands of the larger formula , the things a Marvel movie should do.

Scarlet Witch sits behind a circle of candles
Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness occasionally featured Raimi-isms. Photo: Disney/Allstar

Plus, Disney really drains that formula. “Marvel fatigue” is a phrase people have used long before this particular bumpy chapter in the studio’s history, but it especially applies to a time when no more than a month or two passes without a new Marvel story. comes to market, thanks to a slate that is now closing the gap between movies featuring TV spin-offs beamed directly into people’s homes via Disney+. It is the appointment viewing aspect of the Marvel business model that has been taken to a new extreme of harmful supersaturation. What hope do these movies have of feeling fresh or exciting when they arrive at a pace that can rival the clockwork release of their comic book source material?

If Marvel is in a rut, the simple solution would be to slow down the production schedule. A little more development time couldn’t hurt the movies, too many of which lately felt like placeholders on a calendar, made just to fill the content void. And absence would make the heart grow faster — a year off, thanks to Covid, may have whetted the public’s thirst for the bottleneck of the entries that followed — and perhaps more forgiving of the boilerplate text that’s easier to notice when you’re halfway there. sees -ten variations of it a year.

But why should Disney take a breather? With opening weekends like Love and Thunder, there’s little reason for the studio to slow down the assembly line, or even pay much attention to the individual quality of the entries that fall off. Maybe these movies are a little bit worse than they once were because they can to be; the brand is so strong, with such an iron grip on the public’s imagination and wallet, that the basic quality assurance that characterized it before is no longer strictly necessary. If Marvel builds it, people will come. Until they don’t, we can probably expect the creative entropy to continue.

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