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Can ‘The Marvels’ Continue the Female-Led Box Office Momentum of ‘Barbie’ and Taylor Swift?

Theatergoers who attended “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” the concert film that has already amassed $231 million worldwide, were treated to a special trailer for “The Marvels,” the upcoming Marvel Studios superhero extravaganza — cut specifically for the “Eras Tour” audience.

They also probably walked by a poster for “The Marvels” — with stars Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris and Iman Vellani proudly beaming — since theaters were encouraged to place marketing materials for the movie in front of auditoriums playing “The Eras Tour.”

It was all part of a coordinated effort by Disney to further fuel the female-led moviegoing momentum that started with the summer blockbuster “Barbie” and continued with “Eras” last month. But leaping onto that same speeding train may be an insurmountable goal, even for Captain Marvel.

Disney’s hope is that “The Marvels,” with its combination of an established hero and new characters introduced through streaming series, will keep the momentum from “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” going theatrically. The first “Captain Marvel” grossed $1.1 billion dollars, benefitting from being a lead-in to “Avengers: Endgame,”one of the all-time greatest hits in box office history.

The follow-up “The Marvels” is not projected to do nearly as well as the original. Will female empowerment be enough to save it from a disappointing box office? Or does Disney risk pandering to female viewers in a way that could negatively affect its result?

Ryan Stankevich, SVP of marketing strategy at Disney, noted the importance of “cultural event” movies like “Barbie” and “The Eras Tour,” especially when it comes to audiences who still aren’t used to going to the movies every week. “The ability to be able to expose your property to that audience is pretty invaluable,” Stankevich told TheWrap.

A casual survey of attendees at opening night of “The Eras Tour” film revealed that most of the women were frequent moviegoers, having also seen other just-released offerings like “Dumb Money” and “Gran Turismo.” According to CinemaScore, 80% of opening weekend attendees for the “Eras Tour” film were female, compared to the 65% who were female in “Barbie’s” opening weekend in July.

Stankevich said Disney views “The Marvels” as an “all-audience event,” and that female audiences respond well to the character of Captain Marvel. She pointed to a custom piece that the team created with ESPN featuring female athletes like tennis player Coco Gauff, hurdler and sprinter Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and basketball player Diana Taurasi, who form their own Marvels-style team.

“We had some fun with the dynamic of the power switching that happens in our movie, and we were able to have them trade skills and really be the heroes of that piece,” Stankevich said. “That’s something that will appeal broadly to a sports-affinity audience, but also specifically speaks to females, and really lifts up these athletes as modern-day heroes.”

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Thanos in “Avengers: Endgame” (Marvel)

The Risk of Pandering to Female Audiences

In trying to tie popular movies with large female audiences to the MCU, Disney risks being accused of trying to manipulate audiences into feeling they should like “The Marvels” simply because it has three female leads, said Bruce Nash, founder of The Numbers, the web’s biggest database of movie financial information. “There’s definitely a risk actually of having a bit of a negative backlash from going too far in that respect,” he said.

Marvel Studios has been accused of pandering to female audiences before, particularly in the scene in “Avengers: Endgame” where the female heroes — including Captain Marvel (Larson), the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Rescue (Gwyneth Paltrow) — band together to try to defeat Thanos. It was a moment that left some Marvel Studios executives wondering, after “Endgame” test screenings, if it came off as “pandering” to so-called “girl power.”

Boxoffice.com analyst Shawn Robbins said “The Marvels” is not having anywhere near the success that “Barbie” or “The Eras Tour” had in sparking audience excitement with its marketing materials.

“Barbie” won over all demographics and especially women with its trailers and ads, which provided a concise idea of the story (Barbie goes to the real world) and then showed off the film’s colorful setting and sharp but silly humor. “Eras Tour,” meanwhile, used Swift’s immense social media footprint to market directly to the pop star’s relatively small but passionate fanbase.

As for “The Marvels,” few “outside of the most devoted Marvel fans could look at the marketing for this movie and explain what the story is about,” Robbins said. “I have seen all of these ads for ‘The Marvels’ and a lot of them show Captain Marvel fighting Thanos in ‘Endgame,’ but not so much about what this film’s plot is aside from the heroes’ powers getting mixed up.”

“There’s a lot of factors that go into why Marvel no longer has the unbreakable audience goodwill it had,” Robbins added. “But outside of that, I just don’t get a sense that Disney knows what the hook for this film is for audiences.”

A Different Moment for the MCU

Since the release of “Captain Marvel” in 2019, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed in ways that would make Thanos blush. The MCU has expanded into streaming to mixed results, with two Disney+ shows that introduced Captain Marvel’s compatriots in “The Marvels”: “WandaVision” and “Ms. Marvel.”

“WandaVision,” the first MCU Disney+ series released in early 2021, saw Parris make her debut as Monica Rambeau and gain the superpower to manipulate all forms of electromagnetic energy. It is one of the most successful Marvel Disney+ shows, with the series earning three Emmys from 23 nominations and trending on Twitter with fan theories after every new episode.

Fast forward 15 months after the “WandaVision” finale, and Vellani’s debut in “Ms. Marvel” had much different results. While “Ms. Marvel” received widespread critical praise for its depiction of Pakistani-American culture and for Vellani’s performance as the teenage superhero Kamala Khan, it was also the lowest-viewed Marvel show on Disney+ to that point, squeezed out by competition like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and Amazon’s “The Boys,” shows appealing to Marvel’s target audience that enjoyed just as strong if not stronger reviews than “Ms. Marvel.”

Meanwhile, Marvel’s recent cinematic record has been mixed. In 2022, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Thor: Love and Thunder,” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” all became undisputed box office successes, even if they didn’t reach $1 billion worldwide. Of those three, only “Wakanda Forever” received an A on CinemaScore, while the other two were more tepidly received by audiences with a B+.

The mixed results continued in 2023 with “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” in February, which was largely rejected by critics and non-hardcore moviegoers and failed to pass $500 million at the global box office. But three months later, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” was a hit both financially and critically, grossing $845.5 million worldwide while earning an “A” on CinemaScore like the previous two “Guardians” films.

Will Captain Marvel Fly Again on Opening Weekend?

Currently, box office trackers are projecting “The Marvels” to gross $70-75 million on opening weekend, which would make it the first Marvel Studios movie to open to less than $100 million since the $71 million opening of “Eternals” in November 2021. That would also be less than half of the $153 million opening of “Captain Marvel” back in 2019.

Insiders at Disney said they’ve don’t need “The Marvels” to open anywhere near “Captain Marvel” to be deemed a success. Meeting current box office tracking would be enough to place “The Marvels” among the top 10 highest grossing opening weekends of the year.

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WandaVision (Marvel Studios)

It’s also a testament to the high standards placed on the once unstoppable MCU franchise that a $70 million-plus start would be considered low. That would be a marked improvement for the struggling and soon to be rebooted DC franchise, whose best opening this year was $55 million for the box office bomb “The Flash.”

Analysts and exhibitors who spoke to TheWrap said they are concerned that “The Marvels” will fall short of that projected $70 million start due to soft presales, which are behind the pace set by “The Flash” this past summer. Making matters worse has been the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, which has left Disney unable to have Larson, Parris and Vellani promote the film on social media, in interviews, and at events like San Diego Comic-Con.

As far as marketing goes, Nash said that the landscape is even tougher post-pandemic and that a bigger premium has been put on social media enthusiasm. He pointed to the oversized success of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” a video game property Nash had never heard of prior to the film being announced. “Superhero fatigue,” he said, is the “big unknown” when it comes to “The Marvels.”

While Disney has released much more Marvel Studios content since “Captain Marvel” came out, Stankevich suggests that can only help the follow-up film. The steaming success of “WandaVision,” she said, “gives us at least a good launch point,” showing “there is an audience that knows Monica [Rambeau], and again, it’s just a further evolution of her story within the MCU.” And what Vellani’s portrayal in “Ms. Marvel,” the Disney exec added, “we were able to get younger audiences engaged with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”

Ms. Marvel, in fact, is a “proxy for the audience,” in a way, because she is such a fan of Captain Marvel. That, Stankevich said, “just really gives permission for a more casual female fan base to lean in and really enjoy this [latest] movie.”

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