Snobs who looked forward to the day the MCU imploded should be careful what they wish for

Brie Larson in ‘The Marvels' (Laura Radford/Marvel)
Brie Larson in ‘The Marvels' (Laura Radford/Marvel)

Halfway through Marvel’s Iron Man from 2008, Robert Downey Jr’s tin-plated superhero rockets towards the stratosphere for the first time. But his enthusiasm gets the better of him, his suit malfunctions and he plummets earthward. That is the trajectory Marvel has itself followed in recent months. Soaring too high, its circuits have fried. Now, after a string of critical and commercial flops, it is in freefall. That plunge has accelerated this week following the conviction for assault of Jonathan Majors, the charismatic actor upon which the studio and its “Marvel Cinematic Universe” had pinned its hopes.

Without question, Marvel’s quality control has slipped. It has overextended itself since the pandemic with its many forgettable Disney+ spin-offs, striking rock bottom with the dire Secret Invasion. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that, at its peak, the MCU gave us some of the greatest blockbusters of all time. It’s just four years since it floored audiences with the thoughtful and moving Avengers: Endgame, an emotional sucker-punch that reduced viewers to a teary mess as Chris Evans’s Captain America and Downey Jr’s Iron Man took their final bows.

How quickly we have moved on. Majors has left the building. Meanwhile, the November release of the 33rd Marvel feature, The Marvels, handed the studio the biggest flop in its history, with a paltry global box office of $200m (compared to Endgame’s $2.7bn).

That decline has prompted its share of schadenfreude. Marvel’s difficulties have sent social media into a tizzy of delight. At last, a cinematic goliath receives its comeuppance. “Oh, how the folks behind Earth’s mightiest heroes have fallen,” wrote Rolling Stone in tones that spoke to a wider feeling of dancing on the grave of the MCU.

Marvel had the bad luck to hit the buffers in the year of BarbieOppenheimer: two smart blockbusters perceived as restoring the world’s faith in moviegoing. “Barbenheimer” has been hailed for rekindling the magic of the multiplex – a sorcery supposedly stolen from us by the MCU and its identikit romps.

The MCU is in a bind, without question. In September, Marvel boss Kevin Feige and his lieutenants gathered in Palm Springs for an annual retreat that had suddenly become a mix of emergency meeting and group therapy. According to Variety: “Everyone at Marvel was reeling from a series of disappointments on screen [and] a legal scandal involving one of its biggest stars.”

The star was Majors, this week found guilty of reckless assault and harassment of then girlfriend Grace Jabbari. Marvel immediately announced it was ending its relationship with the 34-year-old. He was to have been a major lynchpin of the next phase of the MCU, in which he played mega-baddie Kang the Conqueror.

The bigger problem, though, is that audiences have stopped caring about Marvel. The studio that once defined the zeitgeist now comes and goes without a trace. Last summer, everyone was talking about Barbenheimer. But even the successful Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 – a rare bright point for the MCU in 2023 – failed to register beyond its immediate fanbase. The MCU has become invisible.

This will be regarded by many as a victory for “real” cinema over CGI-clogged escapism. Cineastes hold dear Martin Scorsese’s claim in 2019 that Marvel films were more theme-park rides than movies. They were not, he said, “cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”.

Jonathan Majors, who has been convicted for assault, as Kang (MCU)
Jonathan Majors, who has been convicted for assault, as Kang (MCU)

Nobody is going to like everything, and it’s OK if the director of Mean Streets and Raging Bull walked out of the multiplex unmoved by Thor: The Dark World. However, Marvel’s current woes have encouraged the revisionist idea that the franchise has always been disposable rubbish. That we’ll be much better off when it finally crashes to earth, as Iron Man/Tony Stark threatened to do in his first movie (only for his thrusters to kick in at the final moment).

The truth is more nuanced. Marvel has had its misses. But its hits were glorious. Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame are, in particular, among the best popcorn films ever. In Josh Brolin’s Thanos, they gave us perhaps the most subtle “Big Bad” in tentpole history. He was a thoughtful villain who wanted to erase half the life in the universe, not because he gloried in destruction but because he felt it guaranteed the best future for all of us. Heavy was the crown. And heavy the magical Infinity Gauntlet he donned to bring about that terrible event.

Superhero movies aren’t dead. Marvel’s mortal foe, DC, is in the midst of a grand reboot overseen by Guardians director James Gunn. And Marvel is preparing to release Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool 3 in 2024 (having reacquired the rights to the character following Disney’s takeover of Fox).

Still, the glory days are over for now. Instead, having noted the success of Greta Gerwig’s $1.4bn smash Barbie, Hollywood is gearing up for a gold rush of toy-themed tie-ins. Films based on Hot Wheels, Barney, Masters of the Universe and Play-Doh are all in the works.

But if Barbie was a delight, many of these movies will surely be bludgeoning cash-ins in the tradition of Michael Bay’s dire Transformers and sequels. Snobs who looked forward to the day the MCU imploded should be careful about what they wish for. Hollywood’s next generation of blockbusters could make Thor look like Taxi Driver by comparison.