In case you didn’t know, my wife and I had our first child 12 weeks ago, and because of that, I haven’t been able to hit the local movie theater. Not once. If we set aside the pandemic, it’s the longest stretch of not going to the movies in my entire life.
That’s been frustrating, in that there are a lot of flicks I’ve been wanting to see, like the new Scorsese joint, or The Holdovers, plenty of others, really. So it was with no little amount of an internal eye roll that The Marvels was my first time back in the cineplex since the last week of August. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I had to go see Five Nights at Freddy’s for my first time back, but this would not have been my first choice.
The movie was … y’know … fine. Nothing special, nothing terrible. Certainly not in the league of just about any of the movies in the Infinity Saga, and generally par for the course for the level of Marvel Cinematic Universe flick we’ve seen since then. Take away Spider-Man: No Way Home and Shang-Chi, and I don’t think I’ve really liked a single one of the movies I’ve seen. A couple of the TV shows have been pretty good, and I especially enjoyed Hawkeye and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. I also liked Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 3. But overall, my enthusiasm for the MCU has waned, considerably.
In case you’re not a regular visitor to this space, you should know that I consider the Infinity Saga to be the single greatest storytelling achievement in the history of cinema. Seriously. A 23 chapter, 50-hour, 11 year journey that tells a single cohesive story with hundreds of characters and a definitive beginning, middle, and end, and which started with a wild gamble that, if it hadn’t succeeded, would have preempted the whole enterprise.
Marvel didn’t have possession of its marquee heroes when the MCU began. No Fantastic Four, no X-Men, no Spider-Man. Sure, it had Captain America and the Incredible Hulk, but the comics had just killed off Cap in its Civil War miniseries, and the Hulk had already failed at the box office, thanks to a lackluster Ang Lee effort in 2003.
So, producer Kevin Feige gambled on a second tier hero, Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr. was still best known for being a recovering addict, and director Jon Favreau wasn’t exactly the first person you would think of to helm a superhero movie, but it proved to be magical. If that movie had failed, it would have been the end of the MCU before it even got started. Since it was a sensation, it allowed everything that came after, including other B-list heroes like Thor, Hawkeye, and Black Widow, before Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, and third-tier heroes the Guardians of the Galaxy came along. And then, eventually, Spidey himself.
Feige always said there was no master plan, and that they sort of figured it out as they went, and that makes sense to a point, but once The Avengers became such a ginormous hit, it was perfectly clear that the universe was going to be able to tell the story that Feige and his team wanted to tell. So the other 17 movies that came afterward completed the story and fulfilled the vision, and in the process, provided an insurmountable hurdle for any other tale the braintrust might want to tell.
So my affection for superhero movies and the MCU in particular should not be dismissed or belittled as I enter into this conversation. I am not a hater. On the contrary, I am confident that my bona fides are valid and well established. Please remember that as I tell you why the MCU as we know it is completely and utterly doomed.
The Marvels bombed last weekend, which was not a surprise, only because the tracking let us know this well ahead of time. This, after Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania did disappointing numbers, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 didn’t match the box office numbers of Vol. 2, either domestically or worldwide. I commented over the summer that I thought people finally had their fill of superhero movies, and I stand by that, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the MCU’s problem, because this downward slide began long before the fatigue set in.
Some pundits talk about reasons for the downturn, like the fact that the movies tend to focus too much on comedy, or the TV shows dilute the product and tie in too closely to the movies, but I don’t buy either argument. The best comic books have at least the hint of a sense of humor about them, and so do the films. Nobody complains about the sense of humor James Gunn brought to the GotG trilogy, nor were people up in arms over the playful tone of the first two Ant-Man flicks. Same with the Iron Man films, and even the moments of levity in the Captain America trilogy – for my money, the very best superhero trilogy ever made.
People didn’t complain then, because the humor worked in those films, and because the movies themselves were really good. Taika Waititi’s first outing with the god of thunder, Thor: Ragnarok, had its humor work for it, because it was a good movie. The humor was less successful in the followup, Love and Thunder, because the movie was terrible.
Same with the TV shows. When they’re good — like WandaVision, Ms. Marvel, and the aforementioned Hawkeye and She-Hulk — they get the viewers and the kudos, and no one worries too much about overexposure. When they’re not — The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Moon Knight, Secret Invasion — people wag their fingers.
But all of that is sort of beside the point, as far as I’m concerned, because the real issue is the lack of new and exciting ideas. Marvel did very, very well for a really long time because it chose great stories to tell from the comic book source material. The various origin stories. The Winter Soldier. Civil War. Planet Hulk, which gave much to Ragnarok. Thanos and the Infinity Stones. All of it, with the exception of Thor: The Dark World, worked beautifully.
But in the four-plus years since Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home – with the exception of No Way Home – the MCU has lost its fire. The villains are interchangeable, and with so many of the bigger stars and better-known heroes now gone, the D- and E-List characters are coming to the fore and missing the target, and even worse, wasting opportunities. Even a good movie like Shang-Chi offered nothing unique. It was just a fun spin on the same-old same-old, with an enormously charming actor in the lead role.
Charm, however, only carries you so far, and nothing proves that more than the last Ant-Man entry. Paul Rudd is one of the loveliest guys in Hollywood and people adore him, but when he’s fronting a crummy movie, people don’t show up.
I think there’s a great deal of hope being placed on the Fantastic Four and, eventually, the X-Men, but that’s putting a lot of eggs in very few baskets. And if that wasn’t enough, there are the persistent rumors that the MCU is at least thinking about bringing back Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson, all of whom either died or aged out of their roles in the climactic Endgame. The very notion that they might be drafted back into superhero service should tell you everything, and reinforce the point that they’re out of ideas.
The thing of it is, though, they shouldn’t be. Just as they looked to the comics for the MCU’s peak, so should they be doing so for the aftermath. The fact that you no longer have access to Iron Man, Captain America, and the Black Widow doesn’t mean you’re plum out of luck. There are plenty of directions to go, lots of great stories to adapt.
My biggest problem with The Marvels was that nothing in it, not one thing, surprised me. I’ve seen it all before. In that, I think I’m like millions of others who so desperately want to recapture the feeling we had so often from 2008 to 2019. We want to feel something we haven’t felt before. We want to be moved. We want to be jolted out of our seats. We want our minds blown. .
We want to feel the way the MCU used to make us feel, before the powers-that-be got too comfortable, and forgot what made them so successful in the first place.
I said above that the MCU is doomed. That was an overstatement, because it doesn’t have to be. All it needs to do is rethink what its central purpose is, and in so doing, give audiences something new to root for, rather than recycling the same things over and over.
There are some who will say this is easier said than done.
Well, so was the MCU.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for more than 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
Although The Accidental Turitz has been on temporary hiatus, all previous columns can be found here.