Oh, Marvel movies. Bastions of cash and pop culture fuel, whatever did we do before you? Since the Disney buyout, the wild success of the Marvel films have helped buoy the company, even as the tentpole films carrying the Disney name have flopped, and resulted in massive company layoffs and consolidation. See also: John Carter, The Lone Ranger, Finest Hours, Tomorrowland, Tron: Legacy…
But Marvel holds strong, at least for now. Eventually, the film series will have to confront some big hurdles to remain relevant, not to mention a lucid narrative. Much like the Batman films of the late 1990s, Marvel stands to exhaust itself, or at least its audience due to overexposure and budgets run amok. Disagree? Consider these factors before you decide for sure! Yes, the Burton-Schumacher Batman universe lasted only four films in a span of less than ten years. Marvel has already beat that record, but it doesn’t mean the MCU can ignore these problems forever!
10. Swelling Budget
Way back when 2008 saw the release of Iron Man, Marvel had placed all their hopes on a single, second-string character (as far as pop culture was concerned). A director with a mixed record and an actor primarily known for his legal woes and drug use led the film, and which was a self-funded production. While Paramount studios would distribute, Marvel remained an independent studio, fueled by profits gained by farming out characters like Spiderman and the X-Men to other studios. Marvel accomplished this feat by keeping the budget under control.
Then Disney took over, and all the ills of the Hollywood studio system seeped into every production. Salaries skyrocketed, as did “talent perks” like profit shares from merchandise which caused budgets to swell. Now, what began with Iron Man costing $100-140 million, has begat Avengers: Infinity War, already estimated to cost $1 billion!
I watched Ant-Man last summer with good-natured optimism. About half way through the film, I realized I was bored. It had nothing to do with the appealing cast, special effects or jokey tone. The problem: I felt like I’d seen it before, numerous times.
The Marvel films have adopted a formulaic approach: introduce a character, feature an action sequence, allude to a new character, crossover with other characters, tease a sequel, and fade to black. Nothing ever feels resolved, and apart from adding new heroes, the status-quo never changes. That makes for boring and predictable movies, disposable and satisfying as fast food.
8. Aging Cast
Robert Downey, Jr. became the anchor for the Marvel universe after the success of Iron Man, but at age 50 and with ever-higher salary demands (see above), he can’t don the Iron suit forever. Likewise, actors Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Scarlet Johansson, have all expressed interest in leaving the series. Granted, their bellyaching might have more to do with getting potential salary raises (again, see above) than actual character fatigue. Still, the fact remains that one day their roles will need to be recast or eliminated. That may help reduce towering above-the-line costs, but it may not sit well with a whole generation of viewers accustomed to seeing their favorite actors play their favorite superheroes, just as the X-Men series has demonstrated.
7. Cartoon Follies
In 2013, generations of TV viewers mourned the loss of one of the industry standards: the Saturday morning cartoon. For years the only way to get a dose of superhero action was in animation, and said generations of viewers helped propel the recent deluge of superhero films to blockbuster status. Chief among the benefactors: Marvel.
With that said, Saturday morning cartoons do still exist…Hollywood just now makes them into live action movies with $200 million budgets. That’s part of the problem with the Marvel universe: it’s one big cartoon. Rarely are there stakes. Somehow, we know every pivotal character will survive for the sequel…and the one after that…and the one after that.
6. Franchise Fatigue
Establishing a shared universe is no small feat, and the folks who oversaw Marvel’s cinematic universe deserve applause for building one so intricate and true to its comic book roots. Unfortunately though, at a certain point it becomes overwhelming. How many Marvel movies does the audience need per year? How many TV shows? At what point does the cotton candy of the MCU start to make the audience sick?
The glut of Marvel films and TV series runs the risk of developing franchise diabetes in its audience. To keep current with the stories, the movies demand an increasing amount of viewing time, not to mention a challenge for filmmakers to maintain continuity. Which brings me to…
5. Growing Complexity
The longer the Marvel movies drag on, the broader the stories become, and the greater number of characters that occupy the films and television shows makes for an obstacle course for both the filmmakers and the audience. At this point, audiences seeing Captain America 3 will not only need to have seen the previous two outings, but also the Avengers films, and, for extra credit, the TV series Agent Carter and Agents of Shield. Already the complex, intertwining plots have developed problems with continuity. That’s always been a peril for comic books, so perhaps it was inevitable that the MCU would encounter the same issue. Even so, given the longer development of the films and TV series, and given their expense, Marvel should try to keep the narrative accessible as possible.
4. Alienating Filmmakers
With the frustrating requirement of including an increasingly complex backstory in every film or TV series, and with the Marvel executives desperate to protect their cash cow, filmmakers have begun to recoil from the franchise. There’s a hint of irony there–what began as a filmmaker-driven series with Iron Man now must cater to a litany of requirements, so much so that longtime Marvel scribe and director of the Avengers movies, Joss Whedon, has vowed to never work for the studio again! Couple that with the revolving door of directors who sign on to Marvel films only to depart–among them, Ann DuVarney, Patty Jenkins and Edgar Wright–and the shadow of overproducing falls over the series.
I’ve little doubt that Marvel will always find directors to help their projects, but a director without a strong, personal vision makes for a lackluster film. Should Marvel continue to deny their directors creative freedom, the quality of the films will suffer.
3. Changing Ratings
Hollywood is a reactionary community. When something hits big, it becomes a fad for other movies to emulate. Remember how every action movie began using wire work after The Matrix? Or recall the glut of fantasy films that came out after the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films struck gold?
Deadpool made quite a splash in February 2016, and now the studios are rushing to mimic the violent, adult content of that movie with their own superhero properties. Fox has announced that a third Wolverine film will carry an R-Rating, and that the forthcoming Batman v. Superman will also feature a longer, R-Rated cut when it hits Blu-Ray.
I’ve no problem with R-Rated comic book films (I happen to love Watchmen and Sin City), but a string of R-Ratings could hurt a franchise fueled in large part by child viewers and toy sales. Marvel faces a lose-lose scenario: rate the movies R to remain current and risk alienating the audience, or continue to produce PG-13-rated cartoons and seem behind the times.
2. Star Woes
As mentioned before, skyrocketing paydays for the Marvel actors have caused the budgets to balloon on the Marvel films. The actors can’t stay young forever, and historically audiences bristle at recasting.
But there’s another problem finding star actors to fill the Marvel tights: their contracts are becoming increasingly rigid. At present, actors are signing for whopping nine movie contracts, which could require a commitment of a decade or more. That’s great for actors wanting to play an iconic role in a superhero film, but bad news for actors who like to act and show off their versatility in other roles. Just as Marvel allows directors less and less creative freedom, so do the actor agreements. How long before the performers scoff at the time commitment needed to do a Marvel film?
1. Superman v. Captain America: Dawn of Throwdown
Just as the burgeoning number of Marvel films risks exhausting the audience, so does the arrival of the integrated DC movie universe. With both studios rushing to spit out more and more superhero epics, they run the risk of exhausting the entire genre!
And therein lies the greatest rub, the culmination of every other point I’ve made thus far: without a diverse group of films–some dark, some comedic, some cerebral–every superhero movie will start to resemble all the others, making individual films less and less distinctive. If that happens, audiences could tune out the entire genre. While comic die-hard fans like myself (or, let’s face it, you if you’ve read this far) might welcome the complex, meandering and intertwining plots, to a viewer just wanting to have fun and see something new at the movies, the glut of superhero movies will seem like nothing more than a blur. Decreasing revenue will squeeze out the number of films going before the cameras, until they all just fade to black.