In the 1980s and 1990s, the comic book market surged. Major events like Superman’s “death” and the X-Men relaunch became cultural touchstones as publishers — notably the “Big Two” (DC and Marvel) — endorsed bombastic, interconnected narratives and marketing campaigns to match. With foil, die-cut, and embossed covers flooding newsstands, publishers printed millions of comic books per month. Superheroes were a commodity — a darling of prospective investors and pop culture gurus alike. In search of a greater share of a booming industry, many companies glutted the market with premiere issues and (often disappointing) “cataclysmic” events. But these gimmicks, which had once worked exceedingly well, no longer compelled the jaded masses. Soon enough, everything came toppling down.
This crazed trajectory, culminating in the Comic Book Crash of 1993, closely mirrors a current takeover of the cultural zeitgeist: the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Marvel movies have taken unprecedented control of the box office, accounting for eight of the 25 highest grossing films of all time (seven of which came out in the last decade). This chokehold, however, has shown signs of loosening. Pre-pandemic, five of the last six Marvel movies grossed over one billion dollars, while only one of seven have achieved the same feat since the re-opening of theaters. Though this figure is partially attributable to a diminishing cinema-going public, it is likely that superhero fatigue and oversaturation are largely to blame.
Like comic book companies of the early 1990s, the MCU has fallen back on fan service and superfluous gimmicks to get audiences into theaters. In particular, “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” introduced Mr. Fantastic (John Krasinski), Professor X (Sir Patrick Stewart), and an array of fan-favorite characters as the short-lived Illuminati. Upcoming films, including “Deadpool 3” are being made in the same vein. Disney Plus content, notably “WandaVision,” “Werewolf by Night,” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special,” are firmly rooted in pastiches of pre-established film and TV genres. In each of these cases, the MCU bastardizes its legacy characters and exacerbates an ongoing superhero fatigue.
Is this to say that nostalgia shouldn’t play a role in superhero movies? Not at all. Superhero movies, after all, are based on their staple-bound, 32-page forebears. They’re silly, fun, serialized nostalgia goodness — comfort food, if you will. Marvel movies are meant to be exhilarating cinematic romps with friends old and new — be it Peter Parker, Stephen Strange, or Kamala Khan. Nostalgia puts people in the seats.
But narrative — not nostalgia — keeps people in the seats. Recently, Marvel has forgotten how to experiment. Marvel seems unable to imagine and produce a movie of the caliber of the original “Iron-Man.” While occasional glimpses of the old Marvel are present in the new, those glimpses are becoming few and far between. “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” for example, crafted a heartfelt (though at times shaky) narrative about personal growth and hardship. Each of the three Spider-Man iterations earned their place in the story, contributing to complex character development in themselves and one another. Narrative, in this case, dictated nostalgia and the movie largely succeeded.
To say Marvel movies are dead would be an overstatement. To say, at their current rate, that Marvel movies are dying, would not.
When it first arrived on the scene, the MCU delivered something that had never been done before: an interconnected grouping of quality-driven movies with quality-driven characters played by quality-driven actors. The premise was simple and the execution was complex, engaging, and unilaterally successful.
Marvel’s Phase Four content, which mostly serves as a reaction to “Avengers: Endgame,” has lost sight of these standards. Current visual effects, such as those in “Thor: Love and Thunder” and “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law,” are slipping in quality. Phase Four Marvel stars like Angelina Jolie, Owen Wilson, and Oscar Isaac fail to uphold the same custodianship, reverence for, and embodiment of the Marvel canon as their antecedents.
Until Marvel can find a way to consistently establish new characters that rival Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron-Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America, new visuals that rival “Doctor Strange” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” new plotlines that rival “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Endgame,” the fandom will continue to wane and shift toward newer, better things. Nostalgia-dominant, multiversal movies, like gimmick-ridden comic books, can only last so long. Marvel movies “seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them,” asserted director Martin Scorsese in an opinion piece for The New York Times. The new rides in a theme park, as he famously put it, will always be compared to the old ones. And without experimentation and innovation, the MCU is doomed to fail as its source material did so many years ago.