Superhero movies are the name of the game nowadays, but Marvel Studios' increasing dominance is beginning to damage the genre. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has proved to be one of the most successful Hollywood experiments of all time. Over the last 11 years, 23 movies have collectively grossed over $22.5 billion worldwide. They appear to have redefined cinema, with rival studios desperately attempting to create their own shared cinematic universes.
Ironically, this very success has recently led to Marvel coming in for some pretty heavy criticism. Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese has been particularly vocal; in his view, the focus on a production line of superhero blockbusters puts art in the margins. Francis Ford Coppola went one step further, going so far as to say that Marvel films are "despicable". The truth, of course, is probably a lot more nuanced, that Marvel's movies are simply a different type of cinema, as Scorsese has reluctantly accepted, and that this new type won't appeal to everybody.
But, just because some criticism is overdone, it doesn't necessarily follow that everything Marvel does should be celebrated. In fact, the studio's recent growth risks damaging the superhero genre as a whole.
Marvel Studios Is Growing Too Powerful
The fundamental problem is that Marvel Studios is growing too powerful, and too dominant - on both the big and small screens. In March 2019, the Walt Disney Company completed its $71.3 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox; they now own the bulk of Fox's film and TV empire. According to Disney CEO Bob Iger, the main priority was to gain access to the Fox vault in order to ensure the Disney+ streaming service had enough content to be competitive. But this also had an important impact on the superhero genre as a whole, because it meant suddenly one of Marvel's main competitors was gone. The X-Men and Fantastic Four film franchises came to an end as separate entities, and they will be rebooted completely as part of the MCU.
It has to be noted that Fox's X-Men films have been of varying quality, and at worst they've included the likes of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The final X-Men movie, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, grossed a catastrophic $252.4 million worldwide, and the fate of Josh Boone's New Mutants seems to be up in the air. But not all of Fox's X-Men films have been failures; X-Men: Days of Future Past was a critical and box office hit, Logan is generally viewed as a theatrical masterpiece, and the Deadpool movies are so popular that Disney don't intend to reboot them at all. The quality of the competition may not have been consistent - but it was competition nonetheless, and now it's gone.
The latest news has seen Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige given a new role, also serving as Chief Creative Officer of Marvel Entertainment. It coincides with what increasingly looks like the winding-down of Marvel Television, who now only have two live-action projects left - Runaways and Helstrom. The background issue appears to be that Marvel Television's fare just can't compare to Marvel Studios' upcoming Disney+ shows, which enjoy studio-sized budgets.
Marvel's Dominance Means Less Competition & Less Variety
It's important to note that this doesn't just affect competition in some abstract sense; it also means that viewers will get less variety of superhero film and TV. Marvel movies are more producer-led than they are director-led, and the almost-unbroken run of hits is testimony to the creative vision of Kevin Feige. He's transformed Marvel Studios into a production line of superhero content, signposted by the fact they're able to churn out three or even four films in a year. Scripts have a loose "formula" to them, common to both their best and their worst, and there's an essential "house style" that directors are expected to correspond with. Risks aren't particularly encouraged, because Marvel is always making a movie with an eye to the next sequel or crossover. This approach means Marvel can generate a lot of content without making a dud like Fantastic Four, but it also means they're never going to create something as unique or distinctive as Logan or Joker.
It's reasonable to assume that the same will be true for Marvel's Disney+ productions as well. And that's a real shame, because they'll be aimed at mass-audiences, whereas Marvel Television had become known for a niche approach. As Marvel Entertainment's SVP of Original Programming and Production, Karim Zreik, recently observed, "Each show, for us, had a different demographic. Each show is very specific. Women took to Jessica Jones, men took to Daredevil, young men took to Iron Fist because of the age of the lead character." That's why Cloak & Dagger was so different to Legion, and why Agents of SHIELD is nothing like Daredevil, because the shows are aimed at different niche audiences. Meanwhile, because showrunners were working with less well-known superhero brands, they were allowed a remarkable amount of creative liberty. Noah Hawley had the freedom to turn Legion into a fascinating, cerebral series, while Joe Pokaski increasingly delved into voodoo with Cloak & Dagger. Neither approach is likely to happen on Disney+; once again, the superhero genre is shrinking under Marvel Studios' influence.
Marvel's Competitors Need To Keep Stepping Up
Fortunately, all this doesn't mean that the superhero genre is in trouble. The DCEU stumbled at first, but now Warner Bros. seem far more sure-footed, with Aquaman breaking $1 billion at the global box office. Joker is a particularly interesting case, demonstrating that there's a real hunger for comic book adaptations that don't just follow the Marvel formula. It's become the first R-rated movie to cross $800 million worldwide, and some box office pundits are speculating that it could pass $1 billion in the end. It's safe to assume that Warner Bros. will sign off on further superhero (or, rather, supervillain) movies like this. Meanwhile, Sony's Venom proved that Spider-Man spinoffs can work, too; it grossed over $850 million, while their animated Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse won an Academy Award. February 2020 will see Sony release Bloodshot, the first ever movie based on a property from lesser-known comic book publisher Valiant Comics. It's impossible to say how that will fare, but at the very least it means there's a new entry in the market.
Meanwhile, networks seem to be beginning to realize that comic books have more to offer than just DC and Marvel superheroes. Netflix timed the release of The Umbrella Academy season 1 as though to prove they don't need Marvel, and incredibly Amazon's The Boys was even more successful. Again, these two TV shows are unlike anything Marvel look set to offer; they're brutal and violent, head-spinningly complex, and entertainingly whimsical. That distinctive approach seems to be paying off.
Marvel Studios may be a success, but it's important that the company doesn't receive unqualified praise. The recent expansion has solidified Marvel's grip on the market, but at the cost of both competition and variety. Fortunately, there are still other competitors, and they, too, seem to have figured out how to capitalize on the current boom in demand for comic book adaptations. It will be fascinating to see how things play out from here.
- Black Widow (2020) release date: May 01, 2020
- Eternals (2020) release date: Nov 06, 2020
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) release date: Feb 12, 2021
- Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2021) release date: May 07, 2021
- Thor: Love and Thunder (2021) release date: Nov 05, 2021
- Spider-Man: Homecoming 3 (2021) release date: Jul 16, 2021
- Black Panther 2 (2022) release date: May 06, 2022