Marvel Spider-Man MCU

It's impossible to escape the gleeful headlines: as long prophesized, Disney's once-golden goose – Marvel – spent 2023 in a period of declining critical and commercial success, potentially succumbing to the financier-feared "superhero fatigue" that industry watchers have been waiting for for years... But are we really about to witness the sudden and spectacular fall of one of Disney's anchor IPs? It's a question fans are facing in real time...

To start with, let's admit the obvious: no one at Disney regrets the $4 billion that CEO Bob Iger spent to acquire the comic book company in 2009. After all, the first 33 films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that the company's in-house Marvel Studios spawned have generated about $30 billion in revenue – nearly a billion each on average. No franchise comes close to matching Marvel's cinematic size, and it certainly ranks high in its pop culture longevity and consistency. That's to say nothing of the merchandising, licensing, theme park visits, Disney+ subscriptions, and, y'know comic book sales driven by Marvel's success. 

But even Disney's typically-tight-lipped leaders have spoken out about the need for a change at Marvel, primarily around two areas where the once-dominating brand has shown some serious flaws...

1. Over-saturation

Image: Disney

Industry observers had warned of "superhero fatigue" since the genre began to grow in the early 2000s. But curiously when it came to a post-Iron Man world, audience "fatigue" with the genre only seemed to affect films from Warner Bros.' DC, which routinely underperformed as the unstoppable Marvel only grew in scale and scope. It seemed that Marvel might've been immune, ever-expanding and digging deeper and deeper into the comic book archives to turn more and more once-obscure characters into pop culture icons. But as 2024 begins, it's impossible not to wonder if Marvel has finally become over-saturated. 

The MCU's "Phase One" (from 2008's Iron Man to 2012's The Avengers) was made up of six films across five years.

"Phase Two" (from 2013's Iron Man 3 to 2015's Ant-Man) released the same number of films in roughly half the time – just three years.

"Phase Three" (from 2015's Captain America: Civil War through Endgame and on to 2019's Spider-Man: Far From Home) kept the condensed three year timeline, and crammed in eleven movies.

Image: Disney

Even that blistering pace is nothing compared to the post-Endgame "Phase Four." In the less-than-two years between 2021's WandaVision and 2022's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, "Phase Four" was comprised of seven films, eight Disney+ television series, and two "Special Presentation" direct-to-streaming movies totaling over 50 hours of content – more than Phase One, Two, and Three combined.

Entertainment industry insiders suggest that it was former CEO Bob Chapek who prodded Marvel Studios to amplify its output in the Original Series format, churning out the content needed to power Disney+ and reach subscriber goals. Likewise, the race to press forward en route to the next mega-crossover Avengers saw an aggressive schedule of releases planned for 2023, 2024, and beyond.

For better or worse, that spread has seen highs and... well... lows. Unfortunately, 2023 saw several of the latter.

Image: Disney

First, there was February 2023's Ant-Man: Quantumania. Given the somewhat meandering, experimental, sprawling nature of the 50-hour "Phase Four," Quantumania was meant to be the definitive launch of "Phase Five," re-anchoring the MCU and officially beginning to use the chess pieces that "Phase Four" had introduced. But Quantumania was rare underperformer, earning "just" $475 million. 

Worse, Quantumania had been positioned as the big screen launch of Kang the Conquerer – a Thanos-level threat set to interlace with the next 20 films en route to 2025's Avengers: The Kang Dynasty. If many MCU fans and casual viewers skipped Quantumania and thus, missed Kang's debut, then could the character build enough clout to matter? (Luckily, that loop was closed when the actor portraying him, Jonathan Majors, was convicted of assault in December, leading Marvel to officially part ways with the actor. That sent Marvel writers scrambling and meant Kang's threat was dealt with – no climactic battle needed.)

The most recent miss – November 2023's The Marvels – was expected to be a return to form for the series. After all, the film it served as a sequel to – 2019's Captain Marvel – had survived online trolls' attempts to deride, review bomb, and boycott the female-starring film... and had became a surprise billion dollar earner. But be it superhero fatigue, poor marketing, or a more successful online troll campaign this time around, The Marvels limped to the finish line with just a $200 million haul... By far the lowest of the MCU, and another troubling sign that Marvel might've spread itself too thin.

Image: Disney

Even aside from financial frustrations, the post-Endgame MCU has been marked by several critical ones. 2021's The Eternals earned only a 47% critical reception on Rotten Tomatoes – the first MCU film to be rated "rotten". 2022's Thor: Love and Thunder was unexpectedly divisive, earning just 63%. Quantumania topped out at a franchise-worst of 43%, then The Marvels at 61%. On the Disney+ front, 2023's Secret Invasion earned an audience score of only 47%... 

For the first time, "Phase Four" and "Phase Five" has created a slate where the quality of the product had become unreliable. Especially as the quantity of product grew enormously, it makes sense that fans began to have a "wait and see" approach, figuring out what's really essential, or even beginning to turn on the MCU as a whole. Seeing sprawling but sometimes mediocre offerings that seem to lack a "big picture" plot, is it any surprise that some fans feel the MCU should've ended with Endgame?

And that brings us to the next issue. All of those under-performers also suffer from another major factor that's dragging down Marvel's post-Endgame fare... Read on as we examine the issues with over-complication in the MCU, and Disney's plans for fixing it...


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