If Marvel Studios has problems, they’re clearly of the high-class variety. Its last sequel, featuring Doctor Strange, amassed more than $950 million worldwide, and the latest, “Thor: Love and Thunder,” also looks destined to make it rain, financially speaking.
Commercial success, however, doesn’t always directly correlate with quality. And a downward drift for the Disney-owned unit raises legitimate questions about whether Marvel’s efforts to feed the parent studio’s streaming service, Disney+, have contributed to diluting its output.
It’s hardly a secret that Disney has made establishing its streaming service a top priority, relying heavily on Marvel and Lucasfilm to create the kind of content fans will ante up to watch. Given that the service has raced ahead of subscriber projections to more than 137 million based on the last tally, the plan has worked.
Yet while sister unit Lucasfilm has thrown itself into TV for a time – even robbing from its theatrical arsenal to do so, with “Obi-Wan Kenobi” having been redirected from a planned movie into a series format – Marvel has continued to diligently hammer away on both fronts. While its Disney+ fare has delivered buzzworthy titles (along with a few less celebrated ones), the film roster has presented a mixed bag during that stretch.
Clearly, a few mandatory disclaimers apply here. For starters, Covid-19 dealt a major setback to theatrical movie-going, and surely blunted the box-office performance of two titles released during 2021, “Eternals” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” both of which represented characters that were new to the screen, based on Marvel Comics launched during the 1970s.
Marvel has also entered into what amounts to a throat-clearing phase after the epic conclusion of the Thanos-Avengers saga, so a degree of resetting the playing field was anticipated. Plus, there’s another huge sequel, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” due later this year.
Finally, these questions aren’t new. Indeed, when Disney+ launched, the Observer wondered aloud about the limits of the studio’s appeal in an article headlined “How Much Marvel Is Too Much Marvel?,” a theme sounded about any -established entertainment brand given the pressure to capitalize upon them.
Even so, the flaws in “Eternals” – a movie that seemingly bit off more than it could chew in adapting a little-known commodity – and now “Thor’s” shortcomings feel like invitations to debate whether any of that is attributable to a content glut.
The law of averages in Hollywood says nobody bats a thousand – indeed, in baseball terms, going one out of three puts you in the Hall of Fame. Marvel’s enviable scorecard of hits has surpassed that, but with each new property developed for streaming, from the disappointing “Moon Knight” to “Ms. Marvel” to the upcoming “She-Hulk” – the studio seems to be tempting the fates and testing those odds.
Marvel, of course, has excelled at playing a very long game, beginning with its audacious plan to produce a quartet of movies building toward “Avengers.” Everything since has proceeded along that trajectory, adding dimension (and dimensions) to its cinematic universe.
The big unknown hovering over Marvel’s approach, though, has always been on its ability to keep building outward without draining the core. To the extent Disney+ has fueled demand for Marvel titles featuring lower-profile heroes, it seems logical, even inevitable, that those efforts would place greater strain on the theatrical portfolio.
Does any of this mean Marvel and Disney should be hitting the panic button? Hardly. But it does raise a few warning flags.
Thanks to streaming, Marvel finds itself with another very hungry mouth to feed. That doesn’t automatically lead to a higher percentage of misfires, but it does increase the chances that trying to keep everyone satisfied will be met less often with “Thunder”-ous applause.