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Does Marvel Have a Quality Problem?

Matt Belloni and Sean Fennessey discuss whether the superhero franchise is in decline

Marvel Studios

Are the quality of Marvel movies and television shows in decline? Matt is joined by The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey to discuss Marvel’s recent dip in quality, the future of its content, and if the biggest issues are creative, financial, or both.

Host: Matt Belloni
Guest: Sean Fennessey
Producer: Craig Horlbeck
Theme Song: Devon Renaldo

Subscribe: Spotify

In the following excerpt, Fennessey and Belloni discuss Kevin Feige’s recent directorial choices for Marvel, including Sam Raimi’s role in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and the work of Chloé Zhao, Ryan Coogler, Cate Shortland, and more.

Matt Belloni: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was a little bit gorier, kind of had horror elements, and also turned off some of the younger fans. I know that friends of mine who have kids that are in the 6-to-8-year-old range were like, “No, no, no, this one’s not for them.” There’s this balance that you have to strike, because Marvel has had tons of success plugging interesting filmmakers into the Marvel machine. You have people like Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden doing Captain Marvel. You have the Russo brothers, who were directing episodes of Community when they were hired. And all of a sudden they have the highest-grossing movie of all time in Endgame. What [Kevin] Feige has done is he has taken really idiosyncratic filmmakers in Chloé Zhao and Sam Raimi and tried to plug them into this formula, but given them a little bit more freedom.

If you look at these two movies, they are more like Chloé Zhao and Sam Raimi movies than the previous Marvel filmmakers have been on their movies. So is that a mistake? Is it a mistake to stray too much from the Marvel formula? Or do you need to constantly kind of tweak it? The adage in Hollywood is “do it the same, but different”—that’s what succeeds. It has to be a little bit different so the audience feels like it’s fresh, but it has to be familiar enough where they know it and it’s comfort food, and they’re going back and back and back. And did he stray too much with these two filmmakers?

Sean Fennessey: I don’t think so. I think actually, if you look at his history and his taste in directors and the way that he’s been able to blend his vision of how they tell this story long term, with the tone of individual filmmakers, this is someone who got James Gunn, Ryan Coogler, and Taika Waititi to direct three of the best films they’ve ever made. Those are three very different, very unusual directors who have very distinct points of view. James Gunn being hired to direct Guardians of the Galaxy was an extremely bold choice. And he made that work and he made it work because James Gunn was the right person to direct a movie. Chloé Zhao is an amazingly accomplished and gifted filmmaker. I never thought that made any sense for a Marvel movie. The tone of her previous films basically has nothing to do with any of the tone of any storytelling in Marvel.

It’s cool that they identified her as someone who could or should make one, but it was pretty clear within the first five minutes of that movie that it wasn’t a match, and the Sam Raimi thing just feels like trying to plug the dam. They lost a filmmaker in Scott Derrickson on that project. Kevin Feige knows Sam Raimi going back to the original Spider-Man films—the Tobey Maguire—Sam Raimi is a legend in the superhero storytelling world. He’s also a legend in the horror world. This was a true convergence of those two things. It felt like a marriage of convenience and friendship, more so than like a bold choice to choose an unusual filmmaker. I think we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in the future. Sometimes they choose filmmakers like Cate Shortland. Do you even remember who Cate Shortland is?

Belloni: Do not. Who is that?

Fennessey: Cate Shortland is the director of Black Widow, which is the movie that came out [last year]. And no one knew who that was. She was an Australian filmmaker. A pretty accomplished action storyteller in some ways, but she has no name recognition. And that movie did fine business in the middle of a pandemic and we moved on and there was no anxiety about it. So it’s an interesting challenge for him, because I think Feige knows that you can get headlines and that you can tell a different story when you choose a different filmmaker every time. The story that he’s been able to tell by hand-picking Coogler is amazing. Black Panther, lest we forget, was the cultural phenomenon of the year that it was released.

Belloni: And he hired him off of Fruitvale Station.

Fennessey: Exactly. He does have great vision when it comes to these things, but you can be wrong. Sometimes. The Eternals one in particular was, I think, more egregious even than Doctor Strange 2, because that’s a story that was essentially fully disconnected from the stories that they told previously. It was much more cosmic. Maybe it’s leading the way toward where the stories are going to go, but it was an ill fit of director, vision, characters they chose, casting—a lot of things went wrong on that movie. So it looked bad. I mean, for a Chloé Zhao movie to look bad is very strange.

Belloni: But you know what, we’re harping on this one movie, but if you look at the fact that he’s had 28 Marvel movies now with very, very few misses, I mean, you could argue that Thor: The Dark World was probably a miss. There have been choices that have been odd, but when you’re dealing in volume like that, it’s percentages. This is a business that is built on—you just want to have more hits than non-hits. I mean, look at Pixar. Pixar was the by-far darling of the animation industry. And once it started upping the volume of movies that it made from one every couple of years to one a year to maybe two a year, they started to see a drop-off in quality overall. Doesn’t mean there aren’t great films, but there are a lot of films that—not a lot—but some films that aren’t up to that Pixar standard from those early years. And that’s just the cost of doing business if you want to produce films at scale. I don’t think there’s a huge cause for alarm at Marvel just yet. It’s just that the laws of averages means they’re going to have some stinkers.

Fennessey: There’s a canard for years that Marvel movies are going to go the way of the Western at some point, which is to say that they are the most fashionable mainstream mode of storytelling at the movies. And eventually, there will always be Marvel movies just as there will always be Westerns, but their frequency will be lower and they won’t seem as important to the culture. I think there’s some truth to that, but a more apt comparison is the kind of disaster movies that we saw in the ’70s. In 1974, three of the top 10 movies at the box office: No. 2 is The Towering Inferno. No. 5 is Earthquake. No. 7 is Airport 1975. These three movies were massive in the culture. They featured movie stars. They felt like they were what mainstream audiences really wanted.

Folks like Irwin Allen made a bundle of money making these movies. Cut to one year later. The biggest movie is Jaws. Cut to three years later. The biggest movie is Star Wars and the culture has completely moved on from these disaster movies. It doesn’t mean that we don’t get disaster movies. Of course we do. You and I saw a lot of great disaster movies in the ’90s and the 2000s. We watched the Independence Day, 2012, wave. Those movies are always going to work, but they’re not necessarily the lifeblood of the box office. The question for me is at what point will Marvel not be the lifeblood? Because it’s going to happen, because it happens to every subgenre of story in the business. Nothing has come along yet that could replace it, but something will.

This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.