Nothing in pop culture is evergreen. No matter how brilliant the creatives, how great the stories, or how passionate the fandom, all IP experiences peaks and valleys. Even Star Wars, once considered an invulnerable franchise, has seen its Force powers weakened to the point that several announced projects have been canceled and fans still don’t know what the next feature film will be.
As Star Wars has waned, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has risen to take its place in the cultural zeitgeist. From Iron Man in 2008 to Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019, the movies in the first three phases of the MCU dominated the box office, making more than $22 billion worldwide.
In particular, Phase 3 may very well include the best set of films Marvel will ever make; it featured beloved movies like Thor: Ragnarok, culturally groundbreaking ones like Black Panther, and possibly the greatest conclusion to a film saga in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.
After 2019, which saw the stories of some of the MCU’s tentpole characters come to a close, Marvel Studios looked to rebuild its cinematic dynasty, introducing a variety of new and diverse characters, releasing more projects than ever, and expanding to Disney+ as the streaming era exploded. The results, however, have been mixed.
Since the start of Phase 4 in 2021, only one film—Spider-Man: No Way Home—has crossed $1 billion in the worldwide box office (although the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on theaters surely affected those figures); in comparison, six films surpassed that mark in Phase 3. Further, in Eternals, Phase 4 has the MCU project with the lowest Rotten Tomatoes critics score, 47 percent (Inhumans and Iron Fist have lower scores but were not produced by Marvel Studios and thus are not a part of the official MCU canon).
Some have criticized Phase 4 for being disjointed and unfocused, for releasing too much content in a short period, and for having inconsistent quality from project to project. The criticisms, depressed box office numbers, and disappointing reviews have fueled increasingly loud conversations about superhero fatigue—the idea that audiences have become tired of superhero films and shows.
It’s important to remember that Marvel is not the only purveyor of superhero stories. Over the last several years, numerous studios have tried to jump on the caped bandwagon, including Sony, Amazon, and, of course, Warner Bros. On top of the considerable number of projects that Marvel puts out, Amazon is rapidly expanding its superhero offerings with The Boys and Invincible, Sony continues to release numerous live-action and animated films with Marvel characters, and Warner Bros. has been chasing the MCU with its own shared universe, which is soon to be rebooted by Marvel director (turned co-CEO and cochair of DC Studios) James Gunn. While hard-core fans can readily differentiate the various projects from different studios, the average audience member simply sees an overwhelming volume of superpowered characters in film and TV.
Despite concerns about superhero fatigue, many expected Phase 5 to be the first step toward a new dynasty for Marvel. After the heights of Endgame, it’s natural that some rebuilding or retooling would be necessary. Just like the Golden State Warriors had a lottery year after losing Kevin Durant to free agency and Klay Thompson to injuries, the MCU needed some time to reload. However, the first Phase 5 film, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, was released over the weekend to surprisingly harsh reviews from critics and currently sits at 48 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, almost equaling the MCU low.
Is superhero fatigue really setting in? Is it possible that the greatest threat to the Avengers isn’t Thanos or Kang, but indifference?
Context Is Kang
Any conversation regarding the current and the future state of the MCU must first acknowledge the fact that Marvel’s plans were severely undercut by a global pandemic that shut down productions and theaters and kept everyone at home for an extended period. At San Diego Comic-Con in 2019, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige took the Hall H stage and announced a full slate of projects, creatives, and casts in a stirring presentation; fan excitement rivaled that surrounding any previous announcements. The hype was very real. Nobody could have predicted what would happen just a few months later, and for once, Marvel’s carefully cultivated plan became its biggest burden. Every MCU project leads into future stories, and after losing a full calendar year, Marvel Studios was forced to accelerate its release schedule.
Even after theaters reopened, many potential moviegoers stayed home, unwilling to return to large indoor gatherings or simply preferring to wait until films were released on streaming platforms. Social distancing restrictions remained in place at many theaters, limiting how many seats could be sold per showing. China, the second-biggest film market in the world, focused on local films and did not release a Marvel movie for more than three years, until Black Panther: Wakanda Forever on February 7, 2023 (nearly three months after its U.S. release).
With all that in mind, domestic box office numbers belie notions of Marvel fatigue. The Phase 4 films averaged $371 million over seven films, with a high of $814 million (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and a low of $164.8 million (Eternals). By way of comparison, Phase 2 averaged $308 million over six films, with a high of $459 million (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and a low of $180 million (Ant-Man). Three of the Phase 4 films—No Way Home, Wakanda Forever, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness—are in the MCU domestic box office top 10. Phase 3 has four films, Phase 2 has two films, and Phase 1 has one film in the top 10.
Further, despite the online hand-wringing, audience scores for MCU films remain consistently high on Rotten Tomatoes. The much-maligned Eternals garnered a 77 percent audience score (and was the most streamed superhero film of 2022), and Quantumania is currently at a healthy 84 percent. She-Hulk is an extreme outlier, with a 33 percent audience score due, in part, to review bombing (the women-led series has more than 19,000 audience reviews, nearly double that of other MCU shows on Disney+).
Even with the negative reviews from critics, Quantumania is performing well, making nearly $240 million worldwide in its opening weekend, the best opening in the Ant-Man franchise and one of the best Presidents’ Day movie releases ever. The MCU remains a financial juggernaut.
Phase 5 and Beyond
Despite the ongoing financial success of Marvel Studios, there’s no denying that there’s been a cultural shift when it comes to these projects. Quantumania is a fascinating case study because it has an unusually large divide between critic and fan scores on Rotten Tomatoes and a substantially lower critics score than the first two films in the Ant-Man franchise (83 percent for Ant-Man and 87 percent for Ant-Man and the Wasp).
The way the Rotten Tomatoes critics score is calculated is based on an aggregate of reviews by approved critics that fall into a binary “fresh” or “rotten” designation. And while the critics score is an imperfect measure of any film, it potentially reflects a burgeoning issue regarding the MCU. The question is whether the issue is internal, within Marvel Studios, or external, a result of heightened audience expectations.
Journalist and author Karama Horne (who also wrote the Dora Milaje book Black Panther: Protectors of Wakanda) notes that superhero fatigue might be affecting critics more than fans, “because if you’re a fan of a franchise you are going to show up for your favorite characters no matter what.” And yet, Horne also believes that the multiversal shift away from definitive versions of beloved characters caused some frustration for fans as well. “Marvel ‘doubled down’ in Phase 4. Literally. Two Black Widows, two Visions, two Lokis and even two guys fighting over Captain America’s shield. I think fans reacted badly because many of them wanted either better written stories about the new characters, or simply the old ones back,” Horne told The Ringer.
Author Frederick T. Joseph, who wrote the Wakanda Forever children’s book, The Courage to Dream, doesn’t believe that superhero fatigue is an issue, but emphasized the need for Marvel to continue to innovate. “I don’t think that people are necessarily tired of superhero movies. I think that people are tired of superhero monotony,” Joseph said. “When you look at something like WandaVision … it feels like a very fresh take in this world. It’s less about punching aliens and blowing up buildings and more of a profile piece on what a super-powered, reality-altering person could do while they’re experiencing deep depression and grief. That’s deeply creative.”
Pointing to the hit HBO series Watchmen and the multiversal indie darling Everything Everywhere All At Once, Joseph, who created the “Black Panther Challenge” to send children to free screenings of Black Panther, hopes to see Marvel highlight more diversity and tell fresh stories. “I’d like to see Marvel platform more marginalized creators. I think there are so many untapped dimensions. … I want to see Marvel bring us into more real worlds. Ground us in something. That’s what made the Spider-Man films so special,” Joseph said. “Avoid trying to recreate the same type of magic from Phases 1 and 2, because we’ve seen it.”
Marvel fan Justin Otero, who regularly attends Marvel premieres as part of a group of high-level cosplayers, feels that audiences have become accustomed to having a clearer direction for these stories. “There was an oversaturation of movies and shows, with no clear direction of how they would work together down the line,” Otero said. It seems that for some fans, Marvel is suffering from its own massive success in creating a shared universe. In the post-Endgame era, fans are consistently focused on the next epic crossover event and don’t have the patience that they might have had when the MCU first started.
Otero also noted that the condensed release schedule due to the pandemic contributed to any superhero fatigue that the public may be feeling, because each project no longer feels like a can’t-miss event. “Phases 1 and 2—it was new, and the pace they were releasing them kept everybody drawn in,” he said. “But Phase 4 … everything was so close together. … You didn’t really have a chance to grow that want for it, that need for it. That’s where the fatigue comes in … you need it spaced out so you have that longing for it.”
Despite any recent missteps by Marvel, Horne, Joseph, and Otero shared optimism for the future. Otero believes that the post-credits scenes in Quantumania gave fans the direction that they have been seeking, and that Marvel will be back on the upswing. “It’s Marvel. They’ll find a way to bring people back in,” Otero said. Even as he acknowledges that superhero fatigue is a factor, Otero says that his interest in the franchise remains high. “I’ll still go see every one. I don’t think there’s one that I would not see, even if it was not well received.”
Horne, author of the Dora Milaje book Black Panther: Protectors of Wakanda, is excited for the future potential of Marvel, with new fans and new heroes. “Phase 4 introduced a lot of new people into the MCU, so I look forward to seeing what Marvel paints with this new palette of characters,” Horne said.
For Joseph, he believes that the key to the Multiverse saga’s success could lie with its marquee villain. “Phase 4 was figuring out what the MCU is, post-Endgame, in a universe where so much was centered around, quite frankly, the bravado and gravitas of very specific people,” Joseph said referring to stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Chadwick Boseman. “With Jonathan Majors, you might be getting another Robert Downey Jr. type … [where] it doesn’t matter how good this is or bad it is, I’m here because I’m here for Jonathan Majors.”
Marvel Studios Is Listening
It seems that Disney and Marvel have heard the concerns of the public and are already strategically adjusting. Recently returned CEO Bob Iger said on a Disney earnings call that the company will “aggressively curate” content with an eye on managing costs. Feige echoed that sentiment, telling Entertainment Weekly that the studio is planning to adjust its release schedule for upcoming projects in order to give each one the necessary space to shine.
“I do think one of the powerful aspects of being at Marvel Studios is having these films and shows hit the zeitgeist. It is harder to hit the zeitgeist when there’s so much product out there. … We want Marvel Studios and the MCU projects to really stand out and stand above. So, people will see that as we get further into Phase 5 and 6. The pace at which we’re putting out the Disney+ shows will change so they can each get a chance to shine,” Feige told Entertainment Weekly.
Last week, Marvel announced that the premiere for its third 2023 feature, The Marvels, would be moved from its original July 8 release date to November 10. The Hollywood Reporter further stated that only two of the six previously announced Disney+ shows—Loki Season 2 and Secret Invasion—would definitely be released this year. Ironheart, Echo, Agatha: Coven of Chaos, and What If…? Season 2 are likely to be delayed, according to THR.
The decision to slow down was likely always in the plans, considering that the sudden deluge of content was a direct result of the pandemic shutdown. Phase 4 consisted of seven films, eight Disney+ shows, and two special presentations, all released over the span of two years. Trying to maintain that dizzying pace isn’t a positive for Marvel Studios, its creatives, or its fans.
Going forward, it’s worth keeping in mind that Marvel is nowhere near done from a creative standpoint. Feige is unmoved by whispers of superhero fatigue because he knows that he still has some of the biggest arrows in his quiver—the Fantastic Four and X-Men, two hugely popular franchises that Marvel Studios could not previously use because of conflicting film rights. Those conflicts are no longer an issue.
“We’re just now tapping into arguably one of the biggest aspects of the publishing history. It’s pretty remarkable, and it’s a testament to the house of ideas and what Marvel publishing has done these 80 years,” Feige said to Entertainment Weekly. “The question is how to do it and when to do it, and that’s something we’ve been working on for years. Now we know. But we’re not going to talk about it.”
Ron Seoul-Oh is the founder and editor-in-chief of POCculture.com, a pop culture expert, and the creator of the Shang-Chi Challenge and the Return 2 Wakanda charity initiatives. Ron is a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer–approved critic and has been cited by the Los Angeles Times, CNN, CBC, and more.