Marvel is in a rut

Paul Rudd in Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, a movie in which multiple people are mean to Paul Rudd. | Marvel

With Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, it feels like another whiff for a once-unstoppable studio.

There are a lot of things that are hard to believe in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. It proposes the idea that entire alien galaxies exist in between the atoms that make up our world, filled with tiny, extremely powerful beings. The movie also, not for nothing, asks you to believe that anti-vaccine rally attendant Evangeline Lilly runs a foundation that uses science to better the planet. Plus, it imagines a reality in which multiple people are extremely mean to Paul Rudd.

But the most difficult thing to fathom, especially for fans, is that Marvel created a lackluster superhero movie.

While one’s personal feelings toward Marvel largely hinge on how much one likes superhero movies, the general consensus is that Marvel — over the past 15 years — has figured out the formula on how to create a competent, if not extremely thrilling, superhero movie.

While Quantumania hauled in $120 million domestically on opening weekend, the biggest for any Ant-Man movie, it received the worst aggregated review score in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The poor ratings aren’t exactly what Marvel wants to see, given that Quantumania kicks off Phase 5 in the MCU, a new chapter of the studio’s storytelling design that will focus on the multiverse and the villain known as Kang (Jonathan Majors).

While Quantumania’s final box office haul is yet to be determined, Marvel hasn’t had a breakaway hit in a minute. With the exception of 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home (a collaboration with Sony), no Marvel movie released in 2022 has surpassed $1 billion worldwide, a feat Marvel was achieving regularly in 2018 and 2019, the years leading up to Avengers: Endgame. Quantumania’s poor critical scores remain an outlier, but the studio’s recent crop of movies haven’t seen the same acclaim previous films achieved.

For the first time in a long time, and going by Marvel’s own lofty standards, the entertainment juggernaut seems to be in a bit of a rut.

Quantumania was supposed to be a new chapter for Marvel

The Marvel hangover feels so urgent and immediate in large part because Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania is one of the studio’s weakest movies. The visual creativity — the shrinking and enlarging of things — seen in the previous Ant-Man films was largely absent. Characters were underwritten, like Kang’s explanation-free desire to eliminate universes and Cassie’s (Kathryn Newton) relentless negging of her superhero dad. Lilly’s Wasp was barely noticeable in a movie that’s supposedly about her character, a choice that might have to do with the actress’s promotion of anti-vax propaganda during the pandemic.

And perhaps the most egregious fault is that Quantumania itself felt like a mishmash of previous Marvel movies — from the way the Quantum Realm was depicted as an alien world (Guardians of the Galaxy) to featuring a kid genius caught up in a problem much bigger than they bargained for (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever or Spider-Man: No Way Home) to the theme of parents not telling their children about a big evil (literally all of The Thor movies, the first Black Panther, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2).

The overall effect was a movie that didn’t have the spirit of the previous Ant-Man movies and also wasn’t breaking any new ground. It truly felt like Marvel was phoning it in, making a movie just to tease its next few movies. It’s one thing to be bad while trying to do something ambitious. Quantumania awfulness feels more egregious because it stems from a lack of ambition.

Coupled with the tepid critical reception to Thor: Love and Thunder (64 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (74 percent), and the similarly disappointing Eternals (47 percent), Marvel’s batting average has taken a hit.

Kathryn Newton and Paul Rudd in Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania. Newton plays Cassie Lang, Scott Lang’s daughter, who is a total jerk.

If you zoom out a bit, you start to realize that Marvel’s previous success only amplifies its recent flops.

From after 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron until 2019’s Endgame, no Marvel movie dipped below a 79 percent aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes. Marvel was clinically efficient at creating enjoyable superhero movies. They were fun. They had that signature Marvel voice. Black Panther, the best movie of the bunch, was nominated for Best Picture.

Even if some of those movies weren’t blazingly unique, they managed to check all the boxes of what people want in a superhero flick. And having an endpoint like Endgame — which was hyped up as the conclusion of a decade of Marvel cinema — helped pull in focus and streamlined the storytelling of its preceding movies. Endgame’s finality also helped the box office haul, as people wanted and needed to see the movies leading up to the big finale. Movies like Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel soared past the $1 billion worldwide benchmark.

Now, without an Endgame-like movie on the horizon — understandable because it took a decade to create that phenomenon — Marvel looks much more vulnerable than it did a few years ago.

The Multiverse is really complicated and … a bit of a slog

The MCU is now hyperfocused on the concept of the multiverse: the idea that there are many timelines running parallel to the main timeline of the MCU, with different versions of the heroes (see: the Spider-Men in No Way Home) and villains we know. The villain known as Kang and his variants present the biggest threat to this series of alternate realities.

Endgame started the entire thing. In that film, we learned that if the heroes could shrink themselves (Ant-Man’s specialty) and enter the Quantum Realm, where time functions more slowly, they could time-travel into the past, obtain Infinity Stones, and defeat big bad Thanos. The Avengers then had to return their Infinity Stones to the respective timelines to keep them alive.

After Endgame, Marvel expanded on the ripple effect of the Avengers’ tinkering with the multiverse.

Jonathan Majors as Kang. Kang wants to destroy parallel universes but doesn’t really explain what he’s gonna rule if he destroys all of them? It’s weird!

Loki, the Disney+ television series spinoff, centered on a variant of the Thor villain who uncovers an entire agency tasked with eliminating stray timelines. No Way Home sees Doctor Strange scramble this all up, introducing Spider-Man and villain variants to the main MCU timeline, thanks to a spell gone awry. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness introduced America Chavez, a character whose superpower allows her to travel throughout the multiverse. Now Quantumania has established that Kang and his variants present an existential threat because of their power to eliminate entire universes.

As a concept, all of these parallel universes and all these variants are harder to grasp than Thanos, the all-powerful bad guy who wanted to decimate the universe’s population. And at times, Marvel hasn’t done the best job of guiding the audience through this complicated proposition. Casual fans might find themselves confused, especially since Multiverse of Madness and Quantumania rely heavily on the audience retaining deep knowledge of the television series Loki and Wandavision.

Yet, despite the assurance that all these television shows and movies are connected, the studio hasn’t actually defined the order in which all these interactions with the multiverse take place. Nor has it distinctly shown us the continuity theory it posited: that tinkering with the multiverse in the first place has a ripple effect, perhaps an immense one, on the future.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that for such a tantalizing concept of unlimited, infinite potential, Marvel has only scratched the surface. While No Way Home executed the idea in the clearest way with its multiple Spider-Men (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) —cleverly wielding nostalgia for those previous movies to really illustrate the idea of heroes having alternate, disparate lives that matter — that’s only one successful offering so far.

In Multiverse of Madness, a movie that promises both multiverse and madness, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) are just lazily jumping back and forth between two of the infinite worlds at their disposal, always played by the same actors, and having little to say about their lives. Similarly, Quantumania shows off a Quantum Realm that felt like any other planet in a Star Wars universe. Supposedly, this is a vast and limitless world beneath our own, but in the end it just felt well, small. And Kang, who is supposed to be this mythical, universe-skipping foe, just seems to have the usual Marvel villain fare of laser beams with a nifty suit.

Marvel has sold the multiverse as a theory of endless possibility, yet it hasn’t shown the cinematic imagination to fully capture its gravity.

We’re missing the heart and soul of the MCU

The biggest thing missing in Marvel movies is quite obvious: the star power and chemistry of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, and Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America. The two, along with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, were the core that Marvel built its entire universe around. Even though other characters were introduced, like Ant-Man, Falcon, and the Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel kept the story revolving around those three characters and made them the heart and soul of the MCU.

Downey’s and Evans’s contracts were up with Endgame, which saw Stark sacrificing himself to save the world and Rogers retiring from superhero duty. And despite Marvel having more heroes than ever, no one has filled those shoes.

The most obvious successor was the late Chadwick Boseman who played T’Challa, the Black Panther. Boseman, playing the king of the hyper-advanced African country Wakanda, was going to be the next face of Marvel before his death in 2020. He brought a dignity to the role and was integral in making Black Panther the most critically acclaimed Marvel movie to date. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which was released in 2022, reflected the grief of losing and saying goodbye to the star.

Evangeline Lilly (L) has about five lines and frowns about three times in a movie where she plays one of the titular characters.

Next in line would probably be Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. No Way Home, which grossed over $1.9 billion worldwide, is the most successful Marvel superhero movie since Endgame by a big margin. But it’s difficult to see Marvel making Holland their crown jewel without sole custody of the webslinger, especially since Sony has increasingly teased that Holland’s Spider-Man would be the center of his own Sony-driven cinematic universe (which would ostensibly include Tom Hardy’s Venom and Jared Leto’s Morbius).

When it comes to the Marvel superheroes, none have really set themselves apart in a crowded field. Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange is snarky and biting like Stark but was upstaged by Olsen’s Maximoff in his own movie (in which she was killed off). Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord is the leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but Pratt himself has been plagued by a likability issue, which culminated in him being named the “Worst Chris” in Hollywood. Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, a.k.a. Carol Danvers, suffered from a solo movie that didn’t do the hero justice — Danvers spends most of the movie dealing with alien amnesia. Larson has also had to deal with flak from a number of toxic, sexist fans.

That said, it’s also difficult to stick out of the crowd when Marvel is constantly pumping out movies establishing new heroes like Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi and the alien beings known as the Eternals, alongside TV projects introducing other heroes like Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) and Moon Knight (Oscar Isaac). Even Sam Wilson’s (Anthony Mackie) new title as Captain America was given via television series, easily lost in the jumble if one weren’t paying attention.

It was easy to make Downey and Evans stars when they had the space to tell their stories. It’s much more difficult for actors, even extremely talented ones, to shine when there are several Marvel movies and television series each year, with the studio telling fans they’re all important. I guess you could make the argument that the MCU doesn’t need singular heroes to shine, but at the moment, what Marvel has feels rudderless.

That said, it’s relevant to remember that Marvel’s flop era is completely relative. Any studio would be happy to make 31 movies over 15 years with each one making hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. But Marvel isn’t just any studio, and it set its own bar with the overwhelming success of that 2015-2019 run. The floppy feeling is that the MCU, in the four years since 2019 (which of course includes a worldwide pandemic that altered our moviegoing habits), doesn’t have the same kind of magic it once did.

Marvel seems to recognize this as much as anyone.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly this month, Marvel president Kevin Feige said that the studio plans to slow down the production of its Disney+ shows and space out its films. It’s unclear if more space and time would be given to film teams and then result in better movies, but it may alleviate the feeling of glut or superhero fatigue that some fans could be feeling. At the same time, it also makes the MCU more accessible to casual fans who aren’t tuning in to every television show and seeing every movie. The move could also allow Marvel to pinpoint its more charismatic stars and figure out how to get the best out of them, as it once did with Downey and Evans.

There might be some kind of panic setting in for Marvel fans at the idea of slowing things down and possibly cutting future projects because it seems like there’ll be less of the stuff they love. But it’s important to remember that Marvel became what it is today by taking a big chance and giving audiences something they’ve never seen before. It feels as good a time as any to do that again.

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