Have you heard? “The Marvels” has the lowest box office earnings for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film brought in $47 million in its opening weekend. So many headlines about the film, which had a reported production budget of $274.8 million, have been screaming about its failure. This is it, folks, the end of the Marvel franchise, and it’s all because of those pesky woke women who think they can make comic book movies, many detractors said.
“The Marvels” is the sequel to “Captain Marvel,” which was the MCU’s first female-led (and co-directed) film. This sequel is also a follow-up to “Ms. Marvel,” the Disney+ series that introduced the much-loved comic book character of the same name to the franchise.
Yes, there are criticisms about the film that many people agree on, like the fact that some of the backstory needed more context and the villain was underdeveloped. But this vehement declaration that it’s the worst Marvel film ever with the worst characters, etc., is a symptom of a larger issue.
To put it plainly, racism and misogyny play a huge role in what is perceived as successful. Genre films like the MCU installments are particularly guilty of this: It took Marvel 10 years to make a film with a majority Black cast and creative team, and women have been leads in less than a handful of MCU films (the Disney+ spinoffs are more diverse, but television has always been the place where executives take risks).
The truth is, “The Marvels” never really stood a chance. It is the first film in the franchise to be made by a Black female director, Nia DaCosta, and it features three female superheroes: Brie Larson as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel and Teyonah Parris as Captain Monica Rambeau. It also includes Kamala’s family, all of whom are played by South Asian-origin actors.
Marvel has been losing goodwill ever since the end of the Infinity Saga. The fourth and fifth phases of the franchise have seemed more disjointed, but what’s been different about Marvel properties post-“Avengers: Endgame” has been how diverse they are — more women and people of color have been leading the stories and creating them. And MCU fans have not been receptive to that diversity.
Larson has been unfairly targeted and hated by so-called Marvel fans from the moment she was cast. She made the correct and bold decision to say she wanted more diversity in the media that was covering “Captain Marvel,” and that statement put a target on her back so large that YouTubers still foam at the mouth at the mere mention of her name.
MCU followers couldn’t be bothered to finish, or even try watching, “Ms. Marvel” because the lead was a teenage girl of Pakistani origin. Kamala Khan is a young person trying to fit in, keep her family happy and discover the extent of her superpowers — you know, like that white dude from Queens called Peter Parker. Her story is universal and worth investing time in.
Moreover, “Captain Marvel” was review-bombed to such an extent — before it was even released — that Rotten Tomatoes had to change its rules. The film’s successors were never going to become blockbuster hits because the cards were stacked against them. People’s mindsets haven’t changed that much in four years.
Just before “The Marvels” was released, Variety shared its “Crisis at Marvel” feature with headlines focusing on Marvel executives discussing the possibility of “reviving Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow,” despite those characters being dead.
Without taking cultural issues into account, as well as the general disinterest among some vocal superhero fans about new, diverse characters leading Marvel films, we can’t just rely on the box office as the ultimate arbiter of success.
It’s funny how, now that “The Marvels” has performed so poorly at the box office, people are acting like box office numbers are the only way to judge the quality or effect of a film, almost as if no other good (or even great) film has ever failed at the box office. Equating “The Marvels” box office numbers to its quality would then mean we’d have to accept that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is better than “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” because the former made nearly $400 million while the latter didn’t break the $300 million mark.
But that’s not true. The films came out at different times, catered to different sensibilities and, well, one was more hyped than the other. But we can all admit that the second Captain America film was a bold and well-written film, whereas “Guardians 2” was derivative and predictable.
The Marvel promotional juggernaut has been a huge part of the franchise’s success so far. But “The Marvels” was marketed and released during the strikes by the writers’ and actors’ unions, so the performers couldn’t promote the film.
None of Marvel’s properties in 2023 have been a resounding success, even if they’ve broken even.
What people have intentionally failed to report is that “The Marvels” may not have been everyone’s favorite, but many critics have given it great reviews, and the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is at a decent 84%. It is also the biggest debut ever for a Black woman director.
Films, or any form of entertainment, by and for more diverse audiences tend to be held to much higher standards. “Black Panther” was the first (and still only) Marvel film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and yet so many people harp on the poor computer-generated effects in the final act.
“The Marvels” isn’t perfect, but it breaks the mold by centering not one, not two, but three female superheroes, plus a female villain, all while being fun and funny. Isn’t that what Marvel is known for? Why is this film torn apart for every minor issue when objectively bad superhero films like “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” “Morbius” and “Justice League” aren’t? How is it that actual problematic figures like Ezra Miller — the star of “The Flash” film who has been accused of multiple instances of physical assault and harassment — are viewed sympathetically by fans?
“The Marvels” proved it’s time for the powers that be to consider more than just the numbers. Yes, box office revenue is required for studios to run (and if anyone is still dithering about watching the film, go ahead and buy a ticket).
But without the larger cultural understanding of why something “failed,” studios are going to take away the wrong message, and we’ll end up where we were two decades ago: facing a cinema landscape that refuses to take a chance on anyone but straight, white, able-bodied cisgender men.
Marvel, and every other studio, needs to push through the noise and ensure that more Nia DaCostas, Brie Larsons, Iman Vellanis and Teyonah Parrises, as well as folks across the gender and racial spectrum, have the opportunity to make comic book films.