by Paul Deeter
In 2021, with the eventual summer release of Marvel's Black Widow, I wrote an essay/review (the two often blur together on my site) about the film and the potential for future Marvel projects beyond it. I remember my positive reaction at the time cautiously; I think the audience reception to this minor character's origin story was warmer given how it had been over a year since we'd seen any of our heroes on screen at all. The Covid-19 pandemic closure delayed what might have been an otherwise smaller-scale Marvel feature, and fans were eager for whatever they could get a year later. So despite an underwhelming 79% Rotten Tomatoes score, the film broke records to make over $379 million worldwide. Additional gain came from the avaialbility the film had on Disney Plus, with its pandemic-prepared Premier Access feature that allowed renters to skip the theaters and catch the film at home (for a whopping $30 fee). The movie was a hit at the time, but in any other climate may have suffered in comparison to other, more successful Marvel releases. It's hard to say whether or not the circumstances of Spiderman: No Way Home being released only in theaters or over a year and a half past shutdowns would have affected its success if it had come out in Phase 3, or in the middle of the pandemic. There's too many factors to take into account. But NWH has a lot to offer, for old fans and new. And after the benefit of the thrill to return to the theaters is gone, what do the future movies have to do to keep people in those seats?
Heads up. This article is going to go into a lot of theoreticals, and some of what I'm positting about the recent Marvel entries are entirely of my, (me, Paul) own opinion!! Carry on.
In May this year, near the beginning of what could or could not be a year for theatrical gain, Sam Raimi returned to the director's chair of a Marvel film, after 15 years since his last entry: Spider-Man 3. The 28th (28th!!) film in the MCU is set up as a sequel to not just the original 2016 Doctor Strange but also 2021's surprise series Wandavision. The series set up a bevy of new possibilities for televised Marvel content on Disney Plus while also table-setting the dilemna for Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. The film literally starts up at the pace of a multiverse Stephen Strange fleeing from an enemy with an at first unknown ally. The movie isn't reinventing the formula for quicker paced action openings, but it does feel a bit left field regardless. The original Doctor Strange started with a fight between sorcerers in an altered and eratz New York, with yet to be established characters. This film doesn't so much tease the possibilities of the universe it can offer, but instead kind of shovels in a little exposition in the form of an introduction so it can get the ball rolling faster. The movie expects us to do our homework. And the homework, unlike past Marvel films, doesn't just involve catching prior films. None of these projects are truly standalone anymore. And MoM is almost impossible to follow without watching Disney Plus' Wandavision.
To preface the story of MoM, Wandavision follows Wanda Maximoff as she tries to create a perfect (but fantasy) world for herself, MCU hero Vision and their children. In a clever series of 9 standalone episodes, Wandavision does what many other Marvel films aren't capable of doing, it gives itself room to breathe. With the ever-frustrating increased runtimes of Marvel films threatening hours without bathroom breaks, Wandavision used around 8ish hours of exploratory and relevatory storytelling to establish itself. It began with an almost David Lynchian-style mystery, built clever ways to break that mold and came full circle in its love story ("What is grief, if not love perservering?"). Then one 5 second stinger at the end of the credits left an awkward note for our hero Wanda. After the make-believe world she creates for herself and her children is finally shut down, she's back at it studying an ancient book for ways to find her kids again. Enter the reason for MoM, which already feels tired. Why do we need to recreate a villain arc for the Scarlet Witch Wanda, when we've already sculpted out not one, but two (Wanda's introduction as an Ultron soldier included) villain outtings for her already? That's the set up for this film, a movie that doesn't take time to choose one of a multiverse of decent villains Strange could face, but instead uses a recooked plot to excuse Raimi back into the chair for an overall lackluster Marvel film.
I should mention at this point that I did enjoy MoM for some of its parts. The concept of Zombie Strange in the third arc, the sequences of universe-jumping and other bright but brief sparks of creativity kept the film moving in its thankfully only two hour runtime. But the reception I had with my family when we watched the movie was tepid, and it felt like I was the strongest fighter in the film's corner. One comment from our collective groupthought response was simply that it didn't actually feel like a movie, but instead a heartless vehicle for moving the MCU further into Phase Four. And part of me would like to dive deeper into my issues with the Multiverse of Madness, and another part of me would like to argue for the film's merits. But it's July and two months past the films commercial release and months past my last article for Purely Kino. My time to argue about it is done, at least if I want to keep the site fresh and relevant. But the thoughts of unease mixed thinking on the film don't stop with me or the small room of close-knit family members I saw it with. The RT consensus for the film sat at 74% approval, which is one of the lowest rated films of the franchise. It's far from negative, but because of "bad word of mouth" the movie saw a 67% drop in profits from its first weekend, a huge decline compared to other Marvel films in their theater-runs. I wondered why it came so quickly to Disney Plus, releasing a month and a half after the theater premiere, and much quicker than No Way Home made it onto smaller screens.
Ironically, the movie did open to just under as successful a pandemic premiere as NWH and obliterated Raimi's career's best. But if Black Widow is a good testament to the lasting power of a Marvel film and its legacy, MoM could be an example of a film coming off the high of the success of Marvel's last release. Like I said before, its not enough to get people back in their seats, but to keep them there. And MoM might be a cautionary tale for the future of Marvel's attendance. But I've spent enough time picking on one missed Marvel project. This weekend saw the release of the massive (yet again under two hours) launch of one of the world's mightiest heros' return to his own feature. Thor: Love and Thunder is 2022's official summer Marvel film, box offices prepare. Or should they? Well Thor 4 is doing well, better than in fact. That's not really the issue. The issue is whether or not it will keep doing well.
A $143 million dollar opening weekend may seem like a lot, but Thor 4 is sitting at an awkward 68% Rotten Tomatoes consensus, almost 30 percent under its predecessor Thor: Ragnarok. Erik Childress of Rotten Tomatoes summed up that: "Fans surveyed by Cinemascore are also showing some cracks in the Marvel armor. Prior to Love and Thunder there were only three MCU films to poll lower than an “A-.” They were the original Thor (B+), Eternals (B), and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. With this weekend’s film also receiving a B+, that is two in a row and three of the last four after more than 13 years of films. " There's a lot riding on the audience factor here. If critics have already voiced a less than admirable rating of this entry, then fans of the franchise will have to be the deciding factor in its legacy and overall success.
What is the main issue here? Is it a lack of direction? Miles Surrey discusses the new film's issues in an article attesting to the fact that Phase Four has no real goals in sight: "Granted, there was no world in which the MCU was going to hit pause after releasing the second-highest-grossing movie of all time, but Phase 4 has yet to cohere around a unifying force such as Thanos and the Infinity Stones." Say what you will about Marvel, its always had a clear-cut villain to throw its punches at. Here we're scratching our heads over whether or not we'll just see our hero fight another version of themselves, or a corrupted Avenger, (Come on guys we already did Civil War). Additionally, Phase Four has spent way more time than any of the previous phases in establishing itself and its characters. IGN's T. MacDougal notes that 'As of July, Marvel Studios is 18 months into what it calls Phase 4 of its interconnected storytelling, which consists of six films...On the Disney+ streaming side, there have been seven original series...To put that in perspective, it took Marvel Studios eight years to release 13 movies across three Phases, with approximately 26 hours of total storytelling time. Phase 4 is already up to 55 hours of storytelling with four more films and at least four more MCU streaming shows yet to debut this year." I should also mention that IGN gave both Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder separately 7/10.
It's still July, and its been a weekend of uncertainty since Thor's latest release. There's no crystal ball here telling me or Kevin Feige or a million other critics/fans that Marvel is in trouble. And trouble could literally mean minor losses in the longterm financially, versus all of the successes we've yet to see. I should note that one of my favorite experiences this year was watching Marvel's Moon Knight, it itched that spot I wanted as a breath of fresh air origin story. I knew nothing going in, and was blown away. Oscar Isaac could be a prime example of where the future lies, or Iman Vellani's Ms. Marvel, or another new-comer. Hell it could be one of the new Eternals members! But perhaps Phase Four is in the hands of the newcomers, and Stephen Strange and Thor don't have it in them anymore to carry the torch into newer unplotted teritorries. I've yet to see Thor: Love and Thunder, and do intend to. And knowing Taika Watiti's style and talent I do believe I'll at least enjoy it. But part of me does miss having a little bit of breathing room between releases. Regardless of whether or not I choose to continue tuning into the many series (She-Hulk this fall) or pay to attend the next Black Panther in theaters in November, the massive money making Marvel machine will keep creating. Let's just hope someone knows how to control the damn thing before it falls completely off the rails.