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The Marvels Box Office Failure Suggests Superhero Movies Are at Tipping Point

For a studio that already appeared vulnerable following the underperformance of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania last spring, and reportedly underwhelming ratings for Secret Invasion over the summer—as per third party analytics firms since Disney does not share its Disney+ viewership numbers—this is the worst black eye yet, and one which will undoubtedly seed a lot of finger-pointing. The most hideous and sinister will come from toxic corners of online fandom and social media, which promoted a negative smear campaign against The Marvels for months due to largely racist and misogynistic resentment toward a superhero film starring three women, two of them people of color. These nastier elements of fandom are why I was personally rooting for The Marvels to beat its low box office tracking, even if I was disappointed with the film.

However, this online perception that The Marvels was too feminine, or feminist, for the larger mainstream audience is a delusion of the terminally online and miserable. Larson, after all, led the aforementioned first Captain Marvel film to $1 billion. And while that film undoubtedly received a boost of anticipation because it was sandwiched between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame (the latter of which Danvers was an MVP in), a film doesn’t gross $1.1 billion on just tangential hype, or receive a sterling “A” CinemaScore, as per the industry-trusted pollsters of opening weekend audiences. Beyond Captain Marvel, there are other films like 2017’s Wonder Woman, last year’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and the entire Hunger Games franchise that disprove this insidious and blatantly racist and sexist orthodoxy.

In other words, the problem extends beyond just The Marvels. Still, it’s worth noting that The Marvels unto itself seemed to struggle with audiences. For starters, the film received a “B” CinemaScore, which is generally considered lethal because it means tepid word-of-mouth. The only other Marvel Studios films to receive such ignominy from polled audiences are the aforementioned Eternals and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

There are also other factors that obviously did not play in The Marvels’ favor, including how the film was released right at the end of the SAG-AFTRA strike, meaning that neither Larson or her co-stars could promote the film, be it on late night television or viral interview games that could’ve easily dominated TikTok and YouTube. However, just last month, another brand that needs no introduction to younger audiences, Five Nights at Freddy’s, also featured no cast members doing promotion and still managed to open at $80 million. And that was with the film being released simultaneously on the streaming service Peacock (and therefore pirate sites as well).

In the end, The Marvels fits into a pattern that has seemingly grown in speed throughout the year as nearly each new superhero movie stumbled at the box office: Ant-Man 3, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash, Blue Beetle, and now finally The Marvels have all fallen well beneath expectations, with most of these films flopping. The two bright spots for the genre in 2023 were Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which earned $846 million and $691 million worldwide, respectively. Yet both of those films starred some of the most popular superhero characters of the last decade (if not earlier) via the Guardians and Spider-Man. And more troubling for Marvel, the Guardians’ narrative has ended—at least with James Gunn as its architect.

At this point, it is hard to deny that the superhero genre is at a tipping point and might even be on the precipice of rapid decline. Audiences are simply not showing up the way that they used to, and that is occurring in a year when they are turning out in droves for new franchises like Barbie and The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and even an adult drama like Oppenheimer. It’s therefore fair to wonder if a lot of viewers have moved on from superheroes.

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