Nothing Good Lasts Forever, But Marvel May Be Too Big to Fail

Marvel Box Office Black Widow Eternals Shang-Chi

How much longer can Marvel maintain its box office dominance? Disney/Marvel

On average, a movie set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe earns a whopping $135 million in its opening weekend, more than $370 million domestic and upwards of $980 million worldwide across the MCU’s 23-film existence. Those numbers are skewed a bit by the gargantuan totals posted by Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. But the takeaway stands nonetheless: Marvel movies make a ton of money.

Imagining the state of theatrical moviegoing without the MCU takes you to a post-apocalyptic wasteland straight out of Mad Max. But Hollywood isn’t built for sustained dominance. Trends come and go. Whether it be the unforeseen global pandemic that wreaks havoc on traditional moviegoing, over-saturating the market with too much product, or simple audience fatigue, the film industry remains curious about Marvel’s longevity after 12 years in the spotlight. Phase IV will see Black WidowShang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten RingEternals, an untitled Spider-Man 3Thor: Love and Thunder and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness all hit the big screen.

“I’d say Eternals is the biggest gamble of the upcoming phase,” Kendall Phillips, a professor at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts who teaches the class “Rhetoric of Film: Marvel Cinematic Universe,” told Observer. While Professor Phillips doesn’t see Eternals as a box office flop, he does identify the film as Marvel’s riskiest big screen blockbuster in the pipeline.

Subscribe to Observer’s Keeping Watch Newsletter

Black WidowDoctor Strange and Thor should all attract the regular fans, and if they don’t, then Marvel has a really big problem,” he explained. “The danger is that fans might decide to opt-out of joining new characters on new adventures and, on this front, Eternals seems to be the bigger ask. I love [comics creator] Jack Kirby, but his style and stories were a bit different in that they were big, cosmic, mythic epics. Guardians of the Galaxy managed to charm audiences, but Eternals may require us to buy into a sprawling cosmic family drama and we all remember what happened with Inhumans.”

Inhumans was originally set for a blockbuster feature adaptation before being redeveloped as an ABC series. The 2017 show, which followed a royal family of powerful ancient beings who seek refuge on Earth, lasted just one season amid dreadful critical and fan responses. Casual fans may draw similarities to Eternals, which follows a race of immortal beings who lived on Earth and shaped its history and civilizations, despite the film’s star-studded cast.

Shang-Chi is a new character being introduced in Phase IV, but carries comparatively smaller stakes. From a box office perspective, in might have more appeal to a Chinese audience given the casting of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who is already an established star in China (though Disney’s Mulan did not fare well in the Middle Kingdom with similar tactics). It also has the advantage of being ‘earth-bound’ and perhaps more relatable as a result, Phillips said.

Jeff Bock, Senior Box Office Analyst at Exhibitor Relations, laments that the film industry has reached a point where a blockbuster can earn less than $1 billion worldwide and be considered a failure. Even if upcoming Marvel movies fail to hit that mark, he doesn’t expect any financial downturn for the studio on the horizon.

“I don’t think the MCU is in any danger of flopping anytime soon,” Bock told Observer. “While Black Widow might not see the heights of, say, Captain Marvel, there is no doubt it will still be a success for the studio. In fact, I’m sure any studio in town would love to have BLACK WIDOW on their release calendar.”

After witnessing the growth of Marvel’s brand name power over the last 12 years, Bock is bullish on the MCU’s future.

“Marvel does such a succinct job from script to screen, that it’s difficult to seem them slipping up anytime soon. They are like Pixar—pretty much infallible. I don’t see anything on their future release calendar that won’t be one of the top 10 grossing films of the year, or drive millions of new viewers to Disney+ if it comes to that.”

Nothing Good Lasts Forever, But Marvel May Be Too Big to Fail