Oh, how the folks behind Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have fallen.
Going into 2023, Marvel Studios was still busy licking their wounds from the previous year. Recent big-screen entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe had underwhelmed, notably Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder (despite the involvement of genre MVPs like Sam Raimi and Taika Waititi, respectively). The much-anticipated Black Panther sequel paid tribute to its star Chadwick Boseman, yet his absence somehow made the film feel like its was constantly performing triage. Overworked FX houses resulted in less-than-stellar visual effects, which especially hurt CGI-heavy TV shows like She-Hulk. Rumors of in-house fighting and a musical-chairs approach toward production schedules had thrown their usual carefully curated, inter-narratively dependant approach to serial storytelling slightly out of whack. The phrase “superhero fatigue” had entered the lexicon. There was both too much Marvel “product” on the market, thanks to the double-down approach of spitting out MCU movies and TV shows every few months, and somehow not enough that felt vital or unmissable. (No offense, Werewolf by Night.)
Still, there were a lot of reasons to be hopeful as 2023 kicked off. Angela Bassett had just become the first actor to nab an Oscar nomination for starring in an MCU movie. James Gunn was returning to shepherd the Guardians of the Galaxy series gently into the night before taking on the Herculean task of revamping DC’s cine-universe. Bob Iger was once again CEO of Disney. They had a number of high-profile projects on deck, including a three-for-one follow-up to 2019’s popular Captain Marvel movie; the TV-event limited series Secret Invasion; and a second season of Loki. Not to mention that the upcoming Ant-Man movie scheduled for February would kick off the studio’s highly ambitious “Phase Five,” and properly introduce their big post-Thanos villain: Kang the Conqueror, a time-traveling bad guy from the comics who would turn “the Multiverse Saga” into the kind of sprawling, crossover storyline the company had turned into a billions-generating formula.
There may be a timeline within one of the many, many multiverses out there in which all of this goes exactly according to plan, each of these films break box office records, the MCU feels as if it’s once again operating full steam ahead creatively and commercially, no offscreen business distracts viewers from what’s happening onscreen, and executives collectively pull muscles from giving each other too many high fives. Things… did not exactly turn out that way for Marvel these past 12 months, however. And as the studio that terraformed Hollywood moviemaking and I.P. world-building prepares to exit 2023, it finds itself in even worse shape than it did entering it. What happened?
We don’t want to pile on Kevin Feige & Co., given the tsunami of bad press and emergency C-suite conferences that the production company has endured since January. But when you sift through the rubble of Marvel’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, it’s remarkably hard to put a positive spin on things. This was their annus miserabilis, via a series of both internal bad calls and external events that proved no one, not even this blockbuster-making juggernaut with the name recognition and the deep bench, were invulnerable to harm. It may not have been shaken off the top of the heap in terms of industry supremacy. But for the first time since Tony Stark declared himself Iron Man, Marvel Studios suddenly felt as if it was closer to its Big Crunch rather than its Big Bang moment.
The groundwork for what happened to Marvel in 2023 had been laid down for quite a while, in both its boardrooms and its writing rooms. During the first year of the pandemic, Disney CEO Bob Chapek had pushed all of the company’s chips toward streaming and Disney+, and prodded Marvel to up its production levels on MCU “content”; the idea was that there would be some sort of superhero-related series or movie or one-off special attracting eyeballs at any given moment. Cue gradually diminishing returns, an overload of occasionally intriguing yet often peripheral corners of the universe getting the spotlight treatment (pretty cool, um, Moon Knight TV show there), and a host of below-the-line folks, notably those third-party VFX artists, getting pushed to the brink. There was also a growing reliance on connecting individual projects not just to a meta-narrative — nothing new there — but also to an ever-increasing amount of metastasizing franchise lore, which meant you had to bone up on years worth of backstory just to understand what was going on. This is how you get something like Quantumania.
Why the third Ant-Man film had been the one chosen to carry so much saga–setup weight on its tiny shoulders remains a bit of a mystery. Yes, these movies were the ones that introduced us to the microscopic realm that would play a part in the new villain’s ascension to power. But they were also one of the lighter series within the MCU, acting as breezy heist-lite romps that made good use of Paul Rudd‘s charm offensive and offset some of the other heavier films. The change in mood for this third entry felt entirely off. Combine that with a vastly confusing storyline, a notable amount of callbacks needed to follow along, and even-shoddier-than-usual effects due to its release date being moved up, and suddenly Marvel was kicking off its next era with a disaster. The box office returns after the opening weekend confirmed that something had gone decidedly wrong, even among the die-hards.
Then, in March, longtime Marvel Studios executive Victoria Alonso was fired as the head of production and post-production. The official reason given was that she had taken a job as a producer on an Amazon film called Argentina 1985, which violated the terms of her contract. Others said that speaking out against the censoring of gay-friendly sequences in Marvel movies and the manner in which her corporate overlords had handled Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill had made her a liability; within the VFX industry, the word was that her inability to manage an increasingly unmanageable post-production workload and her penchant for playing favorites with artists left her holding the bag for those second-rate Quantumania sequences. It was a publicity disaster for the company, as well as a serious loss for the studio’s creative inner circle.
Luckily for them, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was on the horizon, and when it dropped in May, it suggested that people had not quite given up on the MCU just yet. Yet even that film, which would go on to gross $845 million worldwide, was still seen as an “underperformer” compared to Vol. 2 ($863 million) and the usual billion-plus gross of other Marvel movies. (Is this a skewed metric in which to judge success? Does a Groot shit in the woods?) And though Gunn and his longtime GotG cast reunited to give their band of interstellar brothers one final hurrah, there’s a sense that some sort of spark is missing from this third entry. Logic is trumped by fan service and plot convenience — so wait, why is Gamora back from the dead, exactly? — and when viewed against the anything-goes gonzo vibe of the first two entries, the whole thing feels like a cross between honoring a contractual obligation and old-fashioned cosmic slop. It would be a high point for the studio in 2023, but only by comparison. The worst was yet to come.
Longtime comic-book readers knew that the storyline involving a war between two alien races — the Skrull and the Kree — dated back to the Jack Kirby-Stan Lee era of Marvel. Those who began poring through comics in the late 2000s might have picked up Brian Michael Bendis’ extraordinary limited series about the shape-shifting Skrulls establishing guerrilla cells on Earth and thrilled to the way that this new take on the narrative made it feel thrilling and urgent. When Marvel Studios announced that it would be adapting Bendis’ story as a Disney+ limited series, fans became giddy; an early trailer promised something like a gritty yet epic late-1970s spy thriller starring Nick Fury. Samuel L. Jackson was on board; so was Don Cheadle, Olivia Colman, Emilia Clarke, Ben Mendelsohn, and Kinglsey Ben-Adir. It was scheduled to premiere in June and had all the makings of a standout hit, a franchise game-changer, and more importantly, a course correction.
What we got instead was a train wreck. Once again, an excess of backstory weighed the momentum down. There seemed to be long stretches where nothing much happened, only to be followed by action scenes that felt unmotivated and rushed. A lot of extraordinarily talented actors found themselves doing little more than aimlessly wandering from scene to scene, occasionally in green prosthetics. Key plot points hinged on not just a suspension of disbelief but a complete rejection of previously established lore, even as such deep-cut knowledge remains a prerequisite to following along; as Variety‘s Adam B. Vary pointed out, one major revelation near the end actually negates an emotional connection to a fan favorite. This was not the salvation we were looking for.
By the time Secret Invasion slouched its way on to Disney’s streaming service, the writers’ strike in Hollywood had already been in effect for almost six weeks. Soon, SAG-AFTRA would be striking alongside them as well. The domino effect of those dual labor protests meant that Iger would delay the release dates of two TV spin-off series tentatively set to debut in 2023, Agatha: Darkhold Diaries (centered around Kathryn Hahn’s character in WandaVision) and Echo (which would give Alaqua Cox’s hearing-impaired villain from Hawkeye her own solo storyline), as well as an animated X-Men series. The next thing on deck would be Loki‘s sophomore season, which debuted in October and started off strong… before completely getting lost in its time-tripping Mobius strip of a plot. Once again, Tom Hiddleston‘s Asgardian rapscallion found himself at the mercy of the bureaucratic Time Variance Authority. Once again, doppelgängers, dangerous figures, and the possible destruction of everything everywhere all at once threaten the multiverse’s very existence. Once again, Owen Wilson proves that there’s no dry joke he can’t make that much drier with his comic timing.
But unlike the brain-teaser rush of Season One, Loki 2.0 tended to split the difference between trying to expositionally clarify things every few minutes and simply whipping characters from one set piece to the next sans context or consistent motivation. Or maybe there was some sort rhyme and reason to it, and it just became impossible to decipher it all amidst a dozen different data dumps — after a while, not even Ke Huy Quan‘s whimsical time-clerk could help us understand. Amidst the starchild-surreality-meets-steampunk set pieces, this round of episodes also suffered from what we can only call a major issue. Or rather, a Majors issue.
Back in March, right as Marvel was dealing with the double whammy of Quantumania‘s dismal reception and Alonso’s contentious dismissal, Jonathan Majors was arrested on charges of assault, harassment, and strangulation. This domestic dispute was a major red flag regarding the actor that Marvel was priming to be the linchpin of their next two phases ‘worth of films; when allegations of a history of toxic behavior going back nearly a decade began to surface, the studio realized they might have a serious problem on their hands. Majors was all over Loki‘s second season, which felt like its whole reason for being was to further establish his character as a major force to be reckoned with. Now, the sense of menace the show’s bad guy projected hit a little too close to home.
An emergency meeting in September among the Marvel brass around what to do with a scandal that could possibly derail their plans for the next half-dozen or so movies was said to have taken place in September. Majors is currently involved in a domestic abuse trial; even if he’s found innocent, the damage had definitely been done. Feige and Co. would have to figure out where — or if — he fit into the future of the MCU. First, however, they would have one final 2023 migraine to deal with.
Enter: The Marvels.
Given the billion-dollar success of 2019’s Captain Marvel, a sequel was considered a no-brainer. Brie Larson would reprise her role as Carol Danvers; the film would also recruit two actors from two of Marvel’s better TV shows, Teyonah Parris (from WandaVision) and Iman Vellani (the lead in Ms. Marvel), as part of a de facto female super-trio. Nia DaCosta, who’d recently helmed the 2021 Candyman reboot/sequel, would be directing. Everything seemed to be in place, production started, and then the whisper campaigns began. In January of this year, a long round of reshoots were scheduled to “fix” what were rumored to be problems with tone and a few plot points; for a project that had become slightly tainted by stories of a chaotic shoot, the verdict seemed to have been handed down before audiences were given a chance to see it. Roughly a month before The Marvels was scheduled to be released, even people within the company were apparently predicting that the movie would be an MCU low point.
How much misogyny played into this is debatable — our guess would be “quite a bit” — but the predictions turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Marvels would deliver the lowest opening-weekend gross of an MCU movie and the highest amount of industry schadenfreude to date, spawn a thousand what-went-wrong think pieces, and essentially end Marvel’s abysmal year on the lowest note imaginable.
Actually, there’s one last thing that Marvel has in store before we stop the clock on 2023. On December 22nd, the second season of their animated series What If…? will kick off a nine-episode run, dropping one installment a day up to the final day of the year. And in our heads, we picture the season’s post-credits coda: The Watcher, that omniscient celestial who narrates these fanciful imaginings of alternate histories, begins spinning a yarn about a boyish executive named Kevin. He awakens on New Year’s Day and discovers that the previous 365 days have all been a dream. What if, indeed.