We’ve entered a new era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The franchise continues to grow in new ways while showing some slowdown in its box office development. The films are still successful and big hits, but they’re not taking the box office completely by storm. Discussions online are talking about a franchise that is “watering down” what it has to offer while general audiences according to the Internet are facing fatigue.
Films are seemingly losing momentum at theaters as people question how the franchise can continue moving forward and likely end in the coming years. Two iconic franchises make a grand return and dominate theaters with stronger legs than any frontloaded Marvel film. Things are looking shaky for Marvel Studios after the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man in 2015.
Oh wait, it’s not 2015 but 2023 has just started. We’ve entered Phase 5 of the MCU with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania about to release in theaters. The only major difference is the effect of the pandemic has taken its toll on theaters during 2020 and 2021, the last year seemed like an uplifting new direction for cinema. We saw some truly great films ranging in variety with some surprise big hits in Top Gun Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water. Two nostalgia-filmed films making a comeback with a legacy sequel.
Instead of enjoying this newfound momentum at the box office and in cinematic offerings, it feels like we’re retreading old ground once again. Marvel didn’t take the top spot this year at the box office and so we’re analyzing the sheer success of these two entries plus the Jurassic World threequel also banking on the nostalgia of a returning cast. It’s great to see these films flourish after years of uncertainty for non-IP-driven projects but there’s a feeling in the air that we’ve gone through this all again.
2015 saw the release of two major legacy sequels. Jurassic World returned us to a dinosaur-filled world that we last saw in 1993; a sequel 22 years in the making. That same year, December saw the breakout release of Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens which brought us back to a true sequel of the iconic franchise just under new Disney leadership to pull in $2 billion worldwide over Christmas. Jurassic World didn’t do so shabby either with a strong $1.6B.
Ironically, here we are again with Avatar: The Way of Water releasing in December under a now Disney-owned banner on its way to passing $2B with strong legs at the box office. Earlier in the year, Top Gun Maverick pulled in $1.4B at the box office as a sequel to a long-dormant franchise with a few more extra years on its back with Tom Cruise at the forefront selling the film.
It feels like a strange sense of déjá-vu, especially if you take into account the discussions surrounding Marvel and superhero fatigue. While some points of these discussions have evolved, it’s still the same argumentation at its basis. Comparisons were drawn to how Marvel needs to evolve or take a step back; now especially popular with its Disney+ streaming offerings doing what many have begged the Netflix shows and ABC series do years ago.
We have comparisons drawn to how Jurassic World makes a better showcase of franchise building than Marvel. It’s something a recent article does as well with Avatar: The Way of Water which is a hard comparison to make if you consider one has multiple franchises under its belt since 2008 and the other had its first sequel release after 13 years; as such only really getting started as a franchise. We have no idea if Avatar will work long-time as the charm of exploring Pandora could also one day lose its vanity.
What we should learn and not repeat from 2015 is what these franchises can learn from each other. Long-running franchises always hit a slump but even Marvel Studios is back to performing as they did during Phase 2. Their last phase had that extra build-up momentum towards what was deemed a “finale” of sorts for the Infinity Saga. They also serve a very different purpose if seen as films. So, they can only learn and evolve from each other if we take the right lessons from everything rather than chasing coattails once again.
Both franchises build familiarity in different ways. Marvel creates a cast of characters that draw in their audience and become selling points to try out new parts of their franchise. The MCU has always been misunderstood as one singular franchise, but in reality, it’s just the umbrella term for multiple franchises or ongoing stories. Yes, some crossovers can interrupt specific stories but we’ve seen the “you need to do your homework” complaint back in 2015 when people complained that “they could’ve just called the Avengers” in every self-contained story or franchise.
Will Marvel run out of steam? At one point, it’s very likely but they still remain strong performers in the market. Even with a big drop in its second weekend, some of the MCU releases in 2022 showed stronger legs later on; something that surprised me even with the Disney+ re-release always imminent due to COVID’s influences on consumer behavior and Bob Chapek‘s desire to grow its streaming service no matter what.
Yet, one cannot deny that it’s also the franchise that has shown the most growth throughout the years. There’s a reason it cannot be emulated, just as much as why Avatar’s performance won’t easily be replicated just because Marvel doesn’t release a film for a few years. They’re a production studio that works independently and has its own quotas to meet. James Cameron released a film in the 20th Century that also is responsible for many other franchises.
If we compare 2022 and 2015, films with massive worldwide performances and impressive legs have something in common: nostalgia. They are legacy sequels to projects that have been long dormant. They make good use of familiar ground while adding some additional elements to still make them stand out. They feel like “self-contained” stories but they are also continuations that anyone can rewatch. Of course, it’s easier to just catch up on one film to get ready for another, but that tune changes once Avatar 7 releases and we have six almost three-hour films to catch up on.
Of course, it’s conjecture to some degree but there’s still a curious thread of these major performers that are “leaving Marvel in the dust” with their strong box office legs. 2015 and 2022 are just so eerily similar with general discussions and it’s no wonder franchise fatigue would set in with a franchise that has been a consistent part since 2008. No one can blame them for feeling a bit overwhelmed at times and if the MCU still remains a strong performer, we’ll likely have this exact same discussion once Phase 8 kicks off with Stinger and the New Avengers.