The right will blame Disney/Marvel’s obsessively multi-ethnic casting (or OMEC) and feminist characters for the box office failure of The Marvels. The left will blame the right’s aversion to OMEC and feminism. Neither of those political factions possess the nuance to address Marvel’s real problem—and it is a problem, even though The Marvels was in fact mostly-okay.
The problem is deeper than politics, though politics compounds it: It’s simply that movies are largely made by (and for) idiots, Marvel president Kevin Feige included, and a streak like Infinity Saga-era Marvel rarely lasts long before the idiot-filled bureaucracy asserts itself and ruins things.
But first, consider the mounting evidence that Feige, atop that bureaucracy, is an idiot and that the high quality of the Infinity Saga (Marvel Cinematic Universe movies from 2008 through 2019) was a fluke. Feige didn’t make all those Infinity Saga movies singlehanded, despite the well-deserved praise he got for assembling a great team: directors Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, James Gunn, and even more so the Russo Brothers; beloved core actors including Robert Downey Jr.; and the collective wisdom of 80 years of Marvel Comics writers.
Most of those people are absent from the so-called Multiverse Saga into which the current films fit, and Feige has increasingly made comments about his willingness to ignore the comics themselves in favor of hiring writers from TV dramas and the like. As it was with the DC Comics-based shows over on the CW, your favorite superheroes start sounding more like soap opera characters than like heroes and villains, the theory being that this will bring in a bigger audience and avoid bogging stories down in nerd-pleasing minutiae.
More troubling are the little hints Feige keeps dropping in interviews—hints I first told myself were mere dollops of diplomacy on his part—that he really doesn’t understand what works about the MCU or why. (Don’t say a man in his position must know what he’s doing—consider George Lucas before he gave up and handed Star Wars over to Disney, a topic I’ll revisit when I devote all four December columns to trying to rescue each of America’s nerdiest film franchises, my holiday gift to cinema.)
After several great films in the Infinity Saga period, Feige made a prediction about which film would prove Marvel’s first winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, a prediction I think he was dead-serious about, and that film was: Eternals. After seeing critical, fan, and box office reaction to that lame film (with its skinny Celestials and other wimpy, un-Kirby-like characters), Feige quietly said the film’s previously acclaimed—indeed, previously Oscar-winning—director, Chloe Zhao, wouldn’t be working with Marvel again. Apparently, the Marvel bureaucracy wasn’t a tight-knit, infallible team of heroes after all.
But we still tended to believe that as long as Feige, our metaphorical Captain America, was the team leader overseeing things, he’d ensure we nearly always got good stuff. He was on our side, we thought. He got it.
But he’s also the drifty-sounding dope who keeps saying things like how great it’d be if we saw a movie devoted to a random ancestor-ghost from Wakanda. He thought suddenly inserting Captain Marvel into the end of the Infinity Saga, ditching loads of development from the comics of Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock (barely recognizable in the films) as Thanos’ arch-enemies, would work just fine. He wants Shang-Chi to lead the next Avengers team. He was so wowed by (now scandal-plagued) actor Jonathan Majors that he built the whole Multiverse Saga around the uninspiring character of Kang the Conqueror, who helped make the third Ant-Man movie a bomb.
Worse, Feige’s lackadaisical attitude can practically be seen happening on screen in the form of what he calls a “scrap-booking” approach to writing and shooting material. No need to work out the plot from beginning to end the way serious writers since Aristotle have advised. We’ll just shoot numerous different versions of the scenes and keep shuffling them around until the month of the film’s release, seeing what, if anything, works.
Big decisions could always, in theory, be delayed until the final editing and visual effects stage, the writers and weary fx people alike becoming patch-up artists on what was in effect a years-long CGI montage instead of a coherent narrative. When it stinks, blame it on the frenetic, chaotic nature of the multiverse, that ultimate cosmic excuse for lazy editorial indecision. Killing Robert Downey Jr.’s character proved short-sighted? Who cares, we can bring him back. Whatever.
Again, let neither right nor left tell you audiences failed to connect with The Marvels because they are multi-ethnic women or with Eternals because its cast was diverse or its director a Chinese woman. Not only the political factions but Hollywood execs (for decades now) love such readymade excuses for failure! Both films were passable but, for reasons having little to do with politics or demographics, not as great as Marvel movies easily could be and in the past often were.
Audiences disliked Eternals because it was long and boring. They dislike The Marvels because it’s too silly and it makes the arrogant assumption that little signposting or explanation is necessary for newcomers because they all in theory watched multiple Disney+ Marvel series very attentively. Few people did.
And those of us who did are often punished anyway, since we’re left wondering how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fits into continuity, whether or not we’re supposed to think Ms. Marvel has Kree DNA, whether nega-bands and quantum bands and Kree tech and Kang tech are all the same thing now, etc.—and we begin to suspect none of it matters, not even to the people in charge.
Amusing though South Park: Joining the Panderverse may be and much as I may complain about the left, “diversity” isn’t the real annihilator in the MCU. You didn’t hear many complaints—not even from right-wing YouTube grifters—about the race or sex of, say, Col. Nick Fury, Black Panther, Wanda Maximoff, etc.
But bury audiences in an avalanche of weak story choices (anyone remember America Chavez from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness or her quest to be reunited with her two lesbian moms?) and blurry CGI (Is that the mystical East Asian city of Ta Lo in the background or Kamar-Taj? Or maybe K’un-Lun?) and they might start to resent whatever rainbow of crap you’ve caused to shine down upon them. Give them quality and they’ll happily accept a majority-female team of X-Men, as comics readers did for a time in the 1980s.
Despite the myths spun by the left, the tribalist right of recent years, and movie studio screw-ups looking for excuses, America has been very tolerant for a long time. But we can’t tolerate a slapdash Marvel Universe for long.