ARTICLE BY TATIANA SIEGEL FOR VARIETY
This past September, a group of Marvel creatives, including studio chief Kevin Feige, assembled in Palm Springs for the studio’s annual retreat. Most years, the vibe would have been confident — even cocky — given how the premier superhero brand, owned by Disney since 2009, has remade the entertainment business in its image.
But this occasion was angst-ridden — everyone at Marvel was reeling from a series of disappointments on-screen, a legal scandal involving one of its biggest stars and questions about the viability of the studio’s ambitious strategy to extend the brand beyond movies into streaming. The most pressing issue to be discussed at the retreat was what to do about Jonathan Majors, the actor who had been poised to carry the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but instead is headed to a high-profile trial in New York later this month on domestic violence charges. The actor insists he is the victim, but the damage to his reputation and the chance he could lose the case has forced Marvel to reconsider its plans to center the next phase of its interlocking slate of sequels, spinoffs and series around Majors’ villainous character, Kang the Conqueror.
At the gathering in Palm Springs, executives discussed backup plans, including pivoting to another comic book adversary, like Dr. Doom. But making any shift would carry its own headaches: Majors was already a big presence in the MCU, including as the scene-stealing antagonist in February’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” And he has been positioned as the franchise’s next big thing in this season of “Loki” — particularly in the finale, which airs on Nov. 9 and sets up Kang as the titular star of a fifth “Avengers” film in 2026.
“Marvel is truly fucked with the whole Kang angle,” says one top dealmaker who has seen the final “Loki” episode. “And they haven’t had an opportunity to rewrite until very recently [because of the WGA strike]. But I don’t see a path to how they move forward with him.”
Beyond the bad press for Majors, the brain trust at Marvel is also grappling with the November release of “The Marvels,” a sequel to 2019’s blockbuster “Captain Marvel” that has been plagued with lengthy reshoots and now appears likely to underwhelm at the box office.
This is all an unprecedented turn of fortune for a company that has enjoyed a nearly uninterrupted string of hits ever since it started independently producing its movies with 2008’s “Iron Man.” That wildly profitable run culminated in the $2.8 billion success of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” a high-water mark for the studio that has earned nearly $30 billion over 32 films.
Replicating that kind of phenomenon is never easy. However, the source of Marvel’s current troubles can be traced back to 2020. That’s when the COVID pandemic ushered in a mandate to help boost Disney’s stock price with an endless torrent of interconnected Marvel content for the studio’s fledgling streaming platform, Disney+. According to the plan, there would never be a lapse in superhero fare, with either a film in theaters or a new television series streaming at any given moment.
But the ensuing tsunami of spandex proved to be too much of a good thing, and the demands of churning out so much programming taxed the Marvel apparatus. Moreover, the need to tease out an interwoven storyline over so many disparate shows, movies and platforms created a muddled narrative that baffled viewers.
“The Marvel machine was pumping out a lot of content. Did it get to the point where there was just too much, and they were burning people out on superheroes? It’s possible,” says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler, who covers Disney. “The more you do, the tougher it is to maintain quality. They tried experimenting with breaking in some new characters, like Shang-Chi and Eternals, with mixed results. With budgets as big as these, you need home runs.”
“The Marvels,” which opens in theaters on Nov. 10, will struggle to get the ball past the infield, at least by Marvel’s outsized standards. The movie, which cost $250 million and sees Brie Larson reprising her role as Captain Marvel, is tracking to open to $75 million-$80 million — far below the $185 million “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” took in domestically in its debut weekend last year.
Directed by Nia DaCosta, “The Marvels” unites Larson’s heroine with two superpowered allies, Teyonah Parris’ Monica Rambeau (introduced in the 2021 Disney+ series “WandaVision”) and Iman Vellani’s Kamala Khan (first seen in the 2022 series “Ms. Marvel”). But instead of seamlessly building on the success of “Captain Marvel,” this move resulted in four weeks of reshoots to bring coherence to a tangled storyline.
Then eyebrows were raised again when DaCosta began working on another film while “The Marvels” was still in postproduction — the filmmaker moved to London earlier this year to begin prepping for her Tessa Thompson drama “Hedda.” (A representative for DaCosta declined to comment.)
“If you’re directing a $250 million movie, it’s kind of weird for the director to leave with a few months to go,” says a source familiar with the production.
“The Marvels” has seen its release date moved back twice, too, once to swap places with “Quantumania,” which was deemed further along, and again when its debut shifted from July to November to give the filmmakers more time to tinker. But that extra time didn’t necessarily help. In June, Marvel, which traditionally only solicits feedback from Disney employees and their friends and families, took the uncharacteristic step of holding a public test screening in Texas. The audience gave the film middling reviews.
But Marvel has never been in the business of being average. “Kevin’s real superpower, his genius, has always been in postproduction and getting his hands on movies and making sure that they finished strongly,” the source adds. “These days, he’s spread thin.” (Feige declined to comment for this story.)
Feige isn’t the only person showing signs of strain. Marvel’s entire VFX battalion, including staffers and vendors, is struggling to keep pace with a never-ending stream of productions. This past February, when the credits rolled at the world premiere of “Quantumania,” shock rippled through the Regency Village Theatre in Westwood over some shoddy CGI. “There were at least 10 scenes where the visual effects had been added at the last minute and were out of focus,” says one veteran power broker who was there. “It was insane. I’ve never seen something like that in my entire career. Everyone was talking about it. Even the kids of executives were talking about it.”
The schedule swap with “The Marvels” had left the “Ant-Man” sequel in a squeeze, pushing up its postproduction schedule by four-and-a-half months. Marvel films are known for coming down to the wire, given Feige’s ability “to foam the runway and land a plane that way,” says one executive familiar with how the company operates. But this level of unfinished was unprecedented and would be noted in scathing reviews when the tentpole with the $200 million budget opened 11 days after the premiere. Critics weren’t the only ones dismayed. Fed up with 14-hour days and no overtime, Marvel VFX workers voted unanimously to unionize in September, sparking an industrywide trend.
“The year 2023 was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says former Marvel Studios VFX assistant coordinator Anna George, who appeared before the Congressional Labor Caucus on Oct. 19 to testify about the studio’s untenable deadlines and working conditions. “The pay and long hours at Marvel were the reason we had to start our unionization process there. The conditions were completely unsustainable.”
Disney’s top brass, including newly returned CEO Bob Iger, was said to be apoplectic about Marvel’s VFX troubles. One month after the “Quantumania” premiere debacle, the guillotine fell on Victoria Alonso, who oversaw the studio’s physical production, postproduction, VFX and animation. While the reason cited for her abrupt firing was her unauthorized role as an executive producer on the Oscar-
nominated film “Argentina, 1985,” insiders say Disney was incensed that quality control on its Marvel productions was plummeting, particularly on the ever-expanding TV front. The VFX logjam had been evident for some time, with some final effects for such Disney+ series as “WandaVision” and “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” inserted after their streaming debuts. That Alonso was busy promoting her art-house project while Rome burned certainly didn’t sit well with Disney’s leadership. (Alonso’s attorney says her client is unable to comment.)
But some internal sources suggest Alonso was a scapegoat and point to the “She-Hulk” VFX issues as a symptom of a deeper rot — namely a lack of oversight on script development. In the original arc of “She-Hulk,” a flashback of star Tatiana Maslany’s transformation into her Hulk character didn’t take place until Episode 8, the penultimate episode. But after Marvel’s brain trust watched footage, it realized the scene needed to happen in the pilot episode so that audiences could see more of the character’s backstory early. That meant that the VFX team was tasked with fixing the mess in postproduction.
“The so-called bad VFX we see was because of half-baked scripts,” says one person involved with “She-Hulk.” “That is not Victoria. That is Kevin. And even above Kevin. Those issues should be addressed in preproduction. The timeline is not allowing the Marvel executives to sit with the material.”
All the while, Marvel was bleeding money, with a single episode of “She-Hulk” costing some $25 million, dwarfing the budget of a final-season episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones, ” but without a similar Zeitgeist bang. The August 2022 series premiere at the El Capitan Theatre foreshadowed what was to come six months later at the “Quantumania” bow: the “She-Hulk” special effects were out of focus in multiple scenes.
There are signs that the flood of product is leading people to tune out. “I’m not prepared to call it a permanent fall. But based on the numbers that go with Marvel podcasts, Marvel-based articles, friends who do Marvel-based video coverage, all of these numbers are significantly down,” says Joanna Robinson, co-author of the New York Times bestseller “MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios,” who is a writer and podcaster at The Ringer. “The quality is suffering. In 2019, at the peak, if you put ‘Marvel Studios’ in front of something, people were like, ‘Oh, that brand means quality.’ That association is no longer the case because there have been so many projects that felt half-baked and undercooked.”
As public criticism mounts, Feige is pulling the plug on scripts and projects that aren’t working. Case in point: the “Blade” reboot. With Mahershala Ali signed on for the eponymous role of a vampire, things looked promising for a 2023 release date. But the project has gone through at least five writers, two directors and one shutdown six weeks before production. One person familiar with the script permutations says the story at one point morphed into a narrative led by women and filled with life lessons. Blade was relegated to the fourth lead, a bizarre idea considering that the studio had two-time Oscar winner Ali on board.
Amid reports that Ali was ready to exit over script issues, Feige went back to the drawing board and hired Michael Green, the Oscar-nominated writer of “Logan,” to start anew. Speculation around town is that the studio is looking to make the film, now slated for 2025, on a budget of less than $100 million — a deviation from Marvel’s big-spending strategy.
With Iger publicly acknowledging the downside of a Marvel TV glut that “diluted focus and attention,” the keepers of the comic book empire are considering some dramatic moves. Sources say there have been talks to bring back the original gang for an “Avengers” movie. This would include reviving Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, both of whom were killed off in “Endgame.” (That shouldn’t be a stumbling block — in comic books, beloved characters are often killed off, only to be resurrected thanks to the power of things like the multiverse.) But the studio hasn’t yet committed to the idea — if it were able to bring those actors back, it wouldn’t come cheap. Sources say Downey Jr.’s upfront salary for “Iron Man 3” was around $25 million.
Will that solve Marvel’s Majors problem? When the “Quantumania” actor was arrested in March, Disney executives insisted that they could afford to play a wait-and-see game, given that “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty” wasn’t expected to begin shooting until early 2024. But then Majors was dropped in quick succession by his publicists and managers. (He remains a client at WME — the agency where he landed after CAA parted ways with him, pre-arrest, for his “brutal conduct” toward staff, says one source. CAA declined to comment.) In April, other alleged domestic violence victims of Majors began cooperating with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Then, ahead of a key hearing in October, media outlets including Variety obtained a court filing that referenced a police incident in London involving Majors that led his ex-girlfriend to seek medical attention. Making matters even stickier, the ex-girlfriend also worked on “Quantumania” as a movement coach, and the London incident took place while Majors was shooting Season 2 of “Loki.” On Oct. 25, a New York judge denied Majors’ motion to dismiss the case, which ensures that the actor will stand trial in late November. His legal team is attempting to keep some material in the case sealed.
A studio source notes that regardless of the actor’s legal issues, Marvel already had considered moving away from a Majors-led phase because of the box office performance of “Quantumania,” which will struggle to make a profit. “It gave people pause given that ‘Quantumania’ didn’t exactly land,” the source says. (On Oct. 27, Disney removed another Majors film, Searchlight’s “Magazine Dreams,” from the release calendar.)
Recasting Majors is also an option, as Feige did when he replaced Terrence Howard in “Iron Man 2” with Don Cheadle. In fact, Marvel isn’t afraid to change direction, even after making splashy announcements. “Armor Wars” was first unveiled as a series and is now being developed as a feature, while the studio’s push to adapt the comic book “Inhumans” into a feature film generated headlines but is now dormant. (The now-defunct Marvel Television mounted an “Inhumans” TV series in 2017 that ran for one season on ABC.)
Still, there was one bright spot in 2023: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” which became Marvel’s biggest draw of the year with $845 million worldwide. The fact that it was directed by James Gunn, the guy now running rival DC Studios, was lost on no one.
“With Marvel, it used to be as close to a guarantee as you could get,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a box office analyst at Comscore. “So, going all in on the budgets made sense. ‘Guardians 3’ was a bit overlooked in how successful it was. But that had James Gunn and Chris Pratt, and I think star power is becoming more important. Then there was ‘Quantummania’ with $476 million. Anything under a half billion dollars is viewed as a disappointment. And these overreaching expectations are a result of so much success over the years.”
The key to reinvigorating Marvel may lie with the superhero arsenal that Disney acquired during its 2019 purchase of 21st Century Fox. That deal brought several blue-chip heroes, such as the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, back under the studio’s control. Already fans are geeking out about next year’s “Deadpool 3,” which unites Ryan Reynolds’ merc with a mouth with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, and a reboot of “Fantastic Four” slated for 2025. As a bonus, the Fox additions give Feige an opportunity to reimagine the “X-Men” franchise, the very property he cut his teeth on as a young executive at Lauren Shuler Donner’s production company. Now that the WGA strike is in the rearview mirror, Marvel has started talking to writers about bringing the X-Men into the MCU fold.
While Feige recalibrates, the rest of the industry is anxiously hoping that Marvel’s best days are not behind it.
“Writing the Marvel obituary would be ill-advised,” says Jason Squire, professor emeritus at USC School of Cinematic Arts and host of “The Movie Business Podcast.” “Kevin Feige is the Babe Ruth of movie executives, and Marvel has the most profitable track record in movie history. No question.”