We Don’t Need Another Hero

I’m far from the target audience for the MCU.  The Marvel titles were a clear third on my pecking order of spending my allowance, with the DC Universe first and foremost in my heart (blame the campy 60s TV version of BATMAN, the first show I was allowed to stay up past 7:30 for), with the Archie series second, if only because I had a massive crush on Veronica Lodge.  When they added Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, they rose to number one in my book (I still have kind of a thing for that name),

But I wasn’t completely a non-fan.  Thanks to the fact that independent television stations in New York loved to counterprogram news in the early evenings with cartoons, and the fact that the one that ranked dead last among them, WOR-TV, also happened to be the station that ran lots of live sports, including the Mets, I watched an awful lot of THE MARVEL SUPERHEROES, which was the comic book publisher’s first-ever video production.  In effect, it was the Big Bang of what we, and most Disney shareholders, now know as the MCU.  As Wikipedia describes it for the generatioms that have no clue what I’m talking about:

The first TV series based on Marvel characters, it debuted in syndication on U.S. television in 1966.[2]

Produced by Grantray-Lawrence Animation, headed by Grant Simmons, Ray Patterson, and Robert Lawrence,[3] it was an umbrella series of five segments, each approximately seven minutes long, broadcast on local television stations that aired the show at different times. The series ran initially as a half-hour program made up of three seven-minute segments of a single superhero, separated by a short description of one of the other four heroes. It has also been broadcast as a mixture of various heroes in a half-hour timeslot, and as individual segments as filler or within a children’s TV program.[4]

The segments were “Captain America“, “The Incredible Hulk“, “Iron Man“, “The Mighty Thor” and “The Sub-Mariner“.

Those were MY heroes.  I watched and rewatched those 13 original weeks of cheaply produced animation over and over again.  And when later movies and series featuring them were produced, including The Avengers’ franchise, I paid attention.  More often than not, I was inspired to go to the movies and learn what I did not know of storylines and connections  from more passionate fans who were often there for their third or fourth time.

Buoyed by the relative success those shows received, Marvel then produced an ABC Saturday morning animated version of SPIDER-MAN, with somewhat better production values, that debuted the following fall.  I remember it fondly, its tongue-in-cheek humor and, of course, its theme song serving as generational inspiration for the massive franchise it has now become.   Hey, it had me and Homer Simpson hooked, at least.  I’m a fan of Spider-Man, to be sure.  The Spider-verse, not so much.  I was disappointed by VENOM and outright mortified by MORBIUS–and I was definitely in the majority in the latter case.  Thanks to that disaster, Sony’s investment in the 932 potential spin-offs of the Spider-Verse doesn’t look all that promising.

And based upon the reviews of Disney’s latest MCU installment, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA, there are growing concerns that as the deeper dive into the worlds of those more minor heroes connected to THE AVENGERS may not only be losing favor within their own arc, but they may be having a detrimental impact on what is apparently one of the main beams in Disney’s strategy to grow its business model.  As Pamela McClintock wrote in The Hollywood Reporter earlier this week, despite some relatively decent holiday weekend box office, there are some red flags nonetheless:

Director Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania certainly didn’t disappoint in its domestic box debut, with the film flying to a four-day opening of $120 million, one of the best showings ever for the Presidents Day holiday and by far the biggest start for Marvel’s low-key franchise.  Yet the third installment of the Paul RuddEvangeline Lilly series is still a cautionary win for Marvel Studios and Disney, which are at a critical juncture as Marvel kicks off Phase 5, and conquering hero Bob Iger returns as Walt Disney Co. CEO. With a 47 percent rating, the film is tied with Eternals (2021) for Marvel’s lowest Rotten Tomatoes score, and perhaps more telling, it earned a B CinemaScore from audiences, one of the few Marvel titles to do so.

Since the first Iron Man ushered in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, Kevin Feige’s Marvel Studios has been the envy of Hollywood. The MCU is the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, with more than $28.5 billion in worldwide ticket sales, led by the marquee Avengers franchise. 

Through the years, MCU movies have almost always drawn glowing CinemaScore grades from audiences, with nearly 70 percent of titles earning an A CinemaScore from audiences, or some variation thereof (A+, A and A-).

That has been changing in recent years. Of the five films with a B or a B+ (none have earned a B- or below) four are among Marvel’s most recent six pics. Among the recent batch, Quantumania and Eternals rank lowest with a B, while 2022 entries Thor: Love and Thunder and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness each received a B+. (The first Ant-Man earned an A CinemaScore and the second received an A-.)

It’s a concerning stat that comes after Marvel released a head-spinning 18 projects theatrically and on streaming during Phase 4, which spanned 2021-22. 

“You have to start worrying about Marvel franchise fatigue,” says one rival studio executive.

And therein lies the true dilemna.  The streaming wars which Disney is squarely both target and Mickey-come-lately in are expensive, and, to date, money losers.  Disney itself is coming off a lackluster fourth quarter, as the New York Times’ Edmund Lee summarily tweeted last week.

Disney beat investor’s predictions for the quarter (top and bottom lines), but its streaming business lost more than $1 billion. Disney+ et al. grew its sales by 13 percent to $5.3 billion, but it spent $6.3 billion. And @disneyplus lost 2.4 million subscribers.

The grand plan to grow Disney+, and therefore Disney Entertainment, has always been to use theatrical and streaming releases interchangably, with cliffhangers in one world driving fans to the other, and ideally becoming subscribers and a reliable box office baseline in the same breath.  With the bigger and more established heroes–especially the six whose roots were in those simple 60s animated series–that strategy works like a charm.  When you’re looking at the level of original output needed to keep a streaming service fresh to the level that MCU Phase 4 was rolled out with, especially with the kinds of costs involved, while theatrical box office is one spoke in the strategy, for long-term profitability it is essential that there is a buzz and desire for it to be watched and rewatched enough to drive both subscriptions and minutes spent to sell to advertisers.  Tepid reviews, and perceived overexposure, is a recipe for disaster.

As Iger has reentered the picture, as McClintock elaborated, there are some signs that a more nuanced approach will be taken:

As Phase 5 begins in earnest, Marvel is taking steps to slow down its output, pushing The Marvels out of summer and into November, and spreading out its TV shows. Next up is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, due out May 2.

So less is more could be a wise course to chart. Besides, there will likely be fewer people on the job anyway.  Disney has begun to roll out the 7000 job cuts that Iger announced last week, and 2300 of those who still have jobs signed their names to petition Iger to reconsider his four-day RTO policy, which is scheduled to begin next week.    Many of those 2300 associate with values and ideologies reflected in the championing of such polarizing projects as the upcoming superhero series IRONHEART, which will proudly feature a “trans-masculine” actress and drag queen in its cast.  Not quite the impact or appeal of even Paul and Evangeline.  I’m less than optimistic that a majority of those who seem to want to fall on their sword to work from home will have much longer to have that option, and many more who actually are adult enough to want to work in an office will lose their opportunities as a result.

As McClintock concluded, this weekend’s performance will be telling not only for Ant-Man, but perhaps for the entire strategy of looking to build franchise from second-tier characters:

The big test will be to see how much the film drops in its second weekend. Last summer, Thor: Love and Thunder fell nearly 68 percent after drawing a B+ CinemaScore.  And the optimism and buzz for the more ambitious COCAINE BEAR is already fueling some legitimate concerns ANT-MAN may see a similarly precipitous drop, and reported horrible weather around the country won’t help.

But there is reason for some optimism.  The villianous Kang was well-received, and Jonathan Majors’ character will be a key component of the next installment of THE AVENGERS franchise, the KANG DYNASTY that is already scheduled for release on May 2, 2025.  By then, Iger, and many more Disney employees, may be gone, but at least the carrot of optimism may spare enough further fallout to keep a few hundred thousand employed, assuming they can be convinced to put on their pants, charge up their hybrids and pack a lunch and work on something that at least sounds broad enough to appeal to more than just a sliver of fans.

Perhaps Disney doesn’t need another hero.  Perhaps what they need is another villain?

Until next time…

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