How Marvel Studios Can Stay at the Top

Black Widow was released by Marvel Studios in theaters and on Disney+ in early July and yielded some challenging revenue numbers, despite being one of the most highly anticipated releases of the year — a development that has some fans worrying about the future of Marvel films. 

If you’ve somehow avoided seeing or hearing about these movies over the past decade, here’s the rundown: the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) contains a series of superhero films based on characters from Marvel Comics (e.g. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor). Since the franchise’s first release in 2008, its storylines and characters have won the hearts of millions of fans worldwide. As a result, it’s the most successful film franchise of all time, even beating out cinematic juggernauts like Star Wars and Harry Potter

Marvel has done something right up to this point; its prolonged box office domination proves that. But what is it? What has Marvel been doing so well? And perhaps the more urgent question to consider going forward: can they keep it up?


Marveling at Marvel

Nearly every Marvel movie contains a post-credits scene — a short scene following the end credits that typically offers a not-so-subtle hint towards what’s to come in future movies. It’s a brilliant tactic that Marvel Studios has employed since the very first MCU movie, and is one of the company’s best marketing tools; each scene essentially acts as a 1-minute mysterious advertisement to promote a future project. Whether they’re important or not, these quick scenes help build anticipation for upcoming movies, tantalizing audiences with more content.

Marvel’s movie mastery goes beyond post-credits scenes. They have perfected the art of garnering excitement for their future releases. Sure, they’ve taken beloved comic book characters and brought them to life on the big screen. But filmmakers have been doing that for decades. What’s so special about Marvel? The key is that they’ve built a cinematic universe with countless moving parts — and most importantly, interacting parts. 

The allure of Marvel movies lies in the interactive nature of its characters and storylines. Each character’s stories don’t exist in a vacuum; what happens in one film directly impacts what happens in another. This is the key to Marvel’s relentless popularity. Fans don’t treat MCU moviegoing as a standalone outing; they treat each film as but a small piece of a comprehensive entertainment experience that has gone on for years, and will last for years to come. A sustained level of investment in the franchise and all the content it has to offer just yields more interest over time.

Or does it?

Marvel superhero films are, at their core, formulaic. They almost always follow the classic “Hero’s Journey” archetype and involve conflict with a villainous figure who tends to be an “evil” version of the hero, accompanied by quippy dialogue and an almost excessive amount of visual effects. For the most part, hardcore fans have been okay with this relative predictability. However, after over a decade of the same story repeatedly, it may become difficult for Marvel to build the same level of enthusiasm for its future films. 

Black Widow was released in early July 2021; originally intended for a May 2020 release, it was the first MCU film in nearly two years. It was made available both in theaters and on Disney+ (whose subscribers could pay $30 to watch from home). Given that fans had waited so long for it, Black Widow was expected to break the box office. The first weekend seemed to bode well for Marvel, but the film’s positive performances proved short-lived; compared to its first week, its second-week revenue decreased by 67%. 

Of course, context is key. The world is still amid a pandemic, and the novelty of a film’s release being split between theaters and a streaming platform shouldn’t be underestimated. That being said, Black Widow undoubtedly underperformed … which could be a wake-up call to Marvel Studios.

The MCU will need to offer a little bit more cinematic variety if it’s going to maintain its fanbase in the long run. Marvel may already be adopting this initiative of diversity. The Dr. Strange sequel scheduled for March 2022 has been hinted to be more of a horror film than any of its predecessors. Branching out to slightly different genres for future releases is a very viable course of action. 

Another possibility is to embrace streaming. Although Black Widow didn’t perform too well at the box office, it raked in a substantial amount of money through Disney+. Although unconventional, the Disney+ release may be the path forward in an increasingly streaming-heavy world.

Streaming platforms offer another solution into which Marvel has already dipped its toes: TV series. This year’s WandaVision, for instance, was a great success. It was a limited series of just 9 episodes, released entirely on Disney+. Nevertheless, the show was a hit among hardcore and casual fans alike, even holding a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Marvel followed WandaVision’s success with this summer’s Loki, another Disney+ exclusive show that has garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews so far. 

To be fair, Marvel has tried to put new TV series on streaming platforms before — an initiative met with limited success. Netflix series like Luke CageThe Punisher, and Iron Fist have all been canceled. However, the characters depicted in these shows are far less well-known, perhaps explaining why it was more challenging to build up their fanbases beyond hardcore comic book readers. Marvel seems to have learned their lesson, though; the handful of series produced for Disney+, namely WandaVisionThe Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki, have been huge successes. All of these shows star characters that Marvel viewers have already seen on the big screen. TV series featuring already-popular characters combined with fresh ideas and a novel viewing experience could be the best way forward for Marvel to keep interest levels high.

Final thoughts

Marvel Studios has dominated the film industry for almost fifteen years. But the combination of the pandemic, the oversaturation of superhero films, and the slowly but surely changing landscape of movie consumption indicates that Marvel may need to tweak its strategy.

Of course, Marvel’s fanbase is large and loyal enough that it won’t die; there will always be plenty of people excited for its upcoming releases. But for millions of casual fans worldwide, the MCU formula may need some work, and Marvel Studios will have to be willing to explore new ideas if they want to maintain their position at the apex of the cinematic world.