Opinion: Is Marvel fighting a losing battle?
A handful of caped box-office failures have seen recent Marvel offerings attempt to rebrand themselves
Wednesday 13 April 2022 By Thomas Barrie
‘Insipid Marvel misfire.’ ‘Generic as all hell.’ ‘One of the laziest, shallowest, most pathetic attempts at a movie blockbuster in some time.’ Suffice to say, critical reaction to the latest film based on a Marvel intellectual property, the Jared Leto vampire-superhero vehicle Morbius, has been… cool. Sitting pretty on a truly, uh, morbid 16% on would-be arbiter of taste Rotten Tomatoes, the film is an undeniable review flop; having made a measly $40m on its opening weekend in the USA, audiences seem to have taken a similar dislike (for comparison, previous franchise offering, Venom, starring Tom Hardy, made around $90m).
It’s not interesting or hugely worthwhile to debate the merits of this anaemic film here; others have done that in more depth and with more vehemence elsewhere. But the total failure of Morbius with critics and fans alike could be hugely significant.
Its projected drop-off in revenue between its first and second weekends in cinemas (a massive fall of 74%) is the worst for a major superhero film this millennium. What’s more, it follows hot on the heels of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s last tentpole release, Eternals, which was received only slightly more warmly. Its return of $400m-odd at the box office on a budget of half that was just as underwhelming. So, the question finally arises: are we, the collective movie-going public, finally tiring of these massive franchise-based superhero
The discourse around these IPs can seem like it will trundle on forever. By now, many of the most famous takes on Marvel and DC movies are stone cold: Martin Scorsese’s comments about films being ‘theme park rides’ are well known and have been pored over. Comic-book wizard – he is literally a wizard, Google it – Alan Moore’s opinion that superhero films have ‘blighted culture’ is only slightly less well known. Film Twitter has long since drawn battle lines, and god forbid they be crossed. There are the superhero apologists, and then there are the insurgent too-cool-for-Marvel dissenters, and never the two shall meet while Disney still churns out blockbuster after blockbuster, choking the life out of any attempt to tell original stories in favour of safe dross.
No – instead, a couple of comic book films have recently given us an idea of what the future might look like. There’s a subtle repositioning going on, which dates further back than Eternals and Morbius’s woes. The most successful superhero films of the past couple of years are being rebranded and marketed as ‘serious’ genre films, as works of art in their own right, beyond whatever IP they were drawn from.
The first example of this was Joker, which barely acknowledged that it was based on the Batman character and which – clown makeup aside – could easily have been an original, hyper-violent film about a man on the edge of sanity in 1970s New York City who fails to get the help he needs. Director Todd Phillips was smart enough to realise this, and positioned his film as a social commentary of sorts, drumming up the perfect moral panic to pull punters into cinemas to see it in droves. He even dropped in references to Scorsese himself, heavily signposting Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy as influences on his own movie.
Then, last month, Robert Pattinson’s The Batman dropped, and we were treated to all sorts of interviews in which director Matt Reeves explained how his film was actually a detective story; how it owed its roots to the classics of that most venerable of genres, film noir. Again, the message was clear: my film is not just an adaptation of a comic about a man who dresses up a bat – it’s far more than that, and should be considered real cinema.
This isn’t a totally new tactic. Even before they were this explicit, studios were trying to tempt directors with serious artistic credentials into the fold. Thor: Ragnarok was made by critical darling Taika Waititi back in 2017, while Eternals itself was helmed by Chloe Zhao, better known as the director of Best Picture winner, Nomadland. John Favreau was out, sort of; serious auteurs were in. But the fact that Joker and The Batman have both been acclaimed, and very successful (Joker made more than a billion dollars), suggests that this could be the future of superhero films, as the public gets tired of watching them in their own right. If anyone remembers Morbius for anything in 10 years’ time, it could well be – ironically enough – for sparking a creative renewal in the genre of films it has helped kill.