Marvel fumbled in 2022, but did the MCU fail?


In 2022, Marvel Studios brought three blockbusters to theaters, launched three new series featuring all-new heroes on Disney+, and even gave us two deliciously clever « special presentations »: night werewolf and Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. And yet 2022 has not feel as a banner year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since December 2, Top Gun: Maverick dominates the annual box office race with the likes of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunderand Black Panther: Wakanda Forever dragging hundreds of millions of dollars behind. This year’s Disney+ debut slate lacked the pop cultural resonance of Wanda VisionThe ubiquitous memes and for the first time, fans might wonder if the MCU has lost its grip on pop culture.

Since Iron Man created in 2008, Marvel seems to have been largely bulletproof. Moviegoers and comic book nerds have more than embraced the MCU, sending movie after movie to the top of the box office. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has also infused almost every element of pop culture imaginable, reaching far beyond Halloween costumes and kid’s lunch boxes. (I literally bought bananas with Avengers brand stickers affixed to the skin.) The MCU is loved, hated, envied, and even despised as a killer of good cinema. It is, like it or not, a part of our lives. But has it loosened its grip on our collective psyche?

Was 2022 the beginning of the end for the MCU? It’s certainly strange to see a non-MCU movie dominate the box office (in a non-COVID year). personally i did not hear Moon Knight Where She-HulkThe titles of swirl around the water coolers with the same intensity of stranger things Where Dragon House. Is the Marvel brand stronger than ever? Or was it in 2022 that he began his inevitable descent into insignificance?

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS, from left: Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange, 2022. © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / © Marvel Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection
©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

How bad has 2022 been for the MCU?

Did it feel like a bad year for the MCU? Could there be actual numerical data supporting this idea? Well guess what? There are. 2022 has indeed been a low year for Kevin Feige and his multiverse of heroes, villains, and quirky little scene-stealers. As this is the first year that Marvel has produced special presentations, we can’t compare them to the successes of the past. But we can watch how the original MCU show and movies fared.

Let’s first look at the state of the Marvel Cinematic Box Office.

In the ten years between 2012 and 2021, MCU movies have earned six top spots on the annual national box office list. In 2020, they were only missing from the list because their movie slate was put on hiatus due to the pandemic. In fact, discounting 2020, Marvel was on a streak of box office dominance ahead of 2022. Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War were a close first and second place in 2018, Avengers: Endgame was at the top of the list in 2019, and Spider-Man: No Coming Home dominated 2021 (and part of 2022).

You would think that this race would continue in 2022, but no. Top Gun: Maverick not only topped Marvel’s bids this year, but more than $300 million separates it from the current second-place film of the year, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s like almost a whole Thor: Love and Thunder. The Tom Cruise showcase is even re-released in theaters this holiday season to take on his final two rivals for that top spot: Avatar: The Way of the Water and still strong Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. I think it’s safe to say that 2022 was Superior gunthe year to shine, not Marvel’s.

And what about the Disney+ offers from the MCU? 2021 Wanda Vision not only earned Emmy nominations for Marvel, but became a true pop culture phenomenon. (It didn’t hurt that this was the first new Marvel project fans got since 2019.) Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Lokiand Hawk Eye each brought Avengers to the small screen. In 2022, the MCU took a few more risks with its Disney+ slate, introducing a trio of new faces to fans.

Moon Knight, featuring movie stars Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke, was a smash hit for Marvel. According to Nielsen data, the show not only debuted in the Top Ten, but held its own, gaining in reach week after week. Although he never toppled Netflix behemoths like Bridgerton Where ozark starting from the top spot, it ended its six seasons as the third most-streamed title on major platforms.

Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk, however, did not fare so well. Whereas Ms. Marvel, featuring newcomer Iman Vellani, barely cracked the Nielsen Top Ten for original streaming programming when it debuted, it struggled to gain momentum as the weeks passed. It never made it to the top list, combining original titles and legacy titles. She-Hulk similarly debuted on the Originals list, but eventually gained momentum. Just a little bit.

In sports parlance, this has been a building year for Marvel’s Disney+ slate. But was it a total flop?

Ms. Marvel Ending Credits - Carol in Kamala's Room
Picture: Disney+

Did the MCU flop in 2022?

Ready for my hottest take: Despite the aforementioned stumbles, Marvel did it not entering its flop era in 2022. Not even close. The MCU is still a massive titan of pop culture and will continue to be so well into 2023.

Alright, sure, it’s looking more and more like Top Gun: Maverick will prevent the MCU from claiming the top spot at the 2022 box office. But all four Marvel movies that were in theaters this year are in this year’s top ten, with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever still working on this board. People always show up for Marvel movies.

On the Disney+ side, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk both have attracted respectable numbers, with the latter increasing week on week. Moon Knight, on the other hand, was an undisputed success story for Disney+. Maybe you haven’t seen many Moon Knights or Scarlet Beetles roaming the neighborhood on Halloween, but its viewership was high from start to finish.

marvel’s Special presentations were both creative triumphs. By existing outside of the larger structure in Phase 4, night werewolf and Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special proved there was still gas in the MCU’s tank to tell new stories in exciting ways.

The MCU hasn’t faced the factory in 2022. Still, it’s clear that the franchise is finally showing some weak points. What are these flaws? And how did Top Gun: Maverick exploit them? Let’s dig in…

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER, (aka BLACK PANTHER II), Letitia Wright, 2022. © Marvel / © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
Photo: Everett Collection

Why did the MCU swing in 2022?

For more than a decade, Marvel managed to dominate the pop culture landscape with a winning formula that catered to comic book fans and casual moviegoers alike. But in recent years, it’s become increasingly difficult to be a casual MCU fan. The success of Marvel movies meant that parent company Disney began flooding the landscape with more and more MCU content. We’ve gone from one or two Marvel movies in theaters a year to at least three. Add in the constant stream of MCU-related content on Disney+ and we’re living in a state of Marvel oversaturation. There’s just too much to keep track of. And everything is so interconnected now that you have to follow every project if you want to understand what’s going on! It’s a situation that alienates all but the most dedicated Marvel fans.

Plus, by satisfying Marvel fans’ constant pleas for more content, the MCU has ironically made its projects less special. It’s not a big deal anymore to get a new Marvel movie or show. Also, in the rush to complete all these projects, corners began to be cut. There is an industry-wide visual effects crunch problem that has led to poor working conditions for artists and poor results on screen. Marvel was explicitly called out for being among the most drastic studios to work for in the industry and even casual viewers started calling out wonky VFX in final drafts.

Which brings us to why Top Gun: Maverick beat Marvel at the box office this year. Not only did the movie mark the long-awaited return of Tom Cruise in one of his most iconic roles, but the movie’s heart-pounding action sequences were, uh, real. Cruise and his cast mates learned to be real fighter pilots and put their bodies through rigorous training to achieve the most visceral images imaginable. Director Joseph Kosinski painstakingly put together action sequences to be as crisp and clear as possible for the audience. Compared to the pixel blur we see in MCU movies, Top Gun: MaverickThe action of was a literal marvel. It offered moviegoers the « specialty » that was sorely lacking in the constant churn of Marvel shows and movies of late.

By most measures, Marvel has had an exceptionally strong 2022. It’s only when you compare the studio’s performance to itself that you see where the MCU begins to falter. The MCU machine is still a juggernaut dominating the rest of the pop culture landscape, but it’s starting to show its age. Whether or not the MCU can reclaim its quirkiness and satisfy casual fans depends on executing the next big storyline and the power of a villain named Kang.


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