The unfavorable reviews greeting “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” have triggered inevitable speculation about Marvel losing its mojo, and whether the studio’s 15-year run of box-office dominance might be, well, shrinking, if not entirely over. While the future’s hard to see, the past points toward a pivotal moment: The exit of foundational characters that followed “Avengers: Endgame.”
Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans as Captain America were two of the original pillars, along with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, around which Marvel Studios concocted its then-audacious scheme of five movies culminating with the superhero team-up “The Avengers.”
The departure of the first two after “Endgame,” followed by the sudden and unexpected death of the likeliest heir to their mantle, “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, dealt Marvel a blow that it has been struggling to compensate for ever since.
The creative challenges ushered in by the post-“Endgame” period were obscured in part by the logistical ones caused by the pandemic that impacted the entire film industry, altering expectations about what a “hit” movie actually looked like. The studio also effectively funneled much of its energy into launching parent Disney’s streaming service, Disney+, most effectively with series spun out of the Avengers franchise, and less so with efforts to bring new second-tier heroes (see Moon Knight and She-Hulk) to the screen.
With the benefit of hindsight, Marvel has essentially been in rebuilding mode since the Thanos saga reached its epic conclusion, having sacrificed a level of star power that simply isn’t easily replaced.
Indeed, the fact that Marvel opted to initiate its next phase featuring the villainous Kang the Conqueror through the character of Ant-Man, a fun but decidedly punier figure within its comics-based empire, serves as a tacit signal of the void left in its assembly line.
Marvel also experienced a setback from the tepid response, critically as well as commercially, to its attempt to introduce a new super-team with “Eternals,” piercing the studio’s aura of invincibility.
Although some will surely race ahead to label Marvel wounded – particularly if “Quantumania” doesn’t meet box-office expectations – any impulse to write its epitaph would surely be misguided. Beyond several high-profile sequels on this year’s release calendar, enormous anticipation exists regarding the studio’s integration of its former Fox properties with Deadpool, X-Men and the Fantastic Four due to join its cinematic universe.
Still, Marvel’s strength has given way to certain signs of weakness, and the delicate balancing act associated with satisfying existing fans while creating points of entry for new ones – a priority Marvel chief Kevin Feige cited in an interview with Entertainment Weekly – has become more involved as its universe has expanded, making the process of keeping track of every interlocking wrinkle feel more like “homework,” as he put it.
In that interview, Feige also mentioned producing fewer Disney+ series and spacing the out more, seemingly acknowledging the danger of diluting the brand.
Compared to the rest of the movie world Marvel still possesses high-class problems, especially when it comes to producing the kind of films that can still inspire people to rush out to see them. But the enthusiasm of its loyal fans perhaps prevented observers from recognizing the blow the studio experienced when Downey and Evans opted to hang up the armor and shield, respectively.
Even if “Ant-Man and the Wasp” falls short, Marvel’s next phase could still wind up being a rousing success, and the potential of the aforementioned Fox additions seems particularly bright.
Watching “Ant-Man,” though, it’s hard to avoid a sense that while Marvel’s storytelling has evolved to encompass a multiverse of infinite possibilities, its stable of heroes does feel smaller – as much a tribute, perhaps, to the all-stars that moved on as a knock on those that remain in its bullpen.