If you’ve had the creeping feeling that Marvel Studios is overstaying its welcome with the film-loving public, you might not be alone. Loyal fans (or people who track box office numbers) might find that notion absurd. Marvel is still the biggest name in cinema, and probably will probably remain so for the next five or ten years at least. But there’s some waning enthusiasm.
Since 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, we haven’t seen a Marvel film break $1 billion in worldwide gross at the box office. That may seem like an impossible bar to set if you don’t keep track of these things, but Civil War reached $1.53 billion. The next three films under-performed by comparison to the true Marvel heavy-hitters. Doctor Strange came in around $677 million, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 reached $863 million, and Spider-Man: Homecoming came in just under $880 million. Those aren’t numbers any studio is going to complain about by any means, but Marvel can (and used to) do better. Spider-Man: Homecoming in particular seemed to have billion-dollar potential.
Marvel’s influence beyond the big screen may be slipping a little bit as well, in subtler ways. It’s difficult to measure without simply turning to the Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus, but it’s fair to say that critics’ comments on more recent Marvel films have been getting more cynical as fatigue sets in. More measurable is that Marvel’s influence in other areas of entertainment, and specifically gaming, is petering off.
The company hasn’t put out a fresh mobile game independent of a specific film release in about two years now. A set of online games that was described not long ago as “the incredibly popular line” of Marvel Comics-branded slot games has been taken offline entirely. The slots are gone because Disney doesn’t seem to want its properties associated with this particular style of gaming anymore. And the mobile games may be losing steam because Marvel is preparing to release more robust console games. But both trends represent, in a very basic way, a lack of influence in very busy areas of pop culture and entertainment.
This is not to paint the picture that Marvel is in shambles; that would be ludicrous. It is to suggest that there’s some very real fatigue that’s set in over the past year or two, however. But just when it started to look like we could be witnessing the beginning of a slow but steady decline for the biggest studio in modern cinema, Marvel might have been saved from above.
That’s certainly one way to characterize the impact of Thor: Ragnarok, which has a chance to become the biggest film of 2017 so far. Frankly, this film didn’t look like anything special leading up to its release. Outside of devoted Marvel fans dying to see Thor (and the Hulk) again after the heroes were left out of the last few collaborative superhero projects, the appeal appeared to be limited. Trailers painted a picture of an amusing but chaotic movie with more “bigger is better” mentality. And not for nothing, its direct predecessor Thor: The Dark World was one of the more weakly reviewed Marvel Studios projects. Perhaps more than any other such project to date, it felt like a filler piece between larger movies.
Had Thor: Ragnarok followed suit, the decline of the Marvel era might have become a bigger topic of discussion. Given the aforementioned struggles – small in the grand scheme, but visible nonetheless – the success of this film had a lot riding on it. And somewhat surprisingly, it seems to be succeeding beyond even Marvel’s wildest dreams. The film is raking in rave reviews, and actually has a chance to become one of the two or three “best” Marvel projects by critical consensus. More importantly, however, it’s different. Said one critic, it’s witty, it’s weird, and it goes against decades of bloated, overserious comic fare.
Thor: Ragnarok tells the story of Thor imprisoned deep in the galaxy and forced to fight as a gladiator (against Hulk). Missing his powerful hammer and seemingly in a situation even he will have trouble getting out of, he needs to escape to return home to Asgard to stop Ragnarok – an impending apocalypse of sorts, to be set in motion by the new super-villain Hela (Cate Blanchett). That, anyway, is the synopsis.
But what this film may ultimately wind up being about is Marvel making a pivot to a less formulaic and more authentic mode of entertainment. It could just save the MCU as we know it.