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Superhero Fatigue is Real & It’s Affecting the Box Office

Superheroes aren't the slam dunk they used to be and the box office numbers are reflecting that. ...

Marvel have announced that Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is the first film in the upcoming Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). What is interesting about the this is the sentiment facing the MCU right now – Phase 4 was a letdown and audiences are becoming bored with it. Quantumania is set to formally introduce Kang the Conqueror as the new “Big Bad” replacing Thanos and it’s something that Marvel were forced to do earlier than initially planned. Why? Because they need it. 

Phase 4 for a lot of Marvel fans felt aimless, like it wasn’t building up to anything as the previous phases of films had done. While diehards will argue that the MCU has been building to something, they just aren’t being obvious about it, they seem to forget that the previous films were very obvious about their intention to build to something bigger. But the MCU is still one of the biggest franchises in the world, so where do they go now? 

Quantumania has leapfrogged The Marvels with swapped release dates. Ant-Man will release on February 17, four months ahead of schedule, with The Marvels pushed back to July 28. Both productions are allegedly going well with few problems so how do you read this decision? One way to read it, is that it is Marvel’s intention to give a much needed shot in the arm to the MCU and add a sense of urgency and importance by introducing Kang (in the films) as early as possible. 

This is not to say that the MCU is in trouble, far from it. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was the third highest-grossing film in the U.S in 2022, and worldwide Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was the fourth highest. These films are still cleaning up at the box office, but something isn’t right, and the numbers are there to prove it.  

How did Phase 4 do at the Box Office?

All images credited to Disney/Marvel

According to a Fandom study, 36% of Marvel fans are reportedly fatigued with the genre, alongside 20% of DC fans. That’s a third of the fanbase and it’s beginning to show at the box office. 

If you look at the box office results post Avengers: Endgame, you’ll see things are far more unpredictable and profits have shrunk. Granted, external factors such as the pandemic definitely had an impact on the box office, but even their post-pandemic releases saw lacklustre box office results. 

Let’s start with Black Widow (July 9, 2021). It had the third largest opening for an MCU origin film ($135.4 million). It also had the largest sophomore week drop (67%) for any MCU film with just $25.8 million gross. It’s total box office internationally was $379.8 million on a budget of $200 million. This was during the height of the pandemic so that could explain the lower worldwide gross, but it doesn’t explain the significant drop after the first weekend. In fact, it reveals a growing trend for Marvel films.

Sang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Sept. 3, 2021) grossed $75.5 million in its opening weekend, the second highest of the pandemic, behind Black Widow. It remained the top film for the next four consecutive weeks and became the second-highest grossing film of 2021. Additionally, it only earned $35.8 million in its second weekend (a 52% drop). The worldwide box office was $432.2 million on a budget of $150-200 million. 

So far things are looking okay considering there was a pandemic going on and ticket sales would naturally be reduced. 

The Eternals (Nov. 5, 2021) saw an even lower opening weekend ($71.3 million) than Sang-Chi and earned less than pre-release projections ($82-102 million according to Boxoffice Pro). It only earned $27.5 million in its second weekend (a 61% drop). At the end of its run, it was the sixth highest grossing film of 2021 in the U.S. with a worldwide box office return of $402.1 million on a budget of $200 million. 

Eternals underperformed, so what? It still made a tonne of money. This is true, but then Spider-Man: No Way Home comes out and makes almost $2 billion. During the pandemic. Weren’t expectations for pandemic era Marvel films around $400 million?

Spider-Man (Dec. 17, 2021) was the highest grossing film of 2021 and a huge win for Marvel. It grossed $1.922 billion at the worldwide box office on a budget of $200 million. One its opening weekend it earned $260 million and remained in the top spot for 6 weeks. Why didn’t the pandemic hurt this film like it did the others? Keep this in mind.

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness comes out the following year (May 6, 2022) and has a huge opening of $187.4 million. However, this film also saw a 67% decline in its second weekend with Deadline attributing the reason to “bad word of mouth.” It grossed $955.8 million on a budget of $172-200 million. It became the fourth highest grossing film of 2022. Not quite a billion, but still a profit and still a better showing than Eternals, Black Widow, and Sang-Chi. This can be attributed to things beginning to open up during the pandemic. 

Things get worse with Thor: Love and Thunder (July 8, 2022) which earned $144.2 million on its opening weekend, the best opening for any Thor film. Things were looking good until it was reported to have the largest second-weekend drop of any MCU film (68%). Deadline attributed this to the mixed reception from critics and audiences. The film grossed $761 million on a budget of $250 million. 

At this point in Phase 4, the pandemic is no longer an excuse, people are out and about and willing to go to the cinema. Despite that, and despite featuring one of the most popular characters in the MCU, Thor failed to meet expectations at the box office.

Finally, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Nov. 11, 2022) managed to squeeze out $842.7 million at the box office on $250 million budget. Even so, it reported a huge opening weekend of $181.3 million and a 63% drop in its second weekend

Every release, with the exception of Spider-Man, has faced a significant drop in interest after the initial hype died down.

Superheroes Aren’t the Slam Dunk They Used to Be

What do we take away from these results? Diehard fans are coming out in their legions for the opening weekend, but general audiences aren’t as keen and aren’t turning out in droves for these films after the initial hype has died down. Why did Spider-Man do so well? It was an event film. What are the rest of the Phase 4 films? Filler. 

Few MCU films released before the pandemic reported such significant drops in their second weekend as those in Phase 4. Even looking at Phase 3’s box office results, it’s remarkably consistent. Of the 11 films released, only two didn’t reach the $800 million – $2 billion bracket with Doctor Strange and Ant-Man and the Wasp each earning under $700 million. 

This is why Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is coming out earlier because it features Thanos’ replacement, Kang, i.e., it’s a big event film. Marvel needs another event movie, they need to provide a reason for audiences to go and see these films because simply being a Marvel movie isn’t enough anymore. 

It’s clear the genre isn’t a draw on its own anymore. Look at Black Adam (2022). It starred one of the biggest action stars in the world, Dwayne Johnson, and it still bombed, pulling in only $393 million on a budget of $190-260 million. Or worse yet, look at Morbius (2021), which managed to bomb in the cinema twice, pulling in only $167.5 million on a budget of $75-83 million. 

Granted, those films were critically panned, but James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021) was critically acclaimed and still bombed at the box office with a gross of $168.7 million on a budget of $185 million. This released just after Black Widow and couldn’t even match that film’s disappointing numbers. 

If it isn’t Marvel or Batman-related, superhero films have not been doing as well, the exception being Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021), which is still related to Spider-Man (Marvel) whose franchise has been the only one to buck the trend recently. 

This isn’t to say that the superhero franchise is dead or dying, rather they simply aren’t the slam dunk they used to be. Audiences are becoming pickier with which superhero film they go to see and that is a result of fatigue. 

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