Marvel’s Miracle Man at a Crossroads, Part 1: Fatigue Factor

Kevin Feige
Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
December 9, 2021

It’s hard not to see Spider-Man: No Way Home as one of the biggest flexes in the history of the movie business. Think about what happened here. A major studio, Sony Pictures, had so badly managed its most valuable piece of I.P. that in 2015, chairman Tom Rothman agreed to do the unthinkable: Share the character, let another studio produce its Spider-Man movies, and allow Spidey to appear in that studio’s own movies for free. And not just any studio, it was Disney’s Marvel unit, which had embarrassed Sony and the rest of Hollywood with an unprecedented run of hyper-profitable and flywheel-friendly blockbusters based on “lesser” comic book characters like Thor and Ant-Man. The indignity.

Then, once the first two movies, Homecoming (2017) and Far from Home (2019), reinvigorated the franchise, Disney tightened the vice on Rothman’s nuts, eventually forcing Sony to give up 25 percent of the profits to keep Marvel involved on a third movie, No Way Home (Dec. 17). That film, which incorporates Disney’s characters, like Doctor Strange, and opens the door to the “multiverse” with past Spideys, could become the first billion-dollar grosser of the pandemic era. Nothing has opened to $100 million domestic since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in Dec. 2019, and No Way Home is tracking to hit $150 million (though Sony is lowballing in the media). According to multiple sources, there’s a deal for a fourth Marvel-produced movie that will star Tom Holland, and it’s already quietly in development.   

That’s what Kevin Feige has accomplished here, just in case anyone has doubts about who is the most important employee at the Walt Disney Company. The Marvel Studios president has now presided over the Marvel Miracle for 13 years now—24 of his own movies and three of Sony’s, and not an outright flop among them. Since wresting control of the unit from Ike Perlmutter in 2015, Feige has established his own culture and ramped up output, which can be three to four films a year, plus multiple Disney+ series. Despite that, Marvel’s product has remained impervious to the usual franchise fatigue that has plagued every other property in the blockbuster era. It’s really unbelievable. Yet… it can’t go on forever, can it? The Marvel Miracle must end, or at least slow down, right?  

There’s no film “comp” for Marvel. But back in 2019, I asked Alan Horn, then Disney’s film chief and ostensibly Feige’s boss, whether Marvel movies might someday perform like American Idol, a dominant, multi-night cultural juggernaut that simply runs its course, scales back and becomes ordinary. “The answer is no,” Horn told me. “If the film has a compelling storyline, if it has heart and humor, two things that I insist on, and it’s terrifically well executed, I think there is an audience. But who knows?”

The “Who knows” was doing a lot in that response. Horn didn’t know because Marvel has performed like nothing in the history of film. The laws of economics (and physics) suggest that can’t last forever, and Horn knew it. It’s inevitable. Feige has been reading about fatigue for a decade, but these days, Disney is really testing the parameters in a way that could accelerate that decline. The slate was pushed back a bit thanks to Covid delays, but let’s take a brief look at the Marvel output after Spider-Man: No Way Home. There’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (May 6), then Thor 4 (July 8), then both Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk on Disney + (late 2022), Black Panther 2 (Nov. 11), a Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special on D+ (Holiday 2022), The Marvels (Feb. 17, 2023), Guardians of the Galaxy 3 (May 5, 2023), Ant-Man 3 (July 28, 2023), then undated reboots of Fantastic Four and Blade, plus Captain America 4 and Deadpool 3 in theaters, and Moon Knight and Secret Invasion on D+. Whew.

That’s just what’s been revealed for the next couple years. Internally, the timeline goes way longer, I’m told. And this doesn’t include additional Spider-Man movies, or Sony’s Spidey spinoff pics, like Morbius or Venom 3, or animated Into the Spider-Verse sequels. Plus, wait until Feige gets his hands on Fox’s X-Men property. 

Yes, I know, that’s what modern film studio release calendars look like, and nobody gets fired for packing a slate with superhero sequels. As Covid turns theaters into blockbuster-only domains, it’s going to get worse. Plus, the mandate from Disney C.E.O. Bob Chapek is to pack Disney+ with franchise spinoffs, and that’s exactly what Feige is doing with these low-episode limited series like Loki and Falcon and the Winter Soldier. But in doing so, Marvel has gone from a special-occasion franchise to an omnipresent force that is essentially always on. Not even the NFL does that. At some point, there must be a cost to that strategy.  

Is franchise fatigue why Eternals has been underperforming? Covid has played a role, obviously, and fan reaction to the Chloe Zhao film, which is longer and more contemplative than typical Marvel fare, wasn’t great. But what if Eternals was the only Marvel film this year? And what if there wasn’t also a Jeremy Renner Hawkeye show on D+ at the same time that Eternals was in theaters? I’m guessing Eternals would have been a huge event, which would have translated into much higher box office. Instead, it came two months after Shang-Chi, another stand-alone character-introduction movie that ended up doing better than Eternals. You can stack with Spider-Man, but not with an unproven property.

This isn’t just a Disney issue, of course. All studios are facing fatigue issues as they stretch their franchises to the breaking point. And everyone (especially Sony, which now needs Disney’s Marvel success to fuel its own) benefits from a healthy theatrical business that Marvel helps make possible. 

But diminishing returns seems like an inescapable, uh, endgame for Marvel, especially if quality control becomes an issue and lower box office means there are fewer megahits to mine for the spin-offs. I’m not suggesting that Marvel is in trouble. Far from it. But if I were betting Marvel as a stock, I’d wonder if it hasn’t hit its peak.