STATE OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Are We Heading To An Endgame? – Part One

Images via respective film studios

SPOILER WARNING: This article series will be talking about plot elements of many recent comic book films. If you are not up to speed on your comic book film watching – And really, who can blame you? – you might want to proceed with caution.

When FilmBuffOnline head honcho Rich Drees contacted me late last year, asking me if I was going to do my yearly “State of the Comic Book Film” post, I told him no. At the time, I had yet to see Black Adam and Morbius, and I wasn’t in any great hurry to catch up on them (especially that second one).

At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. But upon reflection, I had to examine my own personal feelings towards the comic book film. I mean, for decades I have been their champion. I started this series of articles back in 2012 to provide a positive view of the comic book film in a media landscape filled with journalists that wished they would just go away. I mean, I didn’t become FBOL’s Comic Book Movie Editor because I hated comic book movies.

But over the last several years, the shine has faded from the genre for me. Perhaps it is the post-Pandemic malaise. Perhaps it is just my tastes changing as I get older. Or are there real reasons in the product that has been put out that has caused me to lose some interest in the genre.

That’s what I am going to examine here, in this four-part series. Instead of just putting 2022 under the microscope, I’m going to look at the genre’s past, present and future to see if I am right or wrong to start to lose interest in the genre and if the genre is on its downward arc.

I know what you are saying, five of the top ten highest grossing films released last year were comic book films. Yes, but the fifth, Black Adam in at number ten, either failed to make a profit or just barely made a profit, depending on which budget estimate you choose to follow. So, there are cracks in the armor.

And I am going to start with the 800-lb gorilla in the comic book film universe:

Marvel

Image via Marvel Studios

You might look to 2019’s Avengers: Endgame as the perfect spot for where the Marvel films jumped the shark. After all, there was an air of finality about it. It was the culmination of ten years of Marvel films, the last on-screen appearance of popular characters such as Captain America and Iron Man and left the Marvel Cinematic Universe in need of a new direction, yet uncertain where that direction would be.

And I guess you can use that as a point where the flaws in the MCU started to show, if you exclude Spider-Man: Far From Home as sort of an Endgame epilogue. Phase Four seems to me where Marvel went off the rails, both in its theatrical and streaming output. I have aired my concerns about the best years of the MCU being behind them in two 2021 articles, one in March and one in July. I’m not going to completely rehash those pieces. I don’t want to be repetitive if you read and remember them. If you haven’t, please visit those links and have a look. But it appears that I was right to have concerns.

Shang-Chi
Image via Marvel Studios

Yes, every Phase Four film did land in the Top Ten in the year of its release, but the quality of the films declined. If we are to use Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer scores as a yardstick, out of the 11 films in the MCU’s Phase 3, all but one scored at least an 85% fresh rating (that outlier, Captain Marvel, still scored a respectable 79% fresh rating).  In contrast, only 2 of the 7 Phase 4 films scored higher than that 85% benchmark–Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Spider-Man: No Way Home, and that latter one was a co-production with Sony Pictures (Don’t worry, it will be Morbin’ Time to discuss Sony Pictures a little later in this series.). What’s worse, this Phase featured the lowest reviewed film in the MCU–the awful Eternals–which could only muster a 47% fresh.

Why this decline? Probably the reasons, or a variation thereof, I listed in those articles above that have been repeated in films since I wrote that article:

  • Continuity and Marvel’s Approach to it: Marvel’s approach to its continuity is that fans should know about everything that came before, but they can ignore it whenever they want to. And it’s not just minor example. The Eternals are created to protect humans so they can be used as energy batteries for the baby Celestial that is growing in the Earth’s core. But they didn’t seem to be on that particular job when Ultron attacked Sokovia. Or “Mandarin” attacked Los Angeles. Or Malekith attacked London. Or Thanos attacked the entire universe.
    Wanda is laser focused on being reunited with her kids in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness but seems to forget about her ipso facto husband Vision. Wakanda opened its doors to the world in Black Panther but backslide from that position in Wakanda Forever. And, on the streaming side, Emil Blonsky went from a hardened military operative in Incredible Hulk to a hippy-dippy guru type in She-Hulk with no reason given for the change.
  • Overly devoted to formula and setting the stage for future properties: The films of the MCU leave little room for creative individuals do work in the Marvel Studios industrial complex. Some creators can fit inside the world of being beholden to what came before and what is set to come after and be flexible to work in changes in the schedule, and some are not.
    But what has become a problem in my eyes is the way films introduce new characters into continuity. Marvel used to excel at this: see Black Widow in Iron Man 2 or Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War. Now , it seems like the studio is in such a rush to introduce their characters that none of them are getting a good introduction yet still serve to extend the film’s run time to butt-numbing lengths. Eternals not only introduced the main characters into the MCU, and did so poorly, it also was tasked with introducing Black Knight and Starfox . The latter got a tease in a mid-credits scene where if you didn’t read the comics, you wouldn’t know why he was important. But he fared better than Black Knight/Dane Whitman, who exists mostly as an exposition dump in the film, and is only given what little personality Kit Harrington was able to instill in the character.
    It was a similar situation with Riri Williams/Ironheart in Wakanda Forever.  Obviously, Marvel wanted to introduce her before her Disney+ series hits later on this year. But the film would have been better served if they just introduced in her own series. She exists in the film mainly as a MacGuffin to set up a conflict between the Wakandans and Namor’s people. She isn’t given any backstory and her personality shifts to what the plot at the time needs it to be. Considering the film runs a whopping 2 hours and 41 minutes, the film would have been a tighter, and shorter, if they found some other way to set the enemies at each others throats without introducing a new, poorly defined character into the mix.
  • Wordy exposition laden dialogue: Of all the criticisms against Marvel, this one always seems to me to be the most unfair. All comic book films need to have a fair bit of exposition to introduce characters and their world. And when it is done well, like it was America Chavez was introduced in Multiverse of Madness or with Namor in Wakanda Forever, it can be great. But those were more “show, not tell”–the backstory was told through a visual narrative.
    Then you have Eternals. The way they approached exposition is the main reason why I gave it a bad review. They tell the story of the Eternals four times in the first hour, including a pre-credit scroll and through character’s standing around and talking, two of the most boring ways to provide exposition. It killed the movie for me. And, judging on the reviews the film got, for a lot of other people as well. And this approach to exposition came at the expense of the individual characters, which were thin and flimsy.
  • Skewing away too much from the comic book version of the character and story: One of the things Marvel Studios did best is capture the spirit of the original characters. Certain things might be changed here or there, but they never strayed too far from their comics origins.
    Then Taskmaster happened.
    That character in Black Widow strayed so far from their comic book origins that it started controversy. And , yeah, there was a lot of anti-woke griping in the complaints. But comic fans want respect paid to their favorite characters, and they get testy when they change unnecessarily. You’d better have had a good reason for changing them or you shouldn’t change them at all.
    Sometimes it can’t be avoided. Shang Chi’s dad in the comics was Fu Manchu, a character Marvel no longer had rights to. So, his dad in the film had to be changed. Namor backstory was probably changed to differentiate him from the DCEU’s Aquaman. Ms. Marvel’s origin was changed because the Inhumans are not a big part of the MCU anymore. And making Darren Cross Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania‘s MODOK might have ticked off fans of the comic book version, that version couldn’t be adapted as is in the MCU.
    But Ikaris was always the focal part of the Eternals. He was the ipso facto main character of the series. He was featured prominently in every appearance of the team. The film turning him into a villain probably alienated any fans the original series had. And ClanDestine, a quirky and fun superhero team created by comic book legend Alan Davis in 1994, is turned into a boring, run-of-the-mill group of villains in Ms. Marvel which only resembles the comic book version in name only. That was a wasted potential for a future franchise there.
    Considering that what gave Marvel their advantage was knowing what made their characters work and staying true to that, the increase in their changing what made characters great so they fit into their film’s narrative might be the most concerning point of their potential fall from grace.
  • Disdain for its fans: “You want John Krasinski as Mr. Fantastic? Here’s John Krasinski as Mr. Fantastic! Watch as we kill him off in the most gruesome way possible! Now, how do you feel about Penn Badgley as Mr, Fantastic, because John’s not coming back!”
Ant-Man and the Wasp Quantumania
Image via Marvel Studios

I warned you all about this. But since Marvel was making bank at the box office, they didn’t really have to pay attention to these problems. However, that might have all changed with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Not only had the film matched Eternals for the worst reviewed MCU film, but it might also become Marvel Studios first true flop. Industry pundits say the film needed to break $500-600 million at the box office to break even. As it stands, Quantumania has earned only $449 million internationally and has little to no chance to make up the difference.

This is especially horrifying when you consider that Quantumania was the film chosen to start off Phase 5 of the MCU off with a bang and set the stage for the next three years of films. That was my main problem with the film. It was more concerned with setting up Kang as a threat for the rest of the phase than they were putting a good movie around him. Outside of Jonathan Major’s outstanding performance as the villain, it was a nothing burger of a film. None of the characters really grew throughout the film, Evangeline Lilly’s was terminally underused, and I left the theater with the impression that Ant-Man was used to tell this story only because it was his spot in the rotation. I liked it better than I did the Eternals but it wasn’t a good film.

Conclusion

The path the MCU seems to be taking is troubling. Yes, they have Deadpool 3 with Hugh Jackman returning as Wolverine coming and their takes on Fantastic Four is on the schedule and X-Men would presumably be in the pipeline, so they most likely aren’t going anywhere soon. But there seems to be switch that was flipped after Endgame that affected both in the quality of the output and the audiences’ reaction to it. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania shows that it doesn’t take much for bad reviews to catch up with box office grosses. Since they don’t really seem to be willing to right the ship, they might set for an inevitable, albeit long, fall from grace.

Next:

We look at a brand that has had way more struggles than Marvel in bringing their characters to the screen: DC Read Part Two here.

Avatar für Bill Gatevackes
About Bill Gatevackes 2037 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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