Does Marvel’s Multiverse Mess Foretell the End of the Superhero Golden Age?

Marvel's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Marvel's multiverse mess and a host of other problems suggest that the sun is setting on the golden age of superhero movies. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) kicked off with Iron Man in 2008 and dominated the box office for over a decade. Now, as storylines between movies and TV series becomes entangled and the multiverse plot device makes it confusing for the average viewer to wrap their head around, MCU movies are no longer the runaway blockbuster juggernauts they were only a few years ago.

In an in-depth analysis by Tatiana Siegel for Variety, a recent retreat in Palm Springs by a group of Marvel creatives — including President Kevin Feige — is described as “angst-ridden.” Not only does the studio have to deal with underperforming movies such as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, general superhero fatigue, and diminishing star power as the MCU retires or kills off Avengers, it also has a major Jonathan Majors problem.

Variety reports, “The most pressing issue to be discussed at the retreat was what to do about Jonathan Majors, the actor who had been poised to carry the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but instead is headed to a high-profile trial in New York later this month on domestic violence charges. The actor insists he is the victim, but the damage to his reputation and the chance he could lose the case has forced Marvel to reconsider its plans to center the next phase of its interlocking slate of sequels, spin-offs and series around Majors’ villainous character, Kang the Conqueror.” Majors currently appears on Loki and that Disney+ show's upcoming season two finale sets up Kang for the fifth Avengers movie in 2026. Uh-oh… time to cast a new Dr. Doom fast!

“Marvel is truly f—ed with the whole Kang angle,” says one top dealmaker to Variety who has seen the final Loki episode. “And they haven’t had an opportunity to rewrite until very recently [because of the WGA strike]. But I don’t see a path to how they move forward with him.”

The Multiverse Is Played Out, both by Marvel and DC

Marvel's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Image Credit: A scene from Marvel Studios' DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios 2022. ©Marvel Studios 2022.

Although established in comic books, 2016's Doctor Strange first introduced the multiverse concept in the MCU, an idea revisited in 2019's Avengers: Endgame and many MCU (and DC) movies since. Spider-Man: No Way Home arguably utilized the multiverse best as a way to have three Peter Parkers — Andrew Garfield, Tobey Maguire, and Tom Holland — appear together in the same movie and somehow make sense. Since then, others have started ridiculing the multiverse as a plot device. The recent South Park: Joining the Panderverse is an entire special event built around the joke that the multiverse is just “lazy writing” and “lame.”

On the other hand, the played-out multiverse offers Marvel a lifeline to bring back actors like Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. to the MCU after their characters were killed off. Just yank Iron Man from some other universe and… problem solved! Now the MCU gets one of its biggest stars back and can stop sweating the low tracking numbers for The Marvels. Variety reports that Feige is also working on ways to bring X-Men actors into the fold to try to recapture that Marvel magic from five years ago. There are whispers that some original X-Men actors may pop in Deadpool 3, The Marvels, or both.

“The Marvel machine was pumping out a lot of content. Did it get to the point where there was just too much, and they were burning people out on superheroes? It’s possible,” says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler to Variety. “The more you do, the tougher it is to maintain quality. They tried experimenting with breaking in some new characters, like Shang-Chi and Eternals, with mixed results. With budgets as big as these, you need home runs.”

Home runs — heck, grand slams — were routine for Marvel a few years ago, but now planet-sized budgets no longer guarantee a box office bonanza. A combination of problematic actors, diminishing star power, a confusing multiverse storyline connecting movies and TV, and general superhero fatigue should worry Marvel. Variety reports that “a single episode of She-Hulk [cost] some $25 million, dwarfing the budget of a final-season episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones.” 

The Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon, is a cultural phenomenon just like its predecessor. The nine episodes of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law cost approximately $225 million. People have already forgotten that Disney+ series happened, yet it was the last TV series tied into the MCU's Phase Four. If Marvel wants to reach Phase Six and beyond, it must focus on quality over quantity and phase out the multiverse madness.