Still Marvel-ous? Quantity and Quality in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Unlike Thanos, smash-ing success might not be inevitable for Marvel Studios.


Jack Zhang / Unsplash

The Marvel Cinematic Universe first debuted with Iron Man, and later introduced its most popular comic book character, Spider-Man.

A war torn battlefield, decimated by a seemingly endless power struggle, serves as the backdrop for a showdown ten years in the making. Thanos, a persistent foe, cowers at the Avengers, pointing his sword at them, taunting the mere mortals. Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, the linchpins of the team, take turns trading blows with the Mad Titan, mustering all their remaining strength to try and thwart the self-proclaimed destroyer of Earth. However, Thanos dismantles them effortlessly, overmatching the Avengers. Thor, God of Thunder, and universal protector, lay flat on the ground, absorbing brutal blows. Then suddenly, as hope seems lost, and solemn music faintly sounds, Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, only used by those deemed worthy, rises. The camera follows it, revealing Steve Rogers, Captain America, as its wielder.

Not only did this moment call back to prior films, notably Avengers: Age of Ultron, but it brought thousands in packed theaters to their feet, full of anticipation and excitement.

Since AC/DC’s “Back In Black” blasted from movie theater speakers in May of 2008, and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man mesmerized audiences across the world, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced nearly forty projects, grossing more than 20 billion dollars. The box-office behemoth is not only beloved by its audience, but also respected by critics, even garnering a Best Picture nomination in 2018.

Yet in this world of fantastical, hopeful heroes, Marvel has begun to struggle with diversifying their stories, either conforming to their tropes or producing underwhelming unique films. The prioritization of storytelling and character-driven narrative seems to have vanished like Nick Fury, Bucky, and half of the lineup in Infinity War. What remains are clunky, rushed and generic projects, with insufficient time invested and a dependence on complex visual effects.

The extent of VFX troubles is staggering, starting with poor working conditions. In an interview with CNET, one anonymous artist purported to work “60 to 80-hour weeks, lasting for multiple months in a row.” However, as with any job, overworking people does not usually yield a better product. Using sleep and rest synonymously, the Harvard Business Review concluded that a mere “one-to-three percent of the population can sleep five to six hours a night without suffering some performance drop-off.” Taken together, employed effects artists are not only being overworked, but the quality of their work is declining.

Though only one component of Marvel’s troubles, the working conditions of the VFX artists coupled with the over-reliance on technology can create hilariously unrealistic images, like the Third Act of Black Panther, Shang-Chi, or She-Hulk working in an office. CGI, similar to other filming methods, has improved drastically, making it “easier to be distracting when it’s unconvincing,” as Daniel Chin, a writer for The Ringer, said.

The VFX are not always great, but that can be overlooked if CGI is used as filler, serving as location imagery in the background. However, Industrial Light and Magic, the VFX Company responsible for Avengers: Infinity War, released statistics confirming that more than ninety-five percent of the scenes required some form of effects.

Despite the deteriorating CGI quality, however, the crux of Marvel’s troubles still lies in over-saturation, resulting in a disregard for complex story and plot.

People such as Marvel fan and movie critic Sean Chandler, host and founder of the YouTube channel Sean Chandler Talks About, have pointed to poorly thought-out plots, and inconsistent depictions of beloved characters as primary issues.

Chandler boils Marvel’s problem down to overproduction, segmenting off into a myriad of other problems like a variant timeline in the TVA.

“[He thinks] the problem is that they are releasing too much content. Kevin Feige is one-of-one, and he, like the rest of us, only has twenty-four hours in a day, even when Marvel multiplies their output by three. Feige’s oversight allows for the interconnectedness of the MCU, which is why we love it. Without time for Feige to put enough effort into one project, and shepherd it into the same cohesive storyline, Marvel plays too much out of the sandbox,” Chandler said.

The staggering increase in content is beyond noticeable, as in 2019, only three Marvel projects were released (Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home), whereas in 2021, the corporation churned out a staggering nine projects. Though reviews remained relatively high, fans have been quick to point out the less insightful and more formulaic filmmaking.

Marvel’s formula is hardly new, however, with its familiar techniques ensuring profits and likability. However, Marvel superfans have criticized the franchise for its recent lack of creativity. With the exception of Marvel’s latest entries, Eternals, Multiverse of Madness and Love and Thunder, Marvel Studios rarely allows for director individuality. Joe Russo, co-director of two Avengers films, describes the studio’s oversight, emphasizing that when directors present a cut unlike their original pitch, “Marvel turns it on,” and “starts to work with the filmmaker in a much heavier way.”

The most common of these studio “fixes” seems to be a massive, high-stakes third act. Though an excellent climax when earned, the CGI finales of films like Shang Chi, Eternals, and Black Widow alter and undermine the tone and narrative of their story.

Clearly, Marvel has listened to its critics in some capacity, as the finale of She-Hulk essentially contains a blunt message to those people. Not only does the show address the formula in a comedic and self-deprecating way, uncharacteristic of Marvel Studios, but it does so by subverting expectations, inserting Jennifer Walters into the real-world. This bold risk was hailed by many fans like Coy Jandreau and The Reel Rejects, YouTubers who, in a review video, proclaimed the finale a brilliant episode. Marvel even addresses the VFX concerns, joking that She-Hulk was expensive to create, and she should transform off-camera for both budgetary and practical reasons (artists are working on the next project).

Not every fan saw this response as admirable or an achievement, as Chandler, a fellow film critic and reviewer, felt the finale practiced what it preached too much, poking fun at lazy writing while being complicit, writing a twist to avoid a rewarding character-based finale. In his review, Chandler addresses his overall frustrations with the show, but more relevantly, expresses his aggravation with the writers’ choices in the finale.

He admonishes the show for feeding a toxic narrative, in which all of its critics are misogynist and discriminatory.

Marvel has been review-bombed repeatedly, a practice in which angry Internet trolls give a show one-star ratings without having seen it, and clearly, there is some merit to Marvel’s meta critiques of the Internet. However, people like Chandler, who strive to deliver honest reviews of films, sometimes simply dislike a project. Everything does not always have an underlying message or subtle discriminatory intent behind it, and in making critics seem ill-intentioned, Marvel is playing a dangerous game. Given that pretext, though Chandler appreciated the “clever” ideas, he was confused at how and why a show was pre-written to “provoke internet trolls,” rather than appealing to their entire fan base.

Actor and Marvel fan Oliver Stern refutes that notion, discerning that people have looked too far into the amount of content. As he put it, “Marvel simply wants to make more stories at once.”

That being said, telling more stories over the same duration has its issues, as allocating adequate resources and Feige time to each project becomes increasingly difficult. That side-effect has most certainly contributed to the aforementioned problems.

Filmmaker and lifelong Marvel fan Steven Goodman, however, does not view the content increase as being detrimental to quality. He points out that, theoretically, “people might have criticized the comics for the same problems.” With varied comic portrayals, tones, and storylines, the Marvel comic industry has thrived with that variety.

In fact, Goodman insists that the MCU’s recent “diversity of style,” is actually to Marvel’s benefit. He understands the outrage, as everyone finds some issue within the lines to complain about, but has a different view of Kevin Feige’s vision.

Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios, speaks at San Diego Comic Con to a crowd of eager fans. Feige is responsible for overseeing each project and is the glue of the Marvel Comic Universe. Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

“You don’t have to like everything, and you may not, but there is something for everyone to appreciate,” said Goodman.

Perhaps Goodman’s insight has merit, as differing interpretations of characters has never hurt the Marvel brand before. However, Marvel Comics do not always interweave cohesively. They all serve stories from alternate realities, in a vast multiverse. That same logic does not typically apply to the main timeline of the MCU.

With Multiverse of Madness exploring the endless possibilities of storytelling in the MCU, different depictions of beloved characters can begin to appear. Nonetheless, the core of the Marvel films have always been character arcs as well as integrity and credence to the source material.

Bob Layton, comic legend, author of Iron Man and co-creator of War Machine, when asked about character continuity, touched on its nuance, and the complications behind it.

Layton contests that any Marvel project fusing storylines will struggle, as they appeal to “two different audiences. The mainstream moviegoer is not a hardcore comic fan.” Along those same lines, he questions Marvel’s approach to its cinematic world, as it grows too dependent on every other project.

“I would caution that forcing an audience to watch every single product in order to understand what’s happening is a dangerous path,” said Layton. Implementing this tactic has forced viewers to endure projects that might have a different intended audience. A steady flow of shows and films that require prior knowledge from other media has the unintended consequence of making 35-year old fans watch shows like Ms. Marvel, geared for a younger group of people. Thus, more complaints as to the quality of these products will arise, as fewer people are content with all that Marvel pumps out.

Chandler argues that gearing projects towards different demographics is less the issue. More importantly, the universe has to feel connected, even when tones contrast.

As he put it, “Ant-Man, a heist comedy, feels like it could exist within the same reality as a spy thriller like Winter Soldier, so the issue is not necessarily the contrasting tones.”

Instead, Chandler re-classifies the more ambitious and creative new content as risks. For instance, though Chandler criticized Eternals, he claims, “it was a risk worth taking, even though it did not pay off for [him].” The heart of the problem comes with too many risks.

More projects result in lower quality for a few reasons. There is inevitably less oversight, as human talent cannot always be bought and sold. With less hands-on advice from Marvel, resulting from less time allocated to each film or show, Marvel’s risks become riskier. Not only are the films exploring more “out there” content, but they do not have the proper oversight to ensure some baseline continuity.

That combination of too many projects, spreading Marvel’s human resources out too thin, riskier storytelling, not enough time, and riskier direction all contribute to the MCU’s recent quality troubles.

As for character integrity from the source material, Layton feels the two media are distinct enough to disregard some of the continuity errors. For instance, Layton’s most famous work, Demon In A Bottle, follows Tony Stark’s dark turn to alcoholism. Even in its infancy, Marvel knew its MCU needed to be appropriate, and making its most beloved character less of a role model would have been a risk. According to Layton, when he spoke to Iron Man director John Favreau and writer Justin Theroux about adapting the comic, they both felt the storyline was too dark. Favreau realized that “Marvel would never approve a story this dark with one of its flagship characters,” remarked Layton, recalling a discussion between the two.

That said, Layton is optimistic about the opportunities the films present to advance the characters and plots, believing they have “the potential of actually being better stories than the comic versions.”

In fact, the comic titan is unphased by the varying degrees of character continuity, replying that correlation between comics and films “does not matter at all,” citing Guardians of the Galaxy, a tremendously popular and highly-touted Marvel picture based on poorly-received comics.

For Layton, the comics and films are less of a united front. He sees the films as an unfortunate replacement for comic books, a media dazzling its viewership since the late 1920s.

“Films and television have usurped the gateway to the fantastic that comics books used to serve as.” Yet at the same time, Layton realizes the consequences suffered by the comics, affirming that “comic sales have never been worse, while the superhero genre has become more globally appreciated.”

Perhaps, using Layton’s unique expertise as a metric, maintaining integrity across media is unimportant, but within the MCU, ensuring characters behave similarly in all projects is essential. Without that type of flow, Marvel will most certainly lose its luster.

Chandler affirms that concept of relative consistency, touting the MCU as the first cohesive live-action universe. The responsibility of maintaining that universe where characters can weave into different storylines seamlessly means that “the universe must set rules, allowing their directors to have free reign within the playground while telling them where those parameters are.”

Projects like Werewolf by Night, a succinct hour-long story pocketed and detached from the MCU characters, can experiment more, as it is less obligated to maintain consistency. She-Hulk for example, featuring Wong, Hulk, Abomination, and Daredevil, has more requirements to uphold, and in Chandler’s mind, that difference caused She-Hulk to feel “too wacky for an interconnected project.”

Mr. Stuart Symons, however, a history teacher at Bronx Science and a lifelong comic aficionado, explored a different interpretation of Marvel’s role. As he put it, “I enjoy their projects regardless.” In general, Symons, having experienced the world of comics as a kid, “is mesmerized by the visualization of his imagination.”

“If this vast universe existed when I was eleven, I would have consumed it all,” Mr. Symons said.

Symons, despite his fandom, understands the criticisms. He speculates that “the drought of content during COVID-19 left audiences yearning for Marvel projects. Now that movies are coming out regularly, the intrigue has diminished.” In his mind, oversaturation is less about overproduction, and more about how “excitement and anticipation drive people to theaters, and when there are no waiting periods between Marvel films or Disney + shows, fans are less excited about new content.”

Regardless, people like Symons and Goodman will flock to the cinemas whether Marvel wins Oscars or Razzies. Yet Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios find themselves in a typical predicament, one that will shape the MCU’s future. Some film franchises, like the Fast of the Furious, have continued their formulaic content with box-office smashes, and though Marvel will see dependable returns, they most certainly have their work cut out for them.

Hopeful skeptics like Chandler should remain optimistic though, as the release of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in November 2022 was telling. The film tastefully dealt with the loss of Chadwick Boseman, and cemented itself as a unique, dramatic MCU production.

Perhaps Marvel will right the ship, but for now, everyone will have to wait for Marvel’s triumphant return to consistently productive filmmaking.

“The universe must set rules, allowing their directors to have free reign within the playground while telling them where those parameters are.”