Illustration: Variety; Images: Marvel; Adobe Stock
SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses plot developments in the finale of Marvel Studios’ “Secret Invasion,” currently streaming on Disney+, but that might not really matter to you — and maybe that’s OK.
In 2007, at my very first San Diego Comic-Con, I saw the entertainment industry change in minutes when Jon Favreau debuted the first footage of Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man”.
At the time, Marvel Studios was an independent company banking its entire future on a third-tier character played by an untested star, an effort that was viewed with deep skepticism (if not outright derision) by many in the industry and the fan community alike. The movie had just been shot, so the footage only had one real VFX shot of the Iron Man suit flying alongside jet fighters; the rest of the preview relied on Downey’s charm and on-camera shots of him as Tony Stark in the giant Iron Man suit that Stark constructs at the beginning of the film.
It blew the roof off Hall H. The footage was lovely and gritty and inventive, a welcome antidote to the bloated trajectory of superhero movies that decade, like the overstuffed bombast of Sony’s “Spider-Man 3,” which had debuted two months earlier, or 20th Century Fox’s naked “X-Men: The Last Stand” from the previous summer. It felt like the kind of culture shift that can happen when audiences en masse embrace something that feels exciting new. The next year, “Iron Man” was a runaway sensation, grossing $585.8 million worldwide; by 2012, “The Avengers” had grossed $1.5 billion, and Marvel’s shoot-the-moon gambit to create an interconnected cinematic universe ended up dominating the industry for the rest of the decade.
I kept thinking about that moment in Hall H 16 years ago while attending this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Marvel Studios, like virtually the rest of Hollywood, was a no-show due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, and yet on the July 21st weekend, the culture was unmistakably going through a similar, and perhaps just as monumental, realignment as audiences cried out in. record numbers for Greta Gerwig’s unashamedly feminist comedy “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s three-hour biopic “Oppenheimer”.
That same week, Marvel concluded the 44th – 44th! – title in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the dull Disney+ conspiracy drama “Secret Invasion”. Despite initially solid reviews and an outrageously talented cast — including Samuel L. Jackson, Emilia Clarke, Olivia Colman, Don Cheadle, Ben Mendelsohn and Kingsley Ben-Adir — “Secret Invasion” ended up as an all-too-appropriate example of the sleazy sleaze that has permeated Marvel’s storytelling of late, nearly dethroning Marvel as the undisputed pinnacle of the industry.
Over the course of the series, we learn that Cheadle’s James “Rhodey” Rhodes has really been a shape-shifting Skrull named Raava, though the character didn’t really need to have a name since the show showed no interest in Raava — including what it felt like a female Skrull who impersonated a male human – in addition to her function in the story. More violently, said the series’ director, Ali Selim VarietyAngelique Jackson that Raava has been impersonating Rhodey since the events of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.” Not only does it strain narrative credulity to the breaking point, it undermines the emotional climax of “Avengers: Endgame,” when Rhodey sat with his best friend Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as he died. If to moment can be withdrawn, why invest in something that happens in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
And then there’s Clarke’s character, G’iah, the Skrull daughter of Mendelsohn’s Talos from 2019’s “Captain Marvel.” Deep Breath, Everyone: In the finale, G’iah impersonates Nick Fury (Jackson) to deliver the DNA from all the Avengers collected after the Battle for Earth in “Endgame” to the villain, Gravik (Ben-Adir), who uses it to instill themselves with all their powers, but he also instills Gee with these powers, after which they fight by transforming different parts of their bodies into different random Avengers until G’iah wins by blasting a giant hole in Gravik’s chest. This battle unfolds with all the personality of a Noovie featurette, in the middle of an abandoned Russian nuclear power plant that can best be described as “anonymous gray”, using two characters we barely know or care about to deliver a glimpse of undifferentiated fanservice that makes no sense: Look, they’re using the Abomination’s arm and a Frost Beast’s ice blade and Ghost’s teleportation abilities, all characters that were does not in the battle for earth! What fun we have!
The last we see of G’iah – who, just to emphasize this point, has suddenly become the most powerful person in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe — she has agreed to work for Colman’s MI6 operative Sonya Falsworth. Because why not?
All of this show’s problems are merely symptoms of a much bigger problem for Marvel: the very things that allowed the studio to soar in the 2010s have become an oppressive burden in the 2020s. First, there’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself: “Secret Invasion” would be a tightly wound conspiracy thriller that built on the events of “Captain Marvel” to dissect how Nick Fury had become so formidable. Instead, it was weighed down by the events of “Endgame” and an apparent need to cram as many superhero references into the finale as possible. Similarly, where the first two “Ant-Man” movies were relatively self-contained capers, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” was fraught with the official launch of Jonathan Majors’ Kang as the biggest bad of the Multiverse Saga. The film ended with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) wondering if anything that happened in the film even mattered.
Did “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” really need to keep cutting away from the heartbreaking central conflict to scenes with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Valentina Allege de Fontaine from “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”? Did “Ms. Marvel” really need to abandon its story of the generational trauma of the India-Pakistan partition to incorporate the Department of Damage Control from “Spider-Man: Homecoming”? Did Thor (Chris Hemsworth) really need to spend the first act of “Thor: Love and Thunder” messing around with the Guardians of the Galaxy instead of focusing on the emotional devastation of Jane Foster’s (Natalie Portman) cancer?
No they didn’t.
But even if all of these projects had stripped away the unnecessary remnants of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they would still be hampered by the Marvel method. Filmmakers often describe Marvel’s approach as “very collaborative”; when I interviewed “Love and Thunder” director Taika Waititi last year for Variety‘s cover story on Portman, he said that Marvel’s films “change all the way through post-production.” What this means in real terms is that Marvel’s layer of creative directors, led by Feige, will rip up scripts and storylines throughout the creative process if they don’t think they’re working to their satisfaction – no matter how far along the project is, and nor how disruptive the changes will be to the finished film or series.
This approach, not entirely unique to Marvel, allowed the studio to remain nimble in the 2010s, leaning on ideas and creative directions that worked rather than being bound by a rigid grand design. But it also meant that Marvel films felt largely homogenous in approach and style, with most filmmakers struggling to establish their own voice within. As Marvel aggressively expanded in the 2020s to fill the Disney+ pipeline, the seams began to show — and then tear apart. Visual effects work suffered, and visual effects artists were not silent about it. The final episodes of TV shows and the final acts of movies often felt rushed and sloppy.
To be clear, audiences aren’t completely chilled by superheroes. Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3” and Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” are big hits because they focused on the emotional arcs of their characters rather than serving a broader cinematic universe — and that is essential that each film looks and feels unlike any other film in the film. marketplace right now. There’s a reason that “Guardians” filmmaker James Gunn, who is now the co-head of DC Studios, has proclaimed that DC’s movies will have settled, finished scripts before anything goes into production.
But none of these films became a “Barbenheimer”-like event in the way that Marvel films routinely did in the 2010s. Audience tastes may just be moving away from superhero fare. Marvel still has plenty of projects in its pipeline — I’m personally excited about Season 2 of “Loki,” my favorite of Marvel’s Disney+ shows to date. But it’s telling that since Feige laid out the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the 2022 San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel and Disney have pushed several big titles further down the slate, including “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty” from May 2025 to May. 2026 and “Avengers: Secret Wars” from November 2025 to May 2027. (Major’s upcoming trial on domestic violence charges could also affect the trajectory of the franchise, and especially what happens with Kang.)
Disney CEO Bob Iger even admitted in June that Marvel’s exponentially increased output for Disney+ “diluted focus and attention” for the studio, strongly suggesting that Marvel will dial back its output closer to pre-streaming levels. Feige will no doubt be back in Hall H again. But this time, he may also need to channel the power of all the Avengers to save the Marvel Cinematic Universe.