The tides just may be turning, at last, against Marvel. For nearly two decades the seemingly invincible MCU has dominated the cinematic release schedule, but some cracks are showing in their audience response. And when people pause to look more deeply at the company behind that impressive box office record, there’s also growing evidence of some fairly shady practices. So what’s going on under the hood? Here’s our take on the dark truths of the MCU.
The Perlmutter Problem
In March of 2023, Disney laid off Ike Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Entertainment and the man at the center of Marvel’s sale to Disney — but he was a divisive and controversial figure for a long time before he was finally ushered out.
In 2014, emails between Perlmutter and Sony executive Michael Lynton were leaked, in which he listed a series of female-led superhero movies that he referred to as “disasters”. It was alleged that his belief that people didn’t want female superheroes was the reason behind Marvel taking so long to make a Black Widow movie, or for failing to include Wasp in the original iteration of The Avengers. And this chauvinistic culture trickled down to the actors themselves. Similarly, it was Perlmutter who, according to Disney CEO Bob Iger, put up “roadblocks” in their plans to make a Black Panther movie. Again, this was justified on financial grounds. But Perlmutter wasn’t some archaic, toothless figurehead. Arguably, his worldview fed into a culture of sexism and racism that was tied to the MCU’s early success.
Marvel is Military Propaganda
There’s a long history of Marvel’s relationship with the military — the first Captain America comics sold war bonds, and were pretty squarely aimed at boosting morale during wartime.
But propaganda during World War Two is one thing. Marvel’s relationship with the US Air Force now is another. Tom Secker writes: “The Production Assistance Agreement signed between Marvel Studios and the Pentagon for Iron Man shows that the Air Force saw the movie as a great opportunity for boosting recruitment.” In exchange for being able to shoot on military bases, and use real military planes, Marvel portrays the military in a heroic, uncritical light. There’s even some suggestion they’ve collaborated with the FBI as well. While there’s no official agreement out there like in the case of the air force, The Guardian’s Akin Olla writes how, “the mere use of the FBI logo requires approval from the agency.” You could argue that these close relationships are of benefit to the films. They help ground them in a world we know, and make them seem more real. But these relationships are far from apolitical, and it’s worth being critical of the underlying messages that these films put out.
Overworked, Underpaid, and Underappreciated
MCU films’ quality has never been beyond criticism — Martin Scorsese famously likened them to theme park rides, rather than actual cinema — but a common defense is that these productions offer great jobs for the industry’s most talented crew members and VFX artists.
The more that we learn, though, the more it seems that the VFX artists who are so crucial to these movies are put in the firing line.
VFX artists began speaking out in 2022 about Marvel being an infamous client. There were reports of people expected to work 60 to 80 hour weeks for months on end — often with this overtime going unpaid. Speaking to CNet, one source said: “We’ve literally made up entire third acts of a film, a month before release, because the director didn’t know what they wanted.” With Ant Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, VFX workers admitted shortcuts were taken, said resources were diverted away from the film and onto Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and that quality control was sub-par. “The entirety of the industry that has been touched by Marvel is permanently seared, and that’s what’s causing the most burnout,” one said.
And this undervaluing of behind the scenes staff extends to writers too. Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting were the ones who revived The Winter Soldier character for the Marvel comics, and whose stories formed the skeleton of movies and series that grossed billions of dollars. But that money doesn’t trickle down, with Brubaker saying: “all Steve and I have got for creating the Winter Soldier and his storyline is a ‘thanks’ here or there, and over the years that’s become harder and harder to live with.”
Making Actors Sell Out
And despite the longstanding feeling that scoring a Marvel role is the ultimate win for actors, there are also growing claims that Marvel is holding some of its actors back as artists.
Elizabeth Olsen’s role as Wanda Maximoff led to one of the most critically acclaimed Marvel productions in Wandavision. But in a 2022 interview with The New York Times, Olsen let slip that being in the MCU had prevented her from being in other movies that she was really drawn to, like The Lobster. “I started to feel frustrated,” she said. “I had this job security but I was losing these pieces that I felt were more part of my being.” Brie Larson is another celebrated character actor turned superhero, but the backlash she received from the more toxic members of Marvel’s fandom over her role as Captain Marvel led her to be visibly frustrated when discussing the part. A lot of the complaints actors have toward the MCU are about the undue influence that the franchise has had over film culture at large. Just as superhero movies themselves are accused of driving mid-budget adult dramas from the box office, Marvel’s power over actors effectively pushes many to pick a lane between financial security and making meaningful art. Jon Hamm has called the contracts superhero movies tie you into “draconian”. While Anthony Mackie, an actual Marvel superhero, had this to say: “The evolution of the superhero has meant the death of the movie star.” And actors aren’t the only ones who’ve come out swinging.
Not Trusting Directorial Visions
Part of the MCU’s success has come from hiring notable indie filmmakers, and allowing them to play in the blockbuster sandpit. Taika Waititi, Chloe Zhao and Ryan Coogler all began with low budget, arthouse movies.
But is the vision of the director, or the writer, really the driving force behind these movies?
Edgar Wright was initially on board to direct the first Ant Man film. But Wright pulled out because his script was redrafted without his involvement. Reflecting on the experience later, he said: “I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie.” Wright’s comments chime with those made by Ava Duvernay, who was originally on board to direct Black Panther before dropping out. She said: “It’s important to me that that be true to who I was in this moment. And if there’s too much compromise, it really wasn’t going to be an Ava DuVernay film.” Even directors who have made Marvel films have mentioned being pushed into creative decisions. Sam Raimi didn’t want to include Venom in Spider-Man 3, saying “I didn’t recognize enough humanity within that character to be able to identify with him properly,” but caved to pressure from studio execs.
These directors have their names on the posters — and it’s their reputations that take the hit if the films aren’t well received — but directing a Marvel film is often about how to compromise between what your creative vision is, and what the higher ups feel like will be best for the brand.
Lip Service to Diversity
Marvel has been very vocal about its diversity and its core values. Bob Iger said Black Panther “changed the world for the good”. But how much is it really doing? Jessica Alba, who was part of the Marvel universe before it became the cultural goliath that it is today, recently said: “Even if you look at the Marvel movies – that’s the biggest driver of fantasy and what’s happening right now in entertainment, because it’s sort of the family thing – it’s still quite Caucasian.”
When it comes to queer characters, there has been a marked uptick of LGBT+ representation in the MCU. Valkyrie is bisexual, and played by a bisexual actor in Tessa Thompson. Phastos in Eternals is gay, and America Chavez in Doctor Strange 2 makes reference to having two Moms. However, after initially saying they wouldn’t edit any of these movies for international distribution, with Eternals, they eventually did cut all scenes of intimacy, including a gay kiss, for the film’s release in Indonesia, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. And this isn’t the only careful editing Marvel has done for political reasons. In Doctor Strange, Tilda Swinton plays The Ancient One, a Celtic mystic who acts as a guide to Doctor Strange. But in the comics, that character is from Tibet, and the decision to rewrite that character was specifically so as not to alienate the Chinese market. There’s also controversy over the proposed inclusion of Sabra in the upcoming Captain America: New World Order. Sabra is effectively an Israeli Captain America, and in the comics often targets Palestinians, and affords them little humanity.
With all this in mind…is the MCU losing its gargantuan dominance on movies? Reviews of some of its recent efforts have been poor; series like Ms Marvel, Moon Knight and She-Hulk haven’t had the cultural impact of previous efforts like Wandavision or Jessica Jones; and maybe most importantly, other blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar 2, and even the Indian sensation RRR have been huge successes, and kinda shown Marvel up. So is our love affair with the superhero at last waning, or do Marvel just need to adapt with the times? Maybe the next MCU phase will find its best creativity onscreen by taking criticisms of its behind-the-scenes problems on board, and changing the practices that they’ve been rightly called out for.
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