Column: Marvel Cinematic Universe on the verge of “franchise fatigue”

Charles Liu

Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk: each one the center of gravity for his own multi-movie series. But these characters don’t fight evil alone — they coexist in the same franchise, called the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Most films in the MCU franchise focus on one character, who later teams up with other characters in blockbusters such as “The Avengers.” This critically and financially successful method of franchise-building has never been seen before. Although the MCU has been well-received, its novelty will wear out. The question is: Will audiences get worn out too? 

Suzanne Scott, radio-television-film assistant professor, said she believes audience interest in the MCU will drop as the films continue because they will eventually become stale, resulting in decreased box office earnings. This is called “franchise fatigue.”

As the MCU expands and becomes more time-consuming to follow, some audience members will skip the installments that have less to do with the main plot. On the other hand, there are some audience members who prefer self-contained stories. Scott said this desire is why the relatively simple “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a remarkable success in a franchise full of high-grossing films. 

“People felt they could take a break from trying to figure out how this connected to the bigger picture and just enjoy [it],” Scott said. 

In order to maintain interest, the MCU will have to offer a variety of films to satisfy viewers’ tastes and keep them coming back. So far, Marvel Studios has offered action comedies, political thrillers, epic fantasies and sci-fi adventures, but the varying genres haven’t been enough to prevent the franchise from becoming stale. UT alumnus Clay Liford (“Wuss,” “Earthling”), an indie filmmaker, pointed out that most of the MCU’s films follow the same formula. 

“You have the same generic villain,” Liford said. “You have the same generic fights. You’ve seen it so many times that it’s becoming rote.” 

As radio-television-film freshman Will Conant puts it, Marvel’s films have all been packaged very similarly. The studio has experimented with tone but not storytelling. 

Although Liford said the MCU will continue to attract audiences based on brand recognition, Marvel needs to take narrative risks. By staying fresh and original, Marvel can keep our collective attention. Scott and Liford agreed Marvel could offer new perspectives by including more female voices in the largely male-dominated genre.

Even if Marvel does diversify, it will have to make sure its films fit together — meaning directors will have to curb their creative control. This has driven away filmmakers such as director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”), who dropped out of “Ant-Man.” Nonetheless, filmmakers in search of a big break or funding will be there to take their place. For example, Liford said he would make a Marvel film if given the opportunity and some creative freedom because it would help fund his independent features. If Marvel learns how to balance franchise goals with individual freedom, it may be able to retain filmmakers.

The MCU isn’t going away anytime soon, but the studio can definitely improve its films. If it diversifies its creative teams and begins taking storytelling risks, the franchise won’t just last longer — it’ll become something truly super.