For a few years now, I and many others have been talking about the effect that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had on cinema in general, especially within the genre of comic book movies. It wasn’t that long ago that I was arguing with some people about whether or not to call it “game-changing,” “groundbreaking” or “transformative.” After all, I’m one of the people that has constantly called it “cinematic television,” a position that I still stand by today wholeheartedly.
The thing is, in the wake of the Dark Phoenix situation, FOX’s latest and likely final X-Men film in their franchise, the notion that the presence of the MCU had any effect on its production or reception has been soundly criticized, laughed off and ridiculed by a lot of people on social media, as if the idea that the MCU had any kind of effect on what FOX did was just sour grapes from people who don’t like Marvel Studios.
That’s a pretty lazy assessment in itself, not to mention rather fearful and defensive for whatever reason, but let’s get into it here for a bit.
To begin with, when I talk about the MCU Effect with respect to something like Dark Phoenix, I’m not blaming the MCU for its failure at the box office. That’s just as lazy as thinking the MCU had no effect on it at all. There are several factors that go into why a movie doesn’t perform well financially and Dark Phoenix certainly has its share of them, but impact from the presence of Marvel Studios’ franchise is not a smoking gun in this case, though it does logically share SOME of the blame, one COULD argue.
The MCU effect is largely about how the process, perception and success of the franchise causes ripple effects that can lead to other things happening with comic book movies and movies in general, either subjectively good or bad. We’ve already seen cases of that with films like Suicide Squad and Justice League, both of which were altered significantly as a result of MCU perception from the general audience. Simply put, the powers that be at WB at the time wanted a level of critical and financial success that the MCU had achieved and changed those two movies in hopes of getting that. Now, one can argue how inept or not their process of changing the movies was, but one wonders if any changes would have happened at all if not for the MCU’s presence.
Again, this isn’t blaming the MCU for anything, it’s just acknowledging the impact that it has made, and if people are more than willing to tout the franchise for its subjectively good influence, then they should also be willing to be fair and accept the potential bad influence it has, subjectively speaking as well. Suicide Squad made money but wasn’t a critical darling, and Justice League was a textbook example of what studios should never, ever do with their movie productions, despite the fact that it’s happened and continues to happen in Hollywood all the time.
So what is it about the MCU that has such an effect on the rest of Hollywood? The lazy easy button answer that really says nothing at all is “they make good movies.” You see a lot of bloggers and fanboys simply rely on those four words a lot to make their point and it only gets worse when so many others simply agree with them and believe that to be the biggest reason. Good and bad are of course subjective, so all you’re really saying is that they make good movies for YOU and anyone who agrees with you. Doesn’t matter how many people agree with you, it’s still a lazy and worthless answer in general.
The real answer with substance and actual explanation is that the MCU is a model of assembly-line consistency in terms of production and release, it produces movies that are accessible to nearly the widest variety of ages, meaning the largest possible audience of ticket buyers, and it enjoys constant praise from critics, bloggers and fans who enjoy it. Whether or not you are someone that considers all of that good or bad is entirely up to you, and there is nothing wrong with considering it either one.
So other studios like WB or Sony for example will look at the business model and structure of the MCU and attempt to emulate it in the hopes of achieving the same results and success. Depending on the process by which they do it, they could achieve that, but in the process it would eliminate the variety that we would otherwise have a chance to see by other franchises making comic book movies a different way. When you have one example dominating the landscape as much as the MCU is for whatever reason, the worry is that all films in the genre will eventually be made the same way to attract the same measure of business and success, and that would make comic book movies a pretty sterile genre, even if the majority of the general audience enjoyed it.
So what does any of this have to do with Dark Phoenix? Well without the existence of the MCU, it’s likely that the movie wouldn’t have been the end of the X-Men franchise under FOX, and it would have been dealing with a much less crowded landscape that so much of was occupied by Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame. In fact, that’s even affected other non-comic book movies as well with everyone fighting for release dates and screens to showcase their stories. Indeed, the MCU has taken control of a lot of that perception and real estate and you now have audiences that are choosing to spend their dollars on a Marvel movie instead of trying something else that they may or may not enjoy.
This is where the lazy people with the “make good movies” argument usually say it’s not the MCU’s fault that people like their movies more than others, even though I’ve said at least twice in this post how this isn’t about blaming the MCU for anything, it’s only about acknowledging and understanding the impact that it has on everything in the genre and the industry. We see how it influences and affects decision-making from other studios and how it directly affects the landscape of movie releases for the audience to choose to consume or not.
Now let’s talk about perception of structure. I mentioned earlier that I call the MCU “cinematic television,” which means that its currently 22-film format is very episodic, with each film being presented as a new “episode” connected to a larger arc centering the franchise. This has been very effective for Marvel Studios and is a big reason why they have made billions and it all culminated in a massive box office number for Avengers: Endgame, effectively the “series finale” for the original Avengers cast and group. That’s the good part.
The bad part is that now you have a large part of the audience that openly acts and believes that the MCU’s structural model is the only way you should make comic book movies, so much so that when WB or Sony does something that deviates even slightly from the structure that the MCU uses, they are chastised and ridiculed for it. The derision doesn’t just come from fanboys either, it’s spearheaded by critics and bloggers who see the MCU as a gold standard that all others should aspire to achieve. In effect, it’s the other end of what the influence on studios can cause, and this one is a double whammy because if a studio sees the level of domination that Marvel is achieving with the MCU and wants that kind of business, and then they are also seeing audience members, critics and bloggers calling them out for doing something different than the MCU does, then they are more likely to alter their plans to suit what they believe the audience largely wants, even if they could certainly succeed with their own different plan in the first place.
Now the lazy people will bring up Logan, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Deadpool, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam as proof that movies that are different from the MCU can absolutely succeed in a market dominated by the MCU so long as they are “good.” Never mind the fact that they cherry-picked a handful of examples that proved their point while blatantly ignoring every example that disproves their point, like Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Suicide Squad, Justice League and Dark Phoenix. This, one more time, isn’t about placing blame on the MCU or claiming that other movies cannot succeed in its presence. It’s just indicating how much of an effect it has on the landscape, whether they want to admit it or not.
The real truth about the MCU Effect is that its very existence changes how everything else is made on a number of levels and there’s no way around that reality. It’s just like throwing a stone into a still pond and watching the ripples emanate from it. Just because the ripples don’t do any damage to the water doesn’t change the fact that the water had ripples because of the stone, whereas before the stone was thrown into it there were no ripples at all. The MCU certainly has caused numerous ripples in the genre and the industry, but it’s up to you to decide how subjectively good or bad they are in your opinion.