Four years ago, Marvel was on top of the world. Avengers: Endgame was the biggest movie in the history of cinema, capping off an unprecedented run of multibillion-dollar successes that changed the movie industry forever.

But things move fast in Hollywood. Variety has just published a new deep dive on the studio – ominously headlined Crisis at Marvel – and, well, things don’t look good. How bad it is depends on your basic level of optimism. If you’re a diehard fan, then it’s easy to see Marvel’s troubles as merely a blip that can quickly be fixed. Anyone less sympathetic, meanwhile, might see its current plight as just another waypoint on the road to total annihilation.

Until very recently, the ascent of Marvel had been a thing of relentless propulsion. A decade and a half ago it operated out of a cramped office above a car dealership, and few people took it seriously. It had already sold the film rights to its biggest characters (Spider-Man, X-Men, The Fantastic Four) to various studios for a quick buck, but nevertheless wanted to knit together an interconnected franchise with the dregs of whatever it had left, including an alcoholic billionaire, a two-dimensional propaganda tool and a man who turned into an ant.

The fact that Marvel not only managed to pull this off, but to do it with so much panache that other studios tripped over themselves trying to copy the model (remember Universal’s Dark Universe?) is nothing less than astounding. However quickly things start to fall apart now, that early flush of success can never be taken away.

Which is probably a good thing because, according to the Variety piece, things seem to be falling apart at a berserk pace. It isn’t so much that Marvel faces an uphill battle, because that would imply that only one thing has gone wrong. Instead it finds itself bogged down by poor quality, indifferent audiences, a rebellious workforce, apathetic stars and – most pressingly of all – an already-announced plan, years in the making, that is likely to be finger-clicked out of existence by a domestic violence trial.

This last one is what Variety has decided to lead with. The biggest crisis that Marvel faces started last July at Comic Con. Knowing that the MCU is never more powerful than when it moves towards an inexorable Endgame-stye climax, Kevin Feige announced a fleet of movies that would line up its most ambitious crossover yet – Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars. The big bad here, threaded through the preceding movies and TV shows as Thanos once was, would be Kang, played by Jonathan Majors. “There’s nobody’s shoulders I’d rather be putting the multiverse saga on than his,” Feige said of Majors at the time. “It’s really impressive what Jonathan Majors is able to do and all the different incarnations – variants, if you will – of Kang that we will see him do. It’s really pretty cool.”

But then Majors was arrested on a domestic violence charge, and other alleged victims came forward, and Majors was dropped by his publicists and managers, and those shoulders start to look awfully shaky (the report claims he was originally dropped by CAA for “brutal conduct” toward staff). To make matters worse, according to one gleeful dealmaker who spoke to Variety, the upcoming finale to the second season of Loki appears to set up a Kang-heavy future so comprehensively that it is impossible to backtrack from. “Marvel is truly fucked with the whole Kang angle,” they announced.

And yet Marvel seems desperate for a workaround. Some higher-ups have suggested abandoning Kang altogether, and drafting in Doctor Doom as a replacement. Others are keener for a recasting (something made more difficult by a post-credits scene in the most recent Ant-Man film, in which we saw all the Kang variants and they all looked exactly like Jonathan Majors). A longer shot might be to bring in a Kang-adjacent figure to take over, especially since Gugu Mbatha-Raw has been so compelling as a secondary baddie in Loki.

But even if Marvel can find an acceptable solution to this problem, there are dozens more fires to put out. There’s this month’s The Marvels, which is expected to underperform financially, possibly because its director, Nia DaCosta, started work on another film before it was finished. The film also had a public test screening this summer which had “middling reviews”.

There’s the ongoing loss of VFX quality, with visual effects teams overworked and underpaid and tasked with putting in backbreaking hours to mollify the whims of indecisive creative teams. This has started to manifest more frequently: Variety reports that the world premiere of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was plagued with unfinished and out-of-focus shots, and Disney+’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law wasn’t completely finished until after it became available to watch.

Speaking of which, Marvel’s appeal has also been diluted by the pile of mediocre Disney+ television shows it has been pumping out. As Variety reports, not only do these dilute the appeal of the big movies, but they’re coming in such quantities that liking Marvel has started to feel like homework.

The overabundance of content also means that it is harder to maintain the overarching continuity that MCU fans have come to enjoy. For instance, Eternals – a film that ended with the sight of a 300-mile-tall robot literally punching its way out of the centre of the Earth – came out three years ago. In the six movies and 10 TV shows that have been released since then, how many times has this moment of world-altering significance been referenced? Once, as a hidden joke in an episode of She-Hulk.

More than anything, it’s this lack of consequence that has eroded faith in MCU. Combined with the ongoing love affair with the multiverse – a state where anything can happen, so everything is meaningless – it’s just much harder to care about Marvel than it used to be.

Things are apparently so bad at Marvel that the top brass is considering reuniting the original Avengers at great cost for a new movie, even though some of them are dead. But not even Never Say Never Againing the Avengers will be enough to repair things. The situation has become such a mess that a root-and-branch change of strategy needs to be implemented. If Marvel wants to pull out of its death spiral, it needs to start making better products further apart. And it needs to start right now.

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