“Superhero fatigue” can be a loaded phrase that generally raises the hackles of fandom. For one, it’s been weaponized, used, seemingly for years, like a Cassandra in the streets foretelling doom, to no avail—superhero films have ruled the box office for nearly two decades now and have rarely shown signs of slowing down (the pandemic box-office hit, notwithstanding, but everyone took a beating there).

And so, fandom, for years, has had to endlessly hear and endure the portentous gloom and doom of predictors and naysayers, only to see their films reign victoriously at the box office—it’s understandable why they’d eventually tune out this overused and worn-out phrase that has lost most of its meaning.

But one could argue (and I’ll attempt to here) that 2023, and the current underwhelming tracking on Marvel Studios’ upcoming “The Marvels”—which, yes, could change, be off, or perform better— might be the first year when “superhero fatigue” might have real meaning and could justify the use of this touchy verbiage.

While it’s ticked up a touch (about $5 million) from some of the initial numbers, the Hollywood Reporter details that early tracking figures are projecting that “The Marvels”— starring Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau (from “WandaVision”), and Iman Vellani from Disney +’sMs. Marvel” series— is looking to gross about $75—$80 million in its domestic box office opening weekend when it launches on November 10 (THR note: tracking varies widely depending upon the research firm; NRG goes as high as $88 million, the Quorum has $90 million at the top end).

These figures, on their face, are underwhelming and potentially alarm-bell worthy (don’t roll your eyes yet). Why? Well, for one, 2019’s “Captain Marvel” opened to $153.4 million in North America, so even high-end $90 million would be down -41% from the first film (a low-end of $75M would be down -51%).

“The Marvels” is Marvel Studios’ 33rd feature-length effort, and thus far, 18 MCU films have grossed over $100 million in their North American opening weekend. The last time a Marvel movie failed to earn over $70 million in its opening weekend was 2015’s “Ant-Man.” Eleven Marvel movies have opened to over $150 million, and “Captain Marvel” remains the eleventh-highest Marvel opening domestically.

On average, at least in the past, a Marvel film that opened to around $85 million domestically (“Thor: The Dark World,” “Doctor Strange”) would go on to gross somewhere in the neighborhood of $644-$677M, but even a figure like that would vastly underperform from the original movie (“Captain Marvel” grossed $1.12 billion in 2019).

Today, those figures have fewer legs, it seems (see 2023’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy 3” opening to $118 million and grossing $845M worldwide, vs. 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” opening to $117M and hauling in $880M globally).

The global pandemic obviously wounded the entire movie industry’s box office takings. Marvel did not release a movie in 2020, and 2021’s figures for “Eternals,” ‘Shang Chi’ and “Black Widow” were undoubtedly hindered by the pandemic’s box office effects (none of these three films could open to more than $80 million, minus the global phenomenon of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” that transcended pandemic fears; the ultimate outlier it seems).

Marvel bounced back in 2022 in a big way, almost to suggest the worst was over—not one Marvel movie opening to less than $144 million domestically, and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” are the 7th and 8th highest MCU domestic openings of all time, respectively.

In 2023, however, the first sign of problems came early. “Ant-Man: Quantumania” was hit with negative reviews and grossed $106.1 million domestically—the highest of the series, but the lowest Marvel opening since 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” ($92.5M, and minus the pandemic era films, of course). “Guardians 3” was a big improvement ($118.4M opening), but still way down from “Guardians 2” ($145M), which was way lesser received than the third installment.

This is all to say, “Captain Marvel” opening figures in the range of $75M—if they hit that low—would return Marvel to its pandemic-era releases ($75M is what “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” earned in September 2021, “Eternals” grossed $71M and “Black Widow” was on the high end at $80M), and generally, not a good look.

‘Quantumania’s low opening was already considered the bottom shelf for post-pandemic Marvel-era releases, but what does it say when a sequel to a billion-dollar earning film does 2021-pandemic era numbers? In short, these would be difficult numbers to defend and nearly indisputable evidence to at least acknowledge a problem, if not a concern, about the lessening global and domestic box-office impact these once-unassailable films used to have.

Worse, the trolls could be having their field day. “Captain Marvel,” along with “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” hit during the peak of the age of diversity, all three being celebrated as “firsts” of one kind or another, all three being some kind of box-office phenomenon that commemorated the inclusion of superheroes that were not just white men. But much like the Trumpian backlash to Obama, that age of diversity in Hollywood has sharply regressed. “The Marvels” features a black female filmmaker (Nia DaCosta), two BIPOC leads (Paris, Vellani), and an all-female starring cast. In 2019, might have been a huge sensation, but cut to four years later, and these statistics of diversity could be seen as an unfortunate liability like the age when then-Marvel chief Ike Perlmutter was insistent on not releasing films led by women and people of color because they did not perform or sell toys (the recent book, “MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios,” recaps a lot of this history, including the fact that Perlmutter was critical to obstructing a “Black Panther” and “Black Widow” film during his reign).

One only needs to look at Marvel’s competitors—DC Studios, who faced a disastrous year—to acknowledge “superhero fatigue,” or however you want to frame audience disinterest or growing indifference—as something to take seriously in 2023 (here’s a wild stat: three of DC Studios films released this year, “The Flash,” ‘Shazam! 2’ and “Blue Beetle” collectively could not gross more than $533 million worldwide, which is only slightly more than the entire global return of 2015’s “Ant-Man.”).

Additional context might come from Disney’s own Bob Iger, who has already publicly stated—probably much to Marvel’s chagrin—that Disney would make fewer Marvel series for Disney+ because those series had “diluted focus and attention” from the main brand, aka the movies. The message there is reasonably straightforward. The sometimes-not-great or shabby quality of recent Marvel TV has hurt Marvel’s overall brand reputation. And following dismal reviews for some of their recent shows—like this summer’s “Secret Invasion,” which not-so-coincidentally leads right into “The Marvels”—earned the studio the lowest-grossing Rotten Tomatoes score of its lifetime.

Don’t get it twisted. None of this is to say Marvel is in freefall, but after the VFX drama of the last 18 monthswhich led to Marvel VFX’s forming a union— the recent Marvel TV Reckoning—which saw at least one show get totally scrapped and start over— and an inarguable dip in box-office showings in 2023, you could say the once incontestable Marvel champion is getting pushed up on the ropes.

These are all big ifs, of course. We don’t know how “The Marvels” will perform, but tracking has been over-ambitious of late, which could make things worse (the “Taylor Swift: Eras Tour” for example, some were estimating a $125M opening, and the film didn’t even crack $95M).

At this point, unless something drastically changes, “The Marvels” may optimistically not open to more than $90 million, much less than the “disappointment” that was “Quantumania,” and closer in range to “Spider-Man: Far from Home” and “Thor: The Dark World” (which would be in the not-great range of 23rd highest MCU opening film)

Regardless, all eyes in the industry, reporters and fandom included, should be on “The Marvels” opening in November (which could also rise or fall in tracking, depending on how critics receive the film). 2024 already looks like it will be deeply affected by the SAG-AFTRA strike. Deadpool 3” already looks like it won’t make its summer 2024 release date and thus get delayed into 2025, while “The Thunderbolts,” which has not started shooting yet, will likely miss its December 2024 window. That means perhaps the only film Marvel will be able to release next year is “Captain America: Brave New World,” which would feature a new Captain America (Anthony Mackie), untested in the cinematic universe.

Is “superhero fatigue” finally a reality? It’s not here yet, but the sluggish, downward-trending box office is real, and a “Marvels” dent in November could have significant ramifications and give haters and anti-Marvel heads months of fodder to churn hyperbolically with.

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