With worst-reviewed Marvel series Secret Invasion, is superhero fatigue finally kicking in?

The superhero business is clearly nowhere near late-stage collapse. Yet, it is fair to say that a good chunk of viewers feel they have seen too many variations on the same themes.

Alison de Souza

Alison de Souza

The Straits Times


Samuel L. Jackson in Secret Invasion. PHOTO: DISNEY+

June 22, 2023

LOS ANGELES – Secret Invasion, a superhero-adjacent spy thriller, has the unenviable distinction of being the most poorly reviewed Marvel series in recent years.

Upon its Wednesday morning debut on Disney+, the show – which sees Samuel L. Jackson reprise his role as spy chief Nick Fury from Marvel’s superhero films, who tries to stop Earth being taken over by shapeshifting aliens known as Skrulls – had a “Tomatometer” rating of just 69 per cent, based on 63 professional critics’ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

The review-aggregation website considers this a positive score, but negative reviews describe Secret Invasion as “dull”, “tepid”, “tedious” and “flat”.

This is notable, given that most Marvel series – including 2022’s Moon Knight, Ms Marvel and She-Hulk: Attorney At Law – have aggregate critics’ scores of at least 80 per cent, and it has been years since the studio produced outright flops such as Iron Fist (2017 to 2018) and Inhumans (2017).

It has also been 15 years since Iron Man (2008) launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the studio’s shared universe of film and TV titles inspired by comic book superheroes.

And with the MCU now up to 32 films and more than 20 shows – the movies alone grossing more than US$29.1 billion (S$39.1 billion), making them the most successful film franchise of all time – it is as good a time as any to wonder if cracks in the superhero industrial complex are finally emerging.

Granted, this is a genre that has faced periodic pronouncements of oversaturation and audience fatigue over the years, only to bounce back with even bigger numbers at the box office.

But none other than James Gunn, who wrote and directed the three Guardians Of The Galaxy films (2014 to 2023), now concedes that “there is such a thing as superhero fatigue”.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, the 56-year-old American film-maker says this has nothing to do with superheroes per se, but with storytelling that is formulaic and not emotionally grounded.

“If it becomes just a bunch of nonsense on screen, it gets really boring,” he notes, clarifying that the same can be said for “most spectacle films”.

“If you don’t have a story at the base of it, just watching things bash each other gets fatiguing,” adds Gunn, who is now co-chief of DC Studios.

And you know something is shifting in the zeitgeist when even Thor throws shade at his own film.

Ben Mendelsohn (right) in Secret Invasion. PHOTO: DISNEY+

In a chat with GQ magazine published in June, Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, who has played the Norse god in the Marvel films, reveals even he thought his last standalone film Thor: Love And Thunder (2022) was “too silly”.

His reaction to the sequel, which his son’s eight-year-old friends critiqued to his face, was to “cringe and laugh”, says the 39-year-old.

And 2023 has been a mixed bag for superhero films so far.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse are the second- and fourth highest-grossing films globally, according to Box Office Mojo.

But February also saw the release of Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania, which took fifth place but was deemed a critical and commercial flop. It scored a “Tomatometer” rating of 46 per cent and failed to recoup its costs during its theatrical run.

DC Studios’ Shazam! Fury Of The Gods bombed even harder. The long-awaited The Flash, now showing in Singapore cinemas, also seems to be underperforming in theatres.

Then there are surveys such as the one published by research firm Morning Consult in 2022.

Polling 2,200 American adults, it found the share of audiences who enjoy superhero films went from 64 per cent in November 2021 to 59 per cent in July 2022.

Among self-described Marvel fans, only 82 per cent still enjoy superhero movies, down from 87 per cent in that same period.

And 31 per cent of Marvel aficionados admit they are “getting a little tired of so many of them”, up from 29 per cent the previous year.

But polls and reviews are just snapshots.

According to Parrot Analytics – a company that looks not just at box-office performance but also streaming, downloads and engagement on social media – superhero films are still crushing the competition.

In the first quarter of 2023, the 10 most popular superhero movies globally saw demand that was 34 times or more than what the average film enjoyed.

So, how does one reconcile this story of continued commercial domination with the creeping sense of growing dissatisfaction with the genre from fans and critics?

The superhero business is clearly nowhere near late-stage collapse. Yet, it is fair to say that a good chunk of viewers feel they have seen too many variations on the same themes.

So, to hit the same dopamine threshold as before, storytellers need novelty.

And though for years they were able to get that with bigger explosions and more cameos and Easter eggs, they may now have to deconstruct the old templates completely, just as was done with genres such as westerns and musicals.

Powerhouses such as Marvel and DC are also victims of their own success, in a way. New offerings will forever be compared with standard-bearers such as Black Panther (2018) or high-water marks such as Avengers: Endgame (2019), the latter being the second highest-grossing film of all time.

And, in the age of social media, critics and fans are more outspoken than ever, and could feel more entitled to complain about franchises they have followed for years.

The big players are well aware of this.

This is why Marvel has been furiously experimenting with different sub-genres – WandaVision (2019) borrowing from black-and-white 1950s American sitcoms, and Secret Invasion from espionage thrillers.

In the latter, Fury, former director of S.H.I.E.L.D., must work with allies – including Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and the Skrull Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who has made a life for himself on Earth – in a story that feels more like a Cold War thriller than a superhero tale.

Cobie Smulders (left) and Samuel L. Jackson in Secret Invasion. PHOTO: DISNEY+

Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige says at a recent press conference that Secret Invasion producer Jonathan Schwartz had pitched its genre-bending storyline when “we were thinking about what kinds of shows to do on Disney+“.

Schwartz, he says, was the one who suggested playing the comics’ Secret Invasion storyline as an espionage thriller. “And we love to do different genres for everything.”

Mr Feige has also thought outside the box when it comes to hiring directors.

He poached Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler from indie cinema to direct the hugely successful Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Black Panther, respectively.

And Russo brothers Anthony and Joe made dialogue-heavy sitcoms before they helmed blockbusters such as Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame.

There may be a growing recognition that pumping out titles as fast as possible is not good for business either.

This may explain the almost year-long gap between the release of Secret Invasion and Marvel’s previous TV offering, She-Hulk: Attorney At Law, the longest between new MCU series so far.

Asked about this interlude, and why it was finally time to release the new show, Mr Feige bristles.

“Now is the time because it was finished and ready to go. It was ready. It was done. And that’s when you show things,” he says.

.Secret Invasion premieres on Disney+ on Wednesday.

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