It’s been a bleak year for Marvel Studios.
On Monday, Marvel cut ties with Jonathan Majors after a New York jury found the actor guilty of assaulting and harassing his former girlfriend, Grace Jabbari. (Majors was acquitted of a different assault charge and of aggravated harassment.)
It was the first public acknowledgment that the studio will be altering course in response to its once-promising star’s legal troubles. Majors, who made his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut during the first season of “Loki” in 2021, was arrested in March just one month after impressing audiences with his turn as the villain Kang in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”
It’s another blow for the venerated and lucrative studio that built its brand on cinematic superhero excellence and setting a new bar for interconnected franchises. But while Marvel Studios titles were once must-see theatrical events that dominated the zeitgeist and the box office, more recently, the MCU has lost some of its shine after overextending its production slate across film and TV.
This year, Disney’s Marvel releases have disappointed at the box office, most notably with “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “The Marvels”; the latter opened to a lackluster $46.1 million domestically in November and is now the lowest-grossing film in the MCU. (James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” was a big hit in an otherwise challenging run.)
The unusual string of misses from Marvel comes as Disney, under the leadership of Chief Executive Bob Iger, has undergone major rounds of layoffs and overall belt-tightening as the company seeks $7.5 billion in cost cuts. Among Disney’s major expenses has been its streaming business, into which the company has poured billions of dollars — including with expensive Marvel shows made for Disney+, such as “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” which cost upwards of $25 million per episode, according to a 2019 piece from the Hollywood Reporter.
But with pressure from Wall Street to turn a profit in streaming, as well as an ongoing proxy fight from activist investor Nelson Peltz, Iger has spent the last year trying to shrink those expenses. Iger also has repeatedly acknowledged Disney’s overextension of the Marvel brand, which the executive has described as taking a hit in quality.
“I’ve always felt that quantity can be actually a negative when it comes to quality,” Iger said during a Nov. 8 earnings call. “That’s exactly what happened. We lost some focus.”
Next year, that pullback in Marvel content will become clear to audiences, in part due to the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. The only major Disney-produced Marvel theatrical release scheduled for 2024 is “Deadpool 3,” the latest installment in the Ryan Reynolds–starring franchise that is now under the Disney umbrella after the company’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox. The studio also will release “Echo,” a TV-MA-rated follow-up to “Hawkeye,” in January on Disney+ and Hulu. “WandaVision” spinoff “Agatha: Darkhold Diaries,” due for Disney+ in the fall, rounds out the studio’s 2024 slate.
As Marvel reevaluates its next phase, the loss of Majors represents yet another hurdle the studio will have to contend with.
For the most part, Marvel had remained mum about Majors’ status in the franchise following his arrest and subsequent reports alleging a history of abuse — even as the actor returned to “Loki” for its second season playing Victor Timely, an eccentric late-19th-century inventor and alternate version of Kang. The season launched in October without actors making their usual promotional rounds as a result of the SAG-AFTRA strike, which prevented members from discussing struck projects. But when asked about Majors’ arrest by other outlets at the time, “Loki” executive producer Kevin Wright said only that the actor’s legal issues had not affected the series.
Although no additional details regarding Marvel’s future plans have been revealed, it’s clear that the studio is pivoting from its initial vision.
A long-standing Marvel comics character, Kang the Conqueror had been touted as a key player for the MCU’s Phases Five and Six as it built toward “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty,” scheduled for 2026. In addition to properly introducing audiences to the character — an obsessive, time-traveling, dimension-hopping genius — “Quantumania” offered a brief glimpse at the threat of an army of Kangs from across the multiverse.
Just as the studio brought all of its heroes together in a blockbuster crossover battle against the powerful alien warlord Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) and “Endgame” (2019), it was expected that the storylines in Marvel’s current slate would culminate in the eventual climactic showdown with Majors’ Kang.
Now, Majors’ departure from the franchise is raising questions about how the studio, which has a reputation for plotting its interconnected storylines years in advance, will move forward without its previously announced star.
One possibility is that Marvel will recast the character. It wouldn’t be the first time: The studio previously replaced Terrence Howard, who played James Rhodes in “Iron Man” (2008), with Don Cheadle, who has portrayed the character since “Iron Man 2” (2010), reportedly due to a pay dispute. Edward Norton, who was the MCU’s first Bruce Banner in “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), was recast with Mark Ruffalo, who has played the character since “The Avengers” (2012), reportedly over creative differences.
More recently, Harrison Ford has taken over the role of Thunderbolt Ross, starting with “Captain America: Brave New World,” slated for 2025, after the death of William Hurt, who portrayed the character in a number of previous MCU installments.
Having another actor portray Kang would not pose insurmountable narrative challenges either. Both “Loki” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” have shown that different versions of the same character can be played by different actors across the multiverse. (In the comics, Kang has even battled against other versions of himself.) Whether the role would still appeal to another actor is another matter.
Another possibility is that Marvel shifts its plans for its upcoming “Avengers” films, “The Kang Dynsasty” and “Secret Wars,” to feature a different villain — something the studio reportedly has been considering since before Majors’ conviction.
Among the hints that a creative overhaul may be underway? The departure of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” director Destin Daniel Cretton, who had previously been attached to “The Kang Dynasty,” and the hiring of “Loki” and “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” scribe Michael Waldron to take over screenwriting duties on the film, now reportedly referred to simply as “Avengers 5.” Waldron had already been tapped to write “Secret Wars.”
As Marvel adjusts its plans, the studio is even launching a new banner next year, Marvel Spotlight, to highlight titles that do not require up-to-date knowledge of the MCU before watching — in other words, a fresh start.
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