As ‘Thor 4’ Tops $500 Million, 3 Reasons Marvel Is Now Playing Defense

Thor: Love and Thunder crossed $500 million worldwide on Monday, bringing its domestic total to $239 million domestic. The film’s 68% second-weekend drop caused quite a bit of online handwringing, and proclamations of doom for the MCU. I was not a fan of Taiki Waititi’s Thor sequel, and its mixed (for Marvel) reviews and soft (for Marvel, including a B+ Cinemascore) buzz indicate that audiences weren’t high on it either. However, the film is still likely to A) be one of the biggest grossers of the summer and B) earn about as much as did Thor: Ragnarok ($712 million not counting China and Russia) in 2017. The overall MCU is no more on the precipice of doom than it was when Avengers: Age of Ultron jumpstarted discourse on superhero fatigue by only earning $459 million domestic and $1.405 billion worldwide. There are three factors at play.

Disney+ threatens to de-eventize the MCU movies.

First, things are being done *to* Marvel, namely the shorter theatrical windows and the concurrent growing awareness that the newest MCU movie will be available on Disney+ in as little as 45 days. I won’t yet argue that the copious Disney+ television shows are making the film less of an event since, so far, the grosses haven’t suggested that. Instead, the shows essentially set up future movies but also can be skipped for those who only want the theatrical events. You don’t need to watch WandaVision to enjoy Doctor Strange 2, and you likely won’t have had to have watched Ms. Marvel to enjoy The Marvels. However, quality concerns regarding visual effects and related production value may become a factor, as making two or three movies a year is a different workload versus three to four films plus four television shows almost concurrently.

Box office expectations are now out of whack.

Second, the MCU has “fallen victim” to overblown expectations. That Black Panther grossed $1.346 billion and Captain Marvel grossed $1.28 billion in 2018 and 2019 does not mean that every solo MCU movie is a lock for $1 billion global. Ant-Man and the Wasp right after Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War ($2.048 billion) and still grossed $621 million, including $125 million in China. Heck, Spider-Man: Far from Home opened just after Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame ($2.8 billion) and still “only” grossed $390 million domestic and $1.131 billion global. In 2017, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarök were unmitigated hits with $315-$389 million domestic and $854-$881 million worldwide, including over $100 million each from China. In 2022, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a “disappointment” for only earning $411 million domestic and (sans Russia and China) $955 million global.

Top Gun: Maverick turned the MCU into summer’s runner-up.

Third, Top Gun: Maverick has shockingly displaced the MCU sequels as the summer’s official event movie(s). If you recall, Spider-Man stole the buzz from Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones in May of 2002 and then Iron Man stole the buzz from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in May of 2002. And now Tom Cruise’s legacy sequel did to Doctor Strange 2 what Gladiator did to Mission: Impossible II (smaller grosses for the Russell Crowe epic notwithstanding) in May of 2000. In a sane world, we’d be talking about how both Top Gun: Maverick ($618 million domestic and $1.24 billion-and-counting) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (the third biggest “no Iron Man and no Spider-Man” MCU movie ever) were both massive hits. However, in this environment, to quote Talladega Nights, if you’re not first, you’re last.

Recent MCU movies are still pulling top-tier grosses.

The last three MCU movies (including Sony’s Spider-Man: No Way Home) are among the biggest global grossers of the previous eight months. No Way Home, which admittedly was a Force Awakens-style multigenerational nostalgic event (it was a third MCU Spider-Man movie, Spider-Man 4 and Amazing Spider-Man 3), earned $804 million domestic and $1.91 billion worldwide without a penny from China. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness played like Captain America: Civil War ($408 million from a $179 million debut) and still ended up between Iron Man 3 ($409 million in 2016) and Captain Marvel ($426 million). Considering the first Doctor Strange earned $232 million/$677 million in 2016, the “just a Doctor Strange sequel” playing like the “Iron Man vs. Captain America” event film in North America and (sans China and Russia) worldwide should be seen as an unmitigated success.

Thor 4 will still end up among the summer’s top grossers.

Thor 4 may flounder, even with no kid-friendly live-action competition until Black Adam on October 21. Even legs like Eternals and Black Widow (which was concurrently available for an extra $30 on Disney+) gets it to around Thor: Ragnarök’s $315 million domestic cume. An “after ten days” multiplier closer to Ant-Man and the Wasp and end up over/under Jurassic World Dominion and The Batman’s over/under $370 million cumes. Will it gross more than Minions: The Rise of Gru, Jurassic World 3 and The Batman domestically or worldwide? Maybe not and probably not. I’m old enough to remember when Despicable Me 3 was the lone $1 billion-plus grosser in the summer of 2017 and no one argued that the MCU was doomed. Eternals was a miss, but it was worth it for the possibility of having Marvel versions of DC characters supplanting the genuine article in the zeitgeist.

Covid and shifting sentiments changed the narrative.

The fourth season of any number of television shows (Community, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Glee, Gilmore Girls, Smallville, etc.) have been seemingly dysfunctional and purposeless as they had to set the table for whatever followed the initial three-act arc. I’m guessing any (mostly online) concerns about a lack of a grand plan will be alleviated at this month’s SDCC. Covid, and Disney temporarily firing James Gunn from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, made a mess of Marvel’s intended release schedule. Changing sentiments about real-world threats (Captain America can’t stop a plague), unchecked law enforcement authority (most vigilantes are more like George Zimmerman than Bruce Wayne) and more topical examinations of superhero pop culture (The Boys, Invincible, etc.) didn’t help. However, despite that, Spider-Man: No Way Home is the third-biggest domestic grosser ever, and Doctor Strange 2 is the third-biggest worldwide grosser since 2019.

The MCU does not need to drown out the competition to win.

If Black Panther: Wakanda Forever earns closer to $600 million worldwide than $900 million worldwide, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 gets reviews closer to Thor: Love and Thunder than Shang-Chi, then we can panic. But that Marvel’s post-Endgame slate is merely performing among the best of the best (Shang-Chi and No Way Home were the biggest domestic earners of 2021) is not automatically a reason to despair. Hell, that Marvel is still being Marvel right alongside The Batman, Minions, Jurassic World and Top Gun (with Avatar still to come) should be encouraging for both the MCU and everyone else. Kevin Feige’s Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t have to snuff out the competition to win. In terms of cinema, the Marvel movies are the only part of Bob Chapek’s Disney that are as strong as they were through most of Bob Iger’s run. Oh, and Lightyear will be on Disney+ August 3.