2019 was the year that Hollywood figured out how to respond to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The MCU has been one of the great pop culture success stories of the past decade, building from humble beginnings with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk to a triumphant crescendo with Infinity War and Endgame. 2019 is due to be a $10B year for Disney; nearly $4B of that came from Captain Marvel and Endgame alone, with Spider-Man: Far From Home also crossing the billion mark.
Ever since the success of The Avengers in 2012, Hollywood has tried to emulate the successful shared universe model that drives so much of the Marvel machine. After all, a shared universe is understandably desirable to studios. It creates an audience loyalty and anticipation, allowing for a steady churn of movies with built-in audiences that each serve as a trailer for the next.
Universal invested heavily in its so-called “Dark Universe” with an infamous celebrity photoshoot and two failed attempts at launch with Dracula Untold and The Mummy. Universal also tried to turn its Fast and Furious franchise into a shared universe with Hobbs and Shaw; the movie earned less worldwide than any installment since Fast Five, which managed to outpace it domestically.
Warner Bros. invested heavily in its intellectual properties at DC. After Christopher Nolan wrapped up his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, a shared universe became a priority. Zack Snyder was brought on to build from Man of Steel to Justice League. However, these efforts to build a cohesive shared universe imploded both creatively and commercially.
In 2019, studios realized that they could not compete directly with Marvel. The MCU was too big and too ubiquitous, too good at what it was doing to suffer rivals. Far From Home was developed at Sony as a superhero movie about having to share Spider-Man with Marvel Studios, foreshadowing an intellectual property disagreement that would play out later that summer.
There are shades of this dynamic at play in Dark Phoenix. The film opens with an acknowledgement that Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has attempted to rebrand the eponymous team as a generic bunch of superheroes rather than as an allegory for minority rights. This works as a metaphor for respectability politics, but it also seems like Charles has noticed market forces.
After Disney bought Fox, it was noticed that the climax for Dark Phoenix resembled that of “another superhero movie” (likely Captain Marvel). Reshoots were ordered and the release was pushed back. The hastily rewritten third act of Dark Phoenix finds the merry mutants taken into the custody of the MCU (“mutant control unit”). The movie flopped, the X-Men franchise ending with a whimper.
Confronted with the status of the MCU as a cultural monolith, the studios took a different approach to the challenge posed by Marvel Studios. They drifted away from the idea of shared universes. Sony had invested heavily in the movie rights to the Valiant Comics line, but this September some of those rights were shifted over to Paramount, breaking up the shared universe before it even launched.
Instead of trying to emulate Marvel, the other studios realized that they could define themselves in opposition. With obvious exceptions like Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok, the MCU is defined by a very rigid structural and aesthetic consistency. The audience knows exactly what to expect from them. However, there is little room for experimentation or innovation.
The past decade (arguably the past two decades) has been dominated by the superhero genre. There has been a lot of handwringing about the idea of “superhero fatigue.” Directors like Steven Spielberg have been predicting the genre’s inevitable collapse. Martin Scorsese has questioned whether such movies are cinema.
This is demonstrably nonsense. For all the talk of “fatigue,” superhero movies continue to deliver relatively consistently at the box office. The cultural appetite is there. These movies speak to generations of fans who have been immeasurably moved and affected by films like Infinity War and Endgame. However, there is always a risk of stagnation with such a culturally ubiquitous force.
In 2019, the move away from attempts to directly emulate Marvel led to more radical and innovative approaches to the genre. At Sony, Brightburn pitched the idea of Superman as a horror story. On Amazon Prime, The Boys satirized the sort of brand management that defines these billion-dollar intellectual properties. On HBO, Watchmen hybridized superheroes with prestige television. And when Legion launched on FX in February 2017, it felt like a breath of fresh air to a genre that was growing increasingly stale. When it concluded in August 2019, it felt like part of a larger and broader movement.
Following the failure of Justice League, Warner Bros. decided to allow more tonal and thematic variation within its adaptations of DC intellectual properties. Shazam! offered a brighter and more playful aesthetic than most superhero films, while Joker was developed as an R-rated film completely disconnected from the shared universe. Both movies performed well.
Obviously not all of these different and varied approaches worked. Some of these adaptations were polarizing; mileage varies and taste differs. However, on film and television in 2019, the superhero genre felt more diverse and more experimental than it had been in years. There was a dynamism at work. The market had grown large enough to welcome divergent takes on familiar archetypes.
More than that, these stories all assumed that the audience was familiar with the established genre templates and character concepts. The MCU didn’t necessarily codify the 21st century ideal of cinematic superheroism, building as it did on the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises at the turn of the millennium. However, the MCU did make the superhero genre ubiquitous, which made it possible for pop culture to engage in conversation about it.
There is legitimate reason to be concerned about the cultural reach of Disney. It is not healthy for one company to control two-fifths of the theatrical market. However, it is heartening to watch the other studios realize that they cannot compete by attempting to offer knockoff versions of the product that Marvel Studios assembles so efficiently.
In 2019, the other major studios seemed to accept that there was room for alternatives to the MCU, not just pale imitations of it.