Are Marvel Projects Still Accessible to Average Viewers?

In the summer of 2012, The Avengers were everywhere. The first big Marvel Cinematic Universe crossover event was winning over moviegoers across the globe, including those with no prior exposure to the earlier installations in this saga. One common refrain I heard from people all this summer was that, even though they hadn’t seen Iron Man or Captain America: The First Avenger“I still loved The Avengers!”

Cut to ten years later and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is bringing in massive box office numbers. The financial strength of the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to be unimpeachable, but a common refrain I hear from people about madness is drastically different than what I’d heard about The Avengers a decade earlier. While not the only response to the feature, I did hear multiple people express confusion about Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) sudden turn to the dark side, which hinged on events from the TV show WandaVision. The shift in responses can’t help but make one wonder…are Marvel Cinematic Universe projects still accessible to the average audience member?


For the first 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the interconnected stories of The Avengers played out exclusively on the big screen. Save for the cameo appearance of Edwin Jarvis in Avengers: Endgame, small-screen programming didn’t leave much of an impact on the theatrical releases. But with Phase Four, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, like all entities owned by Disney, now needs to feed the Disney+ “content” machine. For the first time, Marvel Studios is creating not only TV shows but ones that will feed directly into the movies. The Falcon and the Winter Soldierfor instance, now looks like a prologue, not to mention an origin story for Sam Wilson’s (Anthony Mackie) new super suit, for the 2024 title Captain America: New World Order.

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This isn’t inherently a bad idea, but it already puts people at risk of being confused when something from those shows crosses over into the movies. This is primarily due to streaming shows, much like their predecessors the premium cable show, don’t attract massive amounts of viewership. Now, concrete and comprehensive viewership data for streaming programs is impossible to procure because streamers hide those numbers behind walls of self-concocted measurements of success (“minutes watched” and other metrics). While streamers like Disney+ like to boast in emails about having “their most watched show ever” over a given weekend, they’ll never specify how many people are watching.

Still, third-party outlets like Samba TV (which do not cover all possible viewers) do give a more concrete glimpse into how much reach something like WandaVision has. The service reported that 1.4 million households tuned into the sixth episode of this program. Even if one were to multiply that number four times over (to compensate for the households SambaTV does not cover), that would mean fewer households tuned into this WandaVision episode than tuned into a random November 2010 episode of Mike & Molly on CBS. All of this is to say that vastly fewer people are watching the Disney+ shows compared to the movies, which becomes a bit of a hazard to attracting the general populace when movies like Multiverse of Madness function as sequels to those TV shows.

The inherently smaller draw of streaming programming is already a massive red flag for how accessible new Marvel Cinematic Universe films are. But another problem is how something like Multiverse of Madness employs another separate Marvel Cinematic Universe property. Many past references to other productions in this universe were quick cameos, like the one-scene appearance of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Thor: Ragnarokor situations where the character could work as a standalone subplot, like T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War. Multiverse of Madness throws audiences right into Maximoff’s yearning for her kids from WandaVision with no prior set-up and then proceeds to make it the crux of the ensuing film. There’s a lot of fun in seeing Maximoff become a gnarly baddie, but, understandably, some audience members found it hard to keep up.

Multiverse of Madness isn’t even the only Phase Four film to feel like it might ward off general moviegoers. Chloe Zhao’s Eternals is a largely standalone affair with zero ties to Disney+ programming, but it is seeped deep in cosmic Marvel lore. Unlike in Guardians of the Galaxy, there are neither any Earth-originated humans nor steady streams of humor to make this material go down easier. For those who enjoy a pulpy unabashedly strange sci-fi tale, Eternals will work just fine. But for general moviegoers, this installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe might just seem like a lot of cosmic mumbo jumbo without a hook to lean on. The issue of accessibility isn’t just restricted to crossovers with small-screen programs, it’s also with feature films whose scale and mythos can be too gargantuan.

However, just because a handful of recent Marvel Cinematic Universe titles have dealt with mythology that some viewers found impenetrable doesn’t mean all movies from Marvel Studios are now inaccessible to the broader public. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, for instance, became a leggy word-of-mouth driven hit partially because it was largely a standalone project. The greatest connection it had to prior Marvel Cinematic Universe titles was the presence of Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) from Iron Man 3, who was able to function as a standalone source of comic relief. Even if you hadn’t seen that earlier Iron Man adventure, Slattery could still work as an enjoyable character. No wonder general audiences had no problem digesting this feature.

Meanwhile, this section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe also delivered one of the biggest movies, Marvel Studios or otherwise, of all-time with Spider Man: No Way Home. Intriguingly, this, like Multiverse of Madness, also utilized the possibilities of alternate dimensions. This could’ve led to a movie that ended up confusing rather than dazzling moviegoers, but instead, No Way Home became a pop culture phenomenon. This is partially because its story continued exclusively from Spider-Man: Far from Home while nods to Disney+ properties were contained to billboards in the background. Eventual crowd pleaser connections to other superhero properties came in the form of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Men showing up to help save the day. Not everybody has seen every episode of hawkeyebut you’d have to live under a rock not to know how Maguire and Garfield are.

Building off past movies didn’t make No Way Home inaccessible. If anything, it was a key reason why people loved it so much.

Looking at movies like Shang-Chi and No Way Home doesn’t erase some audience members being confused by Multiverse of Madness. However, it does suggest that issues with accessibility to certain Marvel Cinematic Universe entries are more of an issue with specific titles in the franchise rather than a massive problem plaguing every corner of the saga. However, this could turn into a widespread issue if the crossovers between movies and TV continue to be prominent. With projects like She-Hulk: Attorney at Law and Echo on the horizon, Marvel Studios has lots of small-screen entertainment arriving in the future. Forthcoming theatrical films in this series will need to thread a very careful needle in recognizing these productions while making stories cogent for general audiences.

Likewise, balancing out mythology-heavy adventures like Thor: Love and Thunder or Eternals with smaller-scale escapades, like the original two Ant-Man movies, would also be a wise idea. Sometimes, lots of lore can be exciting, but when so many adventures in a row lean so heavily on vast cosmic mythology, it can feel overwhelming to the general public. Spacing things out so that a title with the scope of Spider Man: Homecoming can compliment upcoming Phase Four or Five movies that are denser endeavors would go a long way to guarantee that the Marvel Cinematic Universe remains accessible to the general public and not just die-hard fans.

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Perhaps most importantly, though, Marvel Studios should never lose sight of how it’s the small things that have often made their movies as beloved as they are. Phase Four of this franchise has been about expansion, whether it’s into the multiverse, television programming, or the history of the cosmos itself. But aspects of this collection of movies and TV shows that have resonated the most with audiences have tended to be the intimate details. The relationship between Kamala Khan (Iman Villanic) and her various family members, for instance, or the simultaneously endearing and amusing rapport between the three versions of Spider-Man. A massive scope can be fun, but it’s not the only thing that attracts people to stories. Even outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe, would the multidimensional antics of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse be as thrilling if they didn’t have that movie’s heart and subtly detailed animation?

The Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t alienated the general public, and current box office data suggests it isn’t necessarily in immediate danger of doing that. But confusion from some audience members over Multiverse of Madness does indicate that it’s possible individual titles in this saga can leave average watchers out in the cold. If this becomes a regular occurrence for this franchise, that could spell long-term doom. The various productions of Phase Four in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have demonstrated to this saga how to make compelling standalone stories that can resonate with true believers and newbie viewers alike…and also some elements to avoid in future multimedia crossover out of fear of confounding potential audience members.

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