Produced by Marvel Studios since 2008, under the ownership of the Walt Disney Company since 2009, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a media franchise, with over 29 films and 19 television series already produced. Operating with shared universe storytelling, the media franchise has had significant commercial success has largely received positive critical reviews. However, the MCU has received criticism, including from a number of high-profile filmmakers, particularly centered around its impact on filmmaking, its representation of women and LGBT+ characters, whitewashing, as well as its relationship with the American military.
As of June 2022, the MCU is the highest-grossing film franchise in history, having made over 26 billion dollars in box-office revenue across all its films, more than twice the amount made by the second largest franchise, Star Wars. In 2021, the MCU comprised around 30% of the total box office revenue in North America, up from 18% in 2018. The lowest-grossing MCU film is The Incredible Hulk (2008), which made $264.7 million, whereas the highest-grossing film is Avengers: Endgame (2019), which grossed $2.8 billion.
Films and series within the franchise have received a number of awards and other accolades. They have been nominated for 135 Saturn Awards, winning 36, as well as 12 Hugo Awards, winning two. In 2019, Black Panther became the first superhero film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, winning three at the 91st Academy Awards.
The MCU has been credited with the popularisation of the shared universe in film. In 2012, Tom Russo of Boston.com stated in response to the release of The Avengers that "you don’t hear 'universe' much in the film industry." In 2014, Tuna Amobi of Standard & Poor's Equity Research Services stated that there had been a shift in the last five years towards the creation of megafranchises, due largely to the success of the MCU, as "Disney has proved that this can be a gold mine." According to the Business Review at University of California, Berkeley, the franchise has helped create a new wave in Hollywood, where filmmaking is domianted by "franchises/sequels that rely on the overall brand, rather than star-power in standalone films."
A number of critics have proposed that the franchise has had a deleterious effect on filmmaking, particularly in leading towards a film industry that places less emphasis on creating original stories and more emphasis on creating blockbuster franchises based around selling content related to an intellectual property. Film journalist Ian Leslie has stated that Hollywood increasingly "thinks about films in the same way" as the MCU, which is to say as "the primary building blocks of multi-story, multimedia universes," adding that "everyone would like to emulate the Marvel model but nobody has done so on the same scale." Colin Yeo of the University of Western Australia has said that the franchise "represents the apex of big budget filmmaking," arguing that "shared universe franchises represent an ultimate form of commercialization" due to their ability to exploit brand loyalty beyond just the films themselves.
In a 2019 interview, filmmaker Martin Scorsese criticized the MCU as "not cinema," later elaborating in an article in The New York Times that he felt there was no risk in the franchise as "everything in them is officially sanctioned... market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they're ready for consumption." A number of other high profile filmmakers have leveled similar criticism against the franchise, including Denis Villeneuve, who stated that there were "too many Marvel movies that are nothing more than a 'cut and paste' of others," Ken Loach, who called the franchise a "cynical exercise" designed to make "a commodity which will make a profit for a big corporation," and Francis Ford Coppola, who argued that "I don't know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again."
However, Scorsese's comments provoked significant debate, with the Russo brothers stating that "we define cinema as a film that can bring people together to have a shared, emotional experience," and with James Gunn arguing that "many of our grandfathers thought all gangster movies were the same... Superheroes are simply today's gangsters/cowboys/outer space adventurers." Alex Abad-Santos of Vox argued that there was a risk of conflating the impact of the MCU as a whole on the filmmaking industry with the quality of the individual films within the MCU, adding that "the emotional connections that Marvel fans forged with its characters are earnest and telling." Raul Velasquez of GameRant has argued that "Disney's corporate consolidation has not changed blockbuster movies as much as it has centralized them." J.D. Connor of the University of Southern California has argued that "mega-conglomeration" of Hollywood franchises is a trend that started before the MCU, with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in particular.
Damon Young of the University of Melbourne has argued that "the vast Marvel Cinematic Universe was built by low-waged, precarious labour." The franchise has criticism from visual effects artists for poor working conditions, including understaffing, low pay, and bad management. Writing in Vulture.com, one artist who had worked on MCU productions stated that they had worked "seven days a week, averaging 64 hours a week on a good week," and that the demanded "regular changes way in excess of what any other client does," elaborating that "maybe a month or two before a movie comes out, Marvel will have us change the entire third act."
In 2021, actor Scarlett Johansson, who played Black Widow in the MCU, filed a lawsuit against Disney over the simultaneous release of the titular Black Widow film in both theaters and on streaming service Disney+. The lawsuit alleged that this had breached her contract and had blocked her from receiving a bonus from box-office profits. The lawsuit was settled later in 2021.
The franchise has also faced criticism for its business practices regarding comic book creators. Joe Casey, one of the creators of character America Chavez, has stated that there were "systemic flaws in the way that creators are neither respected nor rewarded," pointing in particular to the use of Chavez in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), for which he had received no compensation.
The MCU has faced criticism for the similarity in style between its movies, with some critics saying that it is overly homogenous. Dais Johnston of Inverse has states that "the 'Marvel movie' has become its own genre, an archetype for polished, epic, action-packed, films filled with one-liners. Despite some aesthetic differences, each MCU movie slots into this style with little to no resistance." However, others have defended the style of the franchise as valuable for its own cultural niche. Omer M. Mozaffar of Loyola University Chicago has argued that "sometimes, after a long week, I need a giant crowd-pleasing spectacle that entertains me," saying that even if the franchise was not challenging, "there is an optimism that permeates all the films."
The franchise has further faced criticism for the size of the shared universe, with some critics contending that it has become confusing and that the increasing level of interconnectivity makes the franchise less easily accessible for new viewers. However, Dais Johnston of Inverse has argued that the concept of "Marvel homework" is a myth, saying that "there's no need to get so caught up in the interconnection between them that we can't enjoy them as fully formed stories in their own right."
The franchise had also faced criticism for the large amount of releases, with some critics arguing that its has put itself at risk of oversaturation or of "Marvel fatigue." Phase One of the MCU, which lasted from 2008 to 2012, saw the release of six films, whereas Phase Four saw the release of four films and five television series in 2021 alone. However, Peter Suderman of Vox has stated that the MCU has showcased a high "level of both consistency and quality," and Julia Alexander of The Verge has argued that the risk faced by the MCU is not fatigue, but trust, saying that Marvel's "greatest asset" was being able to ensure "quantity without losing the overarching story thread."
Several critics have also argued that the MCU is "sexless" or as lacking in their portrayal of realistic romantic relationships, including Paul Verhoeven and Steven Soderbergh. Joshua Rivera of Polygon described romances in the MCU as "conservative" and having a tendency to avoid "even the tamest signs of affection." In an essay titled Everyone Is Beautiful and No One Is Horny, science fiction writer RS Benedict argued that the MCU was among films that did not portray bodies as "a home to live in and be happy" but as "investments, which must always be optimized," comparing it to McMansions.
The MCU has faced some criticism for its portrayal of women, particularly the lack of female characters in the first three phases of the franchise. Captain Marvel (2019) was the first female-led film in the franchise and the 21st film to be released in the franchise.
Rebecca Wright of Cardiff University has argued that the films are "occasionally marred with a sense of humour that tends toward displays of toxic masculinity and casual misogyny" and that the "female Avengers are still constrained by emotional or romantic responsibility to their colleagues." Gita Jackson of Vice has argued that most female characters in the franchise tend to be arcs centered on "their roles as daughters or as people who can't bear daughters."
However, the franchise has also received positive reviews for an increasingly better portrayal of women. Ben Child of The Guardian has stated that watching the MCU catalog "is an experience in which we can almost see the base point of gender politics shifting before our very eyes."
The franchise has been criticised by some as having poor representation of the LGBT+ community, including for a lack of queer characters. Avengers: Endgame (2019) the penultimate film of Phase 3, was the first film of the MCU in which a character was portrayed as queer on-screen with an unnamed character portrayed as a grieving gay man in a single scene. The 2021 Loki series became the first in which the lead character was portrayed as queer on-screen.
The franchise has also been criticized for queerbaiting, in particular for hinting at characters being queer and promoting the franchise to the LGBT+ community without depicting those characters being queer on-screen and for heavily promoting the small scenes where characters are confirmed queer instead of dedicating substantial time on-screen to depicting those characters as queer. In a Swansea University panel, writer Russell T Davies argued that "Loki makes one reference to being bisexual once, and everyone's like, 'Oh my god, it's like a pansexual show.' It's like one word... and we're meant to go, 'Thank you, Disney!" At the Thor: Love and Thunder London premiere Q&A, in response to the question "How gay will the film be?" director Taika Waititi exclaimed that it would be "super gay"; some critics and moviegoers who saw the film expressed disappointment that the film, in their view, did not reflect this statement.
The franchise has faced accusations of whitewashing, particularly for the characters of Wanda Maximoff, Pietro Maximoff, and the Ancient One.
The franchise has also faced criticism for a lack of diversity, both in terms of characters and in terms of production staff. Of the first 23 MCU films, only two were directed by people of color and only one by a woman. In 2020, Sam Wilson actor Anthony Mackie stated that "it really bothered me that I've done seven Marvel movies where every producer, every director, every stunt person, every costume designer, every PA, every single person has been white."
See also: Military-entertainment complex
A number of MCU films have been produced in collaboration with the American military, including access to military equipment and technical advice, in promotional campaigns, as well as in editing some script sequences. Steve Rose of The Guardian has written that the relationship between the MCU was strong throughout Phase One, until The Avengers (2012), which depicted a nuclear missile strike on New York, but that the relationship was mended by the release of Captain Marvel (2019). The role of the military in the MCU's production has raised concerns, with Akin Olla of The Guardian arguing that the MCU risked effectively being "propaganda that aims to sugarcoat the crimes of [the American] military and intelligence apparatuses." Roger Stahl of the University of Georgia described the American military's role in Captain Marvel as "recruiting, they're rehabilitating the image of the Air Force, and they're appealing to an elusive but desirable demographic." In a 2019 paper in Studies in Popular Culture, Brett Pardy of McGill University argued that, even as the MCU downplayed explicit militarization:
S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers, along with most of Hollywood's militainment, present a liberal fantasy of the military. They are effective and disciplined but not to the point of being dehumanized, interchangeable soldiers. They can be lethal but only to those who "deserve it." Their technology is advanced, functional, and accurate. In very exceptional circumstances, torture may be necessary, but it is always effective and reveals information, unlike in reality. These traits foster the perception of a "clean war," framing it in a way that makes it easier to obtain public support.
However, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) director James Gunn has rejected claims that the Marvel needs formal approval from the American military for scripts, stating that "when a film uses military assets for free those specific scripts have to get military approval to make sure the military isn't disparaged," and adding that "the military is pretty loose about it." A 2020 paper from the Pontifical University of Salamanca found that "the representation of defense agencies and their institutions throughout the MCU films has an uneven nature," saying that portrayals of institutional corruption have risen in the MCU since Phase 1, but that portrayals of real military and law enforcement institutional has mostly disappeared in favor of fictional institutions such as S.H.I.E.L.D.. Dais Johnston of Inverse has argued that "as long as Captain America remains in canon, American patriotism in the MCU will be tied to the Avengers," but that the portrayal of systemic issues facing military veterans in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) was "hopefully the first step in a long process of undoing the decade of Marvel mythology surrounding military life."