The Marvel Cinematic Universe May Produce Blockbusters, But It Doesn't Create Movie Stars

The old-fashioned concept of movie stardom, depending on how you look at it, has been on life support for a long time or just flat-out dead. The premise is simple: actors open a movie, not intellectual property. But even if you had a slightly more positive outlook on the state of movie stardom, the recent film Dolittle should have served as the final nail in the coffin of any hopes you had for a 21st-century movie star. That film's stumbles at the box office are only further evidence that we no longer have movie stars, just franchises.

Talk to the Animals

On the face of it, Dolittle should have been a comfortable family-film hit. Yes, it was based on a moderately familiar story, about a doctor who can talk to the animals, but it was packed to the gills with recognizable names. Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, and Selena Gomez are among the many A-Listers who gave their voices to some of the chatty animals onscreen, but the real star wattage was in front of the screen: Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man himself, played the part of Doctor John Dolittle.You would think — or perhaps, a studio executive would — that the combination of factors mentioned in that paragraph would be enough. Dolittle, thanks to a release-date shift, wound up being the first film Downey, Jr., appeared in after the tearful conclusion of his decade-plus arc in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whether or not you loved Avengers: Endgame, you probably saw it; so did lots of other people, with the film making over $850 million domestically. It wound up as the second-highest-grossing film ever at the domestic box office; Universal was likely thrilled that it got to leap-frog off RDJ's success in this way. Dolittle is also the first non-Marvel movie Downey, Jr. has appeared in since the 2014 drama The Judge; unlike that character study, here was an all-ages adventure with one of the most well-liked movie stars of his day. How could it not work?Dolittle has not been quite the same level of catastrophe for its distributor, Universal Pictures, as their late-December riff on Cats was. (That said, we can probably not hold our breath waiting for a rowdy Dolittle screening at the Alamo Drafthouse coming anytime soon.) Worldwide, the movie has made nearly $160 million, including more than $60 million in the United States and Canada. The numbers, to be clear, aren't great. They could simply be worse, considering the film's reported budget of $175 million. In the post-mortem of the film's failure, there's been the requisite finger-pointing — maybe it was Downey, Jr. who's to blame for ideas like a climax in which Dolittle has to give a dragon an enema. Or maybe it was the film's credited director, Stephen Gaghan of the not terribly kid-friendly Traffic and Syriana, who wasn't up to the task.

A Perilous Journey

Yet none of these post-mortems get at the real, disquieting truth. Robert Downey, Jr.'s presence in a major movie should guarantee its success, the studio thinking would have us believe. When audiences think of him, they think of one of the biggest heroes of modern cinema; why wouldn't that kind of thought process translate to something new? Part of the problem is unique to Downey, Jr.: when we see him, we think of Tony Stark because, for the last decade, that's all we've been able to see. Since he first starred as Iron Man in the 2008 film that kickstarted the MCU, Downey, Jr. has been in just eight films outside the MCU, including Tropic Thunder (which arrived just a couple months after the first Iron Man), two Sherlock Holmes movies, and the aforementioned The Judge and Dolittle. For some audiences, Robert Downey, Jr. is Tony Stark, and he can't be anyone else.But the problem here isn't specific to Downey, Jr. His fellow MCU co-stars have appeared in plenty of non-MCU titles in the last few years, only to see those films flop. Last summer, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson toplined the Men In Black reboot, reuniting after their enjoyable turns in Thor: Ragnarok. Lots of people — myself included — dug that 2017 MCU effort, with its heavy dose of personality and spirit, especially compared to the prior Thor-starring films. The original Men in Black, too, is a lot of fun. And yet, Men in Black International was quite terrible — I reviewed it here, though I would be hard-pressed to remember any of the details of the film — and it tanked at the box office with just $80 million domestically. Just like Dolittle, there was a juicy post-mortem to sift through, to figure out what all went wrong.The answer to what went wrong is simple enough: the studio expected the presence of Marvel actors to be enough to make audiences pay to see them. Though studios can't be blamed for illogical thinking, that's not going to solve the problem. Yes, these are actors who have appeared in massively popular films, films that audiences worldwide have flocked to. If those audiences flocked to Marvel movies, why not to something else with those same actors, especially something in a similar genre? The grim reality is that Marvel superstars can be a commodity, but they're not a guaranteed sign of box-office success. 

Do This More Often

The flip side to Downey, Jr. could be Chris Evans. He's been equally associated in the last ten years with his superheroic character, Steve Rogers AKA Captain America. Like Downey, Jr., since he first appeared in a Marvel movie, Evans has appeared in just eight films that weren't related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (This includes the recent IMAX documentary Superpower Dogs.) He's been very vocal online, maintaining a presence that's both likable and liberally political. Evans is unavoidably popular, and seems like the rare kind of actor who deserves his fame. Yet his most successful non-Marvel film ever arrived in theaters just a few short months ago: Rian Johnson's excellent Knives Out. (Fun fact: until very recently, Knives Out had grossed less money at the domestic box office than, ensemble piece featuring Chris Evans, the original Fantastic Four movie from 2005.) If Knives Out was magically able to leg it out for a few weeks more, it could even outgross the first Captain America movie from 2011. While Evans' performance in Knives Out is delightful, it's arguable that his presence is what sold the film, and even more arguable to claim that his presence is what's brought people to the film over a couple months. He's part of the film, but he's not its key element. Aside from Knives Out, Evans has mostly appeared in indie films like Playing It Cool and Gifted, or not at all.It's true that not every actor in the MCU has attempted to leap into further stardom thanks to their donning a mask or costume. Mark Ruffalo, who's also appeared in fewer Marvel films than some of his cohorts, was and remains well-known for his indie-film cred and hasn't aimed for box-office gold with films like Infinitely Polar Bear or last fall's Dark Waters. (His highest-grossing non-MCU film is one that he appeared in before he became the Hulk, Martin Scorsese's searing Shutter Island with just $128 million.) But Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, and Scarlett Johansson have all used their superheroic fame as a platform to boost their stardom, to mixed success.

Not Gonna Make It

Hemsworth's most successful non-MCU film is a) something that appeared in theaters before he ever became the God of Thunder and b) a film in which he has a cameo at best: the 2009 revival of Star Trek. Post-Thor, only two films featuring the Aussie actor have made more than $100 million domestically: the 2016 revival of Ghostbusters (which, as we all know, everyone loved and didn't criticize unfairly or or with misogynist intent ever) and Snow White and the Huntsman. Neither of these could be seen as genuine, out-of-the-box hits. And titles like 12 Strong, the aforementioned Men in Black International, Red Dawn, and The Huntsman: Winter's War struggled to break out. Renner's technically had some good fortune at the box office, but less because of his own presence and more because he's had the smart thinking to tie his name to the right horse. Two of his biggest non-MCU hits are Mission: Impossible films, Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation. (Ghost Protocol is a film he largely bagged thanks to his star turn in The Hurt Locker, which arrived before he became Hawkeye.) Movies like Tag, The Bourne Legacy, and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, though, felt like ways for him to capitalize his fame that never paid off. Johnasson, at least, has had the most success outside of the MCU in part because she's tried to challenge herself with more daring roles. It's not wrong to criticize her for comments that are seen as racist and/or transphobic, in relationship to her role in Ghost in the Shell as well as a project that never happened in which she would have played a trans man. But she's lent her star power to one of the last decade's best films, Under the Skin, and received dual Oscar nominations last year for Jojo Rabbit and Marriage Story. Her most financially successful film since the MCU came calling is an animated title, Illumination's Sing, where she's one of many famous faces providing a voice. 

Love You 3000?

Why, then, is it that Scarlett Johansson appears to be the only genuine star outside of the MCU compared with her male counterparts? It's not that she knows her limits — for good or ill, thinking again about Ghost in the Shell. It's that she's mostly avoided trying to parlay her superheroic fame into genre stardom. (The 2014 Luc Besson film Lucy, a very odd genre mashup, did do quite well at the box office. Ghost in the Shell did not.) Robert Downey, Jr. may very well have luck again with a non-MCU role. That is, if he wants to do such films. His filmography has been mostly spare outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in ways that feel more pronounced than it is for Evans. RDJ has another Sherlock Holmes film on the horizon soon enough, but who's to say that the decade of distance audiences have in that franchise will pay off?The stark reality is this: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is unquestionably one of the biggest cinematic success stories of the medium's history. But it has not guaranteed success for any of its stars outside of its superheroic walls. (As noted above, Tom Holland was one of the voice performers in Dolittle. He also provided a voice in last December's Spies in Disguise, which has done marginally better than Dolittle, but only just. His next film is another animated project, Pixar's Onward, with fellow MCU actor Chris Pratt. If it's a hit, we can attribute it as much to Pixar's decades of success as to the actors' presence.) Over more than a decade, the MCU has become the franchise to beat in Hollywood. Everyone else is playing catch up. But the wrinkle for the actors within the MCU is a dark twist: they aren't the stars. The MCU is the star. They're just fortunate to exist within its orbit.