One glimmer of hope for the MCU--and this is likely years down the line--is that they've created a way to escape their bad decisions/poor writing: the multiverse. Assuming the IP is given a proper second chance, new voices could jettison this entire Phase out of existence--an aspect of the multiverse. This puts Marvel on much better footing than Star Wars, which is saddled with the horrendous prequels until the end of time. The question is, does the hammer ever fall? Due to the connections to the prior iterations of Spider-Man, I expect Spidey-3 to do very well (proper MCU money) no matter how good or bad it is, but it looks like it will arrive after four straight disappointing TV shows (it would be five but it looks like Ms. Marvel's shift will put it after), and three straight films. If Doctor Strange is the goofy dumbass we see from the Spidey-3 trailers, his film will be another disaster and I don't know what to expect from Thor 4 (does it follow the downward spiral of James Gunn's films or not?). Financially, both the latter films will do better than the new IP (irrespective of how good they are), but how well remains to be seen. I don't think we'll see any course correction from Feige irrespective of the numbers--the man believes in himself--so any change has to come from Bob Chapek and in what manner I don't know (revive the old Marvel story group?). Given how little Bob Iger changed Star Wars, I'm not sure how much really can be fixed.
Even its release couldn't push Shang-Chi into public discourse--if you zoom in Black Widow overtakes it the weekend after release. Google Trends is just one data point, however, but it's fascinating that neither the marketing or opening could push Shang-Chi into anything other than background noise. In contrast to the social discourse, Shang-Chi beat box office expectations. While unable to upset Black Widow's opening, it fell short only by about 7% (granting the latter's joint opening on Disney+ impacts the comparison). Like Black Widow, the film was pushed along domestically, as the Phase Four products all seem aimed at an American audience (people I know casually enjoyed it--as they have the shows--spectacle beats plot and writing for many). The film's box office, domestically, has held up better than I expected, going from 94 through Labour Day, to 34, and now to 21. It's likely that Shang-Chi will beat Black Widow as the #1 domestic film (as a percentage of its box office it's much more dependent on the domestic market--55% of its gross versus Black Widow's 48%). The two films are bumping against each other on the total gross chart (at #5 and #6), although it's less clear that Shang-Chi can catch Black Widow overall. Keep in mind that the latter film made 150 million through streaming versus Shang-Chi's zero, so in that sense the two films will never be close. It's worth noting that Shang-Chi was supposed to be the next Black Panther and in that intention it fails completely.
The kneejerk reaction of some MCU fans might be to say, hey, it's killing it domestically and worldwide Black Widow is competitive, so Phase Four is going great! The problem with that idea is F9: The Fast Saga, which was released when conditions for theater viewing were worse, did far better than both films, helped in large part by being released in China (something the MCU seems unable to do anymore). You cannot budget and plan, as Marvel has done, if you are going to throw away that much of your box office potential. This reality, if it persists, won't impact any of the projects currently underway, but you have to wonder about a few years down the line. We know that eschewing writing for spectacle--Michael Bay style--eventually fails. Transformers films saw increases initially, a small drop off, and then it tumbled off a cliff, and that's not something that ever tried to be serious.
The other thing we don't know--and we'll have to rely on business reports for--is whether merchandise sales for MCU products are stable or not. If the merch starts to suffer, that means the box office was soft and you have a real problem on your hands--the after market matters a lot to Disney.
I'm shocked by The Suicide Squad's anemic box office (165), largely because the reception I've seen has been so much better than the the MCU films. I don't think the fact that it's a nonsensical, tonally inconsistent mess with few laughs is the problem--worse films have done better. The movie performed better internationally, but part of the problem domestically was the simultaneous release on HBO Max without a pay wall. At least for the moment it seems like bland comicbook films can thrive domestically, but no one is going to pay for what they can watch for free.
On the MCU side, the lackluster impact of the shows is more worrying. Ratings/interest isn't the only thing that matters to Disney (subscriber retention and attraction is more vital), but the MCU ought to be in the same category as The Witcher/Stranger Things, if not beyond them, but it's not even close. An additional problem for the MCU is they couldn't have asked for a better time to debut these shows: during the lockdown with minimal impact from theaters. Despite that and very positive coverage, it's an anemic response. Hawkeye trailer seems to be aiming for a family friendly audience (what isn't heartwarming about an arrow in the face?), so it will be interesting to see if they can produce a show with coherent writing. For Hawkeye fans (are there any?) I expect we'll see Clint bumble around until his successor character shows him how much better she is Shang-Chi and Loki-style--yay?
I've given up covering the scoop game (we had a recent Sutton faceplant, but at this stage, who cares?), but an interesting note about Shang-Chi: the (partially) debunked Reddit scooper, "The Marvel Scoop Master", had one of his scoops validated. He claimed way back in June, 2019 that the film's script was considered dull and required an emergency re-write. We now know from the credits that the re-write is true, as Andrew Lanham was brought in to do just that. The issue with MCU scripts has been habitual, although bigger creators will likely be able to resist having their visions changed (for good or ill remains to be seen).
This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)