Matt Ramos, 22, was just 7 years old when the original “Iron Man” hit theaters. He was not the target audience for the film; nor was his Gen-Z responsible for making Marvel and the MCU a cultural and box office behemoth. (That would be Millennials, the fans who originally had Tobey Maguire as their Peter Parker, not Tom Holland.)
But like the “Young Avengers” teased in “The Marvels,” Gen-Z are the ones who will make or break the next decade of the MCU.
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Today, Ramos has more than 3 million TikTok followers (he’s known there as “Supes”), influencing a passionate fan base consisting primarily of 16-24 year olds. For Ramos and his peers, Marvel fandom is alive and well.
“When the first ‘Iron Man’ came out, it was still not cool to be a Marvel fan. But then by the time ‘Avengers: Endgame’ came out in 2019, it was weird if you weren’t a Marvel fan,” Ramos told IndieWire. “For Marvel fans, there is that essential need. Because when a Marvel Studios movie is in theaters, we’re going to show up.”
This weekend, those core fans were maybe the only ones who bought tickets for “The Marvels,” resulting in the MCU’s worst domestic box office opening in its history. The problem is, Disney, which bought Marvel in 2009, isn’t budgeting its superhero blockbusters with only the diehards in mind. And even among the diehards, less than a fifth appear to be in Ramos’s generation: Gen-Z.
According to tracking data for the film, just 19 percent of the opening-weekend audience for “The Marvels” was between 18 and 24; 30 percent was 25-34. By comparison, 40 percent of the “Captain Marvel” (2019) audience was 18-24, according to data from a third party source. Those figures suggest much of the key audience has already aged out. Which marks a sea change: These kind of blockbusters have always been thought to be powered by teenagers and the youngest adults. The younger the audience, the worse it gets: Those ages 13-17 accounted for only 8 percent of viewers.
Before we blame an entire generation (Gen-Z is defined as people born in the late ’90s and early 2000s), let’s acknowledge the plethora of reasons behind Marvel’s struggles. For starters, moviegoers have some serious superhero and franchise fatigue, not all of which is the MCU’s fault. And in a time when production budgets have skyrocketed, even Disney CEO Bob Iger acknowledges quality control has gone the way of Thanos. With a B CinemaScore, maybe audiences just didn’t respond to “The Marvels.”
There are Marvel-specific problems, as well, including the mishandling of MCU television series by film execs. We haven’t even mentioned the words “Jonathan” and “Majors” yet.
Yes, Kevin Feige has a lot to fix. But issues related to generational appeal are apparent in “The Marvels,” which includes nods to ’90s groups Nine Inch Nails and the Beastie Boys while also featuring a song-and-dance sequence clearly aimed at the TikTok crowd, as is a separate scene flooded with kittens. It’s a real juggling act — and Marvel’s marketing team was on the case.
To court Gen-Z, “The Marvels” had a partnership with the YouTuber Lofi Girl, and has been pumping TikTok with clips (and even some thirst trap content.) A source told IndieWire that “The Marvels” had digital advertising at more than 100 malls in 28 markets, and trailers have run before “Barbie” and “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour.”
It also may be that this dip is just unique to “The Marvels,” not to the MCU as a whole. A broader look suggests Marvel has stayed pretty consistent for years. According to PostTrak data compiled by Comscore and Screen Engine/ASI, 24 percent of Marvel’s audience for its six Phase 2 movies were ages 18-24. That grew to 30 percent for Phase 3, then again to 32 percent for Phase 4. And then it started slipping a bit before “The Marvels” to 29 percent.
At the same time, the 25-34 crowd has risen steadily, from 18 percent (Phase 2) to 24 percent (Phase 5). The overall Under-25 demo has steadily ticked down to 47 percent and Over 25 has risen to 53 percent. Female moviegoers, no matter what age, have stayed pretty consistent across each phase. Data for men suggests they’ve been aging out. Men under 25 were 33 percent of the audience in Phase 2, but Phase 5’s two films had an audience of just 28 percent men under 25.
Senior Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian’s read on the data is that even with a few blips, Marvel’s demographic makeup is still solid. Some MCU titles in that mix may make the numbers skew older. And the “Avengers” movies made so much money, they’re outliers among all the normal MCU movies. But even though he’s not prepared to bet against Marvel righting the ship in the future, they need to make sure they’re not losing the 18- to 24-year-old males who appear more inclined to watch “Five Nights at Freddy’s.”
“Every big brand rises and falls on their latest movie, but also on their legacy and the brand equity. We’ve seen that with a lot of big franchises like ‘Mission: Impossible’ or ‘Indiana Jones,’ they are held to such a high standard that unless you’re hitting a home run thematically, critically, and box office wise, it’s seen as a disappointment,” Dergarabedian said. “These brands have relied on the equity and good will built up over decades or years, and when you have a few missteps, the audience can very quickly migrate to another genre or form of entertainment, and you have to win them back.”
Ramos says much of his Gen-Z audience discovered the MCU between 2017 and 2019, a sweet spot that included “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Endgame,” and “Captain Marvel.” When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of his followers got Disney+ subscriptions and back-binged from the beginning. That created a new generation of fans for Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Loki, Black Widow, and T’Challa. The classics.
But between its Disney+ shows and the movies, the MCU has introduced 57 characters in just the past few years. Ramos calls it an “overload” and a lot to digest — even for diehard fans. And with post-credits scenes being the norm, even more heroes and villains could be on the way.
“When I watched ‘Doctor Strange,’ we knew Strange was going to be integrated when ‘Infinity War’ came out two years later. ‘Shang-Chi’ came out in 2021, and 2026 is the earliest, maybe, we get a sequel? The same thing with ‘Eternals.’ Same thing with ‘Moon Knight,'” Ramos said. “With the newer characters, I loved ‘Werewolf by Night.’ That was such a fantastic project. I don’t even know if I’m ever going to see that character again.”
Travis Knox, Associate Professor of Creative Producing with the Dodge College at Chapman University, Knox polled his class of 50 directing and producing students, all Gen-Z, on who planned to see “The Marvels” on opening weekend. Just six raised their hands. Just a few years ago, it would have been near-unaminious, he says. Keeping up with the MCU, which requires viewing niche series as well as popular ones, can feel like a chore to them.”
“Not every series is for them, and they don’t want to watch a series they’re not even interested in just to keep up,” Knox said. “That’s what I see with these kids. Watching every one of these shows is homework. And they don’t want more homework out of school.”
“They called it ‘Endgame’ for a reason,” one student told him.
Like others, Knox’s crop doesn’t feel connected with the newest MCU characters. As film buffs, they’re annoyed that seemingly every hot, young movie star gets thrown into a superhero movie. And with so many shows and movies on the horizon, they just want to pump the brakes.
Well, consider the brakes pumped, thanks in large part to the writers and actors strikes. “Deadpool 3” is now the only MCU movie coming out in 2024. It’s the perfect setup to reset. Ramos suspects “Deadpool 3” will be huge as a welcome return to flagship characters fans know and love.
The next step will be a crucial one. Emphasis on the “one.”
“[Fans] could be surprised and delighted with an amazingly executed X-Men movie. But right now, if you’re hitting them with 20 other things at the same time, they’re just not gonna care. They’re going to watch the one that resonates with them,” says Jeff Annison, a producer and Legion M president. “A lot of it will come down to simplifying the focus and allowing more space for the really powerful stories to survive and thrive.”
Annison says his own 18-year-old daughter sobbed during “Endgame.” The passion and the connection with the characters is there, but the excitement has been “diluted.” It can be there again, whether for the Gen Z crowd or for Marvel’s base introducing their own kids to the MCU, but give it time.
“When people go through that journey of rewatching the MCU or watching the first three ‘Iron Man,’ the first three ‘Captain America,’ the first three ‘Thor,’ you grow with the characters over the course of their journey of all of those films,” Ramos said. “That’s why ultimately even the younger audience is so more invested in those characters compared to ‘Shang-Chi,’ ‘Eternals,’ ‘Ms. Marvel,’ because we haven’t really had time to invest in those characters and sit with them for a long period of time that’ll get us to love them as much as we did those original Avengers.”
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