Let’s talk about conservatives, how we measure viewership, and “Ms. Marvel”…by talking about an extinct creature that once roamed the earth: the newspaper. For a long time, newspapers followed a rule. You needed regular features to keep your subscribers happy, and you needed fresh headlines to accumulate rack sales – people buying at newstands and in checkout lines. As print media has faded, you might say that this guideline no longer matters – and what could it possibly have to do with the MCU? Well, look around.
Do you read news online? You probably have a few regular sites you frequent, but you’ll still click on big headlines – sometimes even before checking the source. 24-hour news networks balance regular features and weekly programs with breaking news and specials. Even something like ESPN has their daily shows – usually all talking about the same few stories over and over again – balanced against unique documentaries and timely interviews that will speak to narrower bands of their audience.
That’s all legacy media, though. OK, the biggest streamers run regular, familiar content at the same time each week, but create and jump on other special events. Many devote time to playing one game they’re working through one day each week, and then leave other days up to new games and IRL content. YouTubers balance recurring features on a regular, predictable basis (usually weekly or monthly) with forays into new content to see what material hooks (and can eventually become the next regular weekly content).
Why should the MCU be any different? Reaction to “Ms. Marvel” has been both wonderful and horrible. Many viewers love it, and my Muslim friends have been speaking out about mainstream representation in a way they’ve rarely been able to discuss in the U.S. At the same time, reviews are being brigaded by racists pulling scores down and complaining about woke casting shoving diversity down their throats.
Let’s be real: Islam accounts for 25% of the world’s population. We’ve had 28 films and 18 series in the MCU. “Ms. Marvel” means that one of them has centered on a Muslim character. That’s about 2% of all MCU films and series. Two-percent to represent 25%, and this is somehow overrepresentation? It’s too much for you? Are you a Great Gatsby character – you need a fainting couch and some pearls to clutch? The only amount of representation that is less than one out of 46 is zero out of 46: complete erasure.
Let’s be clear what that argument really is. The complaint isn’t about overrepresentation, it’s about hate. It’s about being angry a group of people has been made barely visible. It’s about fearing that they are happy and feel represented, when before you could enjoy some small emulation of self-importance making them feel unseen. One out of 46 and your shit has been lost because some people feel seen.
If white replacement theory is scandalized by the notion that the quarter of the world that is Muslim is represented two-percent of the time, then I can’t imagine any way of thinking that’s smaller, more fragile, or more cowardly.
Ah, but the news about viewership proves them right, right? Full steam to the S.S. Fainting Couch, bowtied conservolads! “Ms. Marvel” is the least viewed MCU debut on Disney+. While Disney+ doesn’t release numbers itself, TV analytics companies assess a viewership range based on a lot of other data. According to SambaTV, “Ms. Marvel” only got 0.8 million viewers compared to the next least-watched of the Disney+ MCU shows: the 1.5 million of “Hawkeye”. Of course, those other shows are being produced at $25 million an episode – I’d be shocked if this were the case for a YA series like “Ms. Marvel”.
Oh look, I’m on the defensive already! I’m making excuses! You’ll steal my fainting couch for yourselves yet! So let’s talk about subscription vs. rack sales in terms of the MCU.
Chris Hemsworth is 38. Sebastian Stan is 39. Tom Hiddleston is 41. Chris Pratt is 42. Oscar Isaac is 43. Anthony Mackie is 43. Benedict Cumberbatch is 45. Paul Bettany is 51. Paul Rudd is 53 going on 30. Jeremy Renner is 51 going on 140. Hemsworth, Stan, and Hiddleston could be doing this another decade, but if Robert Downey Jr. was getting too old for this at 54 when most of his action scenes were being done through CGI, then how long are some of those actors going to be able to keep playing these roles?
And as much as we’d like to think that Brie Larson at 32, Elizabeth Olsen at 33, and Evangeline Lilly at 42 have plenty of time left, the franchise was willing to cut bait with Scarlett Johansson – the biggest star left in the franchise – when she was 36. It’d be great if the MCU sees women heroes return into their 50s the way it lets men, and it’s something we should insist on seeing, but what we’re fighting is a long precedent for major franchises retiring women a lot younger than they retire men.
The MCU needs more than Tom Holland, Simu Liu, and Hailee Steinfeld. It’s got the subscribers – Gen X and Millennials. We’re hooked in, by fandom or by sunk cost fallacy. If we’ve devoted this many hours of our lives to the MCU, I guess we’ve got to see what happens next. Sure, “Spider-people vs. Lokis” is just going to be 25 stunt-castings of each re-enacting the battle royale from “Anchorman”, but what else is a Millennial like me going to watch? A “Game of Thrones” spin-off? “Halo” season 2? I’m 20 movies and a dozen series deep into the MCU, I’ve got to see how Rob Schneider-man fights off Kevin Hart’s Loki #5.
The point is that the rack sales don’t make up the core of your audience. They won’t match the spending or numbers of your subscribers – but a subscriber base that never adds new subscribers will dwindle and fade. It can only be kept up so long. It’s those rack sales that convert new audience into subscribers. To convert them into subscribers, you’ve got to give them new reasons to show up.
The MCU isn’t going to get much more penetration into white America than it already has. It’s not going to get more Gen X and Millennial viewers, especially in terms of topping out its male viewership. It’s hit the point of diminishing returns on both.
SamboTV is saying “Ms. Marvel” doesn’t have the audience of the other Disney+ shows. So? The other thing they’re saying – that gets conveniently left out of The Fainting Couch Report – is that its audience is very different from those other Disney+ shows, with a much higher rate of Gen Z viewers and viewers of color. That’s new audience. That’s the group that’ll keep the MCU viable over the next decade-plus. That’s the audience you need to start showing up reliably in the way Gen X and Millennials have if you still want an MCU at this scale in a decade.
Some defenses rightly cite that there’s resistance by viewers who won’t watch a Muslim superhero. I’m sure that impacts the viewership numbers and needs to be talked about, but it’s not some proof that’s going to make a point to Disney. Disney isn’t sitting there saying, “Oh boy, our profit margin on ‘Ms. Marvel’ really depends on racists liking it!”
Others say that MCU shows on Disney+ weren’t released at the same time as a new Star Wars show, as “Ms. Marvel” is debuting opposite “Obi-Wan Kenobi”. I’m not sure that defense is accurate. Disney+ may see a spike in subscribers at this time, and the streaming service’s paid subscribers had already grown 33% year-over-year by early May – before either show debuted. More to the point, I’m not sure this defense is needed.
Here’s what I think is more relevant. Paul Rudd’s Ant Man has the 21st and 25th highest ranking movies in the MCU. Both films combined don’t reach the box office of 7th ranked “Captain Marvel”, but I don’t hear anyone arguing it’s proof Paul Rudd shouldn’t be part of the MCU.
Chris Hemsworth’s three Thor films rank 16th, 22nd, and 24th in the MCU. Why aren’t the review brigading fans insisting this is proof he shouldn’t be included?
Rudd and Hemsworth are by far the two worst-performing leads remaining in the MCU, unless you want to include mid-pandemic debuts. But they’re fan favorites. Odd how that works.
Rack sales convert into subscriptions, and you can’t make rack sales to an audience that’s already subscribed. You need new viewers. You need new types of viewers. You can’t produce either out of old viewers.
The MCU’s been going for 14 years, since “Iron Man” came out in 2008. I’m sure it wants to keep going for another 14. Are they going to trot out Benedict Cumberbatch at 59? Paul Rudd, vampirishly young as he stays, at 65? Are we going to be watching 55 year-old Tom Hiddleston re-unite with a 52-year old Chris Hemsworth? Some of them may still exist in the franchise, but I have my doubts most will be leading films or series. Are we going to stick with a 40 year-old Peter Parker? Will those actors even still want to play those roles at that age? And as great of a decision as it would be – as needed as it would be – if the MCU is groundbreaking enough to center movies on a woman superhero in her 50s, I will eat some kind of hat.
“Ms. Marvel” lead Iman Vellani is 19, making her the youngest superhero lead in the MCU by five years. A more diverse, younger audience is more important to the next 14 years of the MCU than a bunch of Millennials who’ll be in our 40s and 50s come 2036. The show has half the audience of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”, but I guarantee you that the MCU isn’t banking on Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, or their primary audience 14 years from now. It’s not even banking on Holland or Steinfeld at that point. It’s banking on actors like Vellani and a number of people we haven’t even heard of yet. It’s banking on characters they’ll need to build up before they judge the current ensemble has aged out. It’s banking on a broader range of viewers so that it doesn’t need to rely on pleasing a narrower range. The more aggressive and demanding that narrow range of viewers is, the more it just proves how quickly the MCU needs to diversify its viewership.
“Ms. Marvel” is good, too, by the way. I’m enjoying it a lot more than some of the MCU series and movies that’ve preceded it and that just keep on doing the same things. A “Where’s Waldo” of Spider-men may engage me now, but new perspectives, new voices, and new storytelling will contribute much more to keeping me interested over the next decade. The MCU is one of the few things that plan that far ahead, and that’s how its series and films should be measured. They’ve got countless projects to slow down current viewers from leaving – maybe too many. If you wonder why they’re making series like “Ms. Marvel” and the upcoming “Echo”, it’s because they need to start getting new audiences in quickly if they hope to convert them into diehard MCU fans a decade from now.
You can watch “Ms. Marvel” on Disney+. I highly recommend it.
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