3 Years Later, Marvel's Biggest Disappointment Could Save Its Most Troubled Movie
With Thunderbolts losing its buzziest star, it’s time for Marvel to rely on the merits of its creative team.
Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has lost its Sentry. Steven Yeun, who was set to play the character in Marvel’s Thunderbolts, recently departed the project. The actor’s decision to leave comes on the heels of scheduling conflicts, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Thunderbolts was initially scheduled to premiere in 2024, but its release date was pushed back in reaction to the writers’ and actors’ strikes in 2023. The new production window must conflict with another upcoming project; Yeun has chosen to honor that commitment, whatever it might be.
It’s an inevitable disappointment, especially as Thunderbolts was set to reunite Yeun with the director and showrunner of Beef. Both Jake Schreier and Lee Sung Jin are still on board — but with Yeun rounding out a cast of the MCU’s most popular surviving antagonists, Thunderbolts seemed poised to deliver a story of real quality.
Yeun’s departure doesn’t entirely jeopardize the project, of course. Hopefully Schreier and Lee will remain, even if they’re forced to recast Yeun’s role or write him out of the film entirely. Either way, not all hope is lost — but it still doesn’t bode well for Marvel’s ongoing strategy. The studio has always had an eye for prestige: it frequently taps the buzziest actors, writers, and directors in the game to breathe life into the MCU... and deflect some of its most consistent criticism. But that strategy has backfired on at least one occasion.
Chloé Zhao’s Eternals might have been Marvel’s best-known attempt to capitalize on a director’s rising star. Zhao was an indie darling long before she joined the MCU ranks: that she was also an outspoken “genre nerd” was just a bonus. When awards buzz for her film Nomadland coincided with the promotional window for Eternals, it felt more like fate than coincidence — especially since Marvel was all too happy to align Eternals with her history-making Oscar win in 2021. Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite enough to get the film from under Marvel’s long shadow.
Eternals is frequently stunning, and that’s got everything to do with Zhao. Her affinity for natural light and spectacular vistas brought a tactile energy to the otherwise-frictionless MCU. The same cannot be said for Eternals’ sprawling but underused ensemble, packed as it is with prestigious performers from all over the world. Its story is similarly empty: three years on, it’s failed to leave any sort of meaningful impression.
There’s a lesson to be learned from Eternals’ disappointing turn at the box office, as well as its contentious critical reception. The more the MCU relies on prestige, the less it seems to care about the stories it’s telling. But name recognition will only get Marvel so far: with fans and critics alike demanding more from the studio, it’s high time Marvel eschews its “tried and true” formula in the pursuit of more original stories.
It’s too soon to tell if Thunderbolts will fall into the same traps as its predecessors. The upcoming film is more Suicide Squad than Lawrence of Arabia, at least on paper; that’s what makes the Beef team so uniquely suited to the project. Hopefully Marvel can recognize their merits, rather than the buzz they can bring to the MCU. That’s the only way to keep the franchise from circling the drain.