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A Marvel(ous) Flop

Preachers can learn a lot from the way movies tell stories.
A Marvel(ous) Flop
Image: David Becker / Stringer / Getty Images Entertainment

The Marvels is not a horrible movie, but it performed horribly for Disney at the box office. I watch a lot of movies, easily on pace to screen about 200 films this year. Recently, I found myself seated in a nearly empty movie theater watching the latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)[1], The Marvels, starring Brie Larson.

The Marvels is essentially Captain Marvel 2, but was not billed that way, as it welcomed in two characters from the Disney+ shows, WandaVision and Ms. Marvel. As of this writing, The Marvels is an unqualified flop. It owns the honor of having the worst opening box office weekend of any MCU movie ever. Making matters worse, Captain Marvel, its predecessor, earned over $1B worldwide.

Sitting in the theater after seeing The Marvels, I realized what didn’t work for audiences, and how preachers must resist the same temptations that The Marvels fell prey to. Great preaching, like good movies, is storytelling. Both are designed to elicit a particular response when handled well by a dedicated and thoughtful teller. The forms have more in common than many think, and preachers can learn a lot from the way movies tell stories … and the way they don’t.

What Did The Marvels Flop?

First, people get tired of hearing the same story the same way. The Marvels is the thirty-third movie in the MCU, and folks are fatigued on superhero movies in general and the MCU in particular. This film offers thin villains, a boilerplate format, unimaginative fight sequences, and predictable dialogue.

The same thing happens with sermons. For years, I was a youth pastor. I got to see what our senior pastor didn’t. Churches get tired of overly long sermons and sermon series.

Yes, lectio continua is a worthy form of preaching, and churches need time in robust texts, but—and let’s be honest—a 35-week walk-through of Leviticus is wearisome. It is wise to know how long your church can dwell in one text or topic before they need to come up for air.

For those opting out of the lectionary, now is a good time to think through the rhythms of your church’s year. When are people most attentive? When do families travel? What is the general reading and education level of your congregation? How much is too little of one topic and how much is too much?

And, yes, it’s okay, better than okay, to be creative, to twist the form of the sermon, to do a series that illuminates the text by using films, books, authors, television, and such. When the story is known, the storytelling doesn’t have to be predictable.

Second, The Marvels forced audiences to keep up with too much. The Marvels was supposed to be the sequel to Captain Marvel, but it was also the sequel to WandaVision and Ms. Marvel and Secret Invasion, kinda. Confused? I am. I watched those shows, but don’t remember much about any of them. When The Marvels trailer was released, I thought, Do I have to know all that to understand this movie?

When I was a younger preacher a church member commented to me that I was “really smart.” I thought it was a compliment. It was not meant as one. She meant that my preaching made her feel dumb. My messages were foot-noted, littered with Greek and Hebrew references, and scholarly quotes. Looking back now, portions of those messages seemed like a commentary dump. I thought my job was to “educate” the church. In part, it was. What I failed to realize then was basic pedagogy: Adults only learn what we think we have to know.

I was offering my church knowledge, but it was unhelpful knowledge—like The Marvels, with its interweaving of two Disney+ shows, gave its audience too much to keep up with. If hearers have to be in worship every Sunday, read your weekly email, catch the mid-week Bible study, read the text ahead of time, and watch your Bible study on TikTok to understand your sermon, they won’t. Life is too complicated, complex, and busy.

Preachers can bemoan that reality, but we can also trim the fat from our sermons, focus, craft our messages in compelling ways, and get out of the theological novelty business.

Lastly, The Marvels flopped because it simply lacked quality. High quality video has become easy to do. From TV to movies to even YouTube, we are living in an advanced stage of video editing. Even Instagram offers its users green screen and video editing tools which are relatively good. The Marvels, with its $250M budget not only has to be better than what we can see in our homes on our oversized, 4K TVs, but it has to be exponentially better.

Preachers have the unique role to speak a word for God. I am amazed by sermons which seem and sound thrown together, last minute, and unartful. Of course, there are times when time itself gets away from or is robbed from us and we are writing sermons later in the week than we would have hoped.

But truthfully, for too many preachers, shoddy sermon preparation has become a practice. Let’s not fool ourselves. Just because no one mentions our lack of craft and preparation does not mean our churches don’t know or notice it. Our sermons should be better than a quick motivational word on an Instagram reel. Sermons are both content and craft! That is to say, our sermons should be good. They should do good and sound good while proclaiming news that is good.

Approaching the start of a new year is an appropriate time to consider whether or not our sermons are flops. Just like there will be another sermon on another Sunday, there will be more Marvel movies. Captain Marvel will make another appearance somewhere down the line, but the question for Disney and for our preaching is the same: Will anyone care about another one?

[1] The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a multiple-phase TV and film endeavor with interlocking and intersecting stories produced by Disney.

Sean Palmer is the Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston, speaker and speaking coach, and author of several books including--Speaking by the Numbers: Ennegram Wisdom for Teachers, Pastors, and Communicators.

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