IToo bad the German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse died in 1979, because he would have loved Disney +. Not because he could have been a secret Muppets obsessive, happy to have their collected work available in one place; nor because he had caught the Star Wars Holiday Special the year before he died and couldn’t wait to be seen again. No, Marcuse would have loved Disney + because it proved his theories.
For Marcuse, consumerism offered “a good way of life – much better than before”. Thanks to Disney +, we were offered, and we accepted, a specific form of cinematic good life: the modern blockbuster. However, like Marcuse’s consumerism, “he militates against qualitative change.” The modern blockbuster has found a solid, seemingly winning formula, so it plays it safe and replicates itself endlessly. The popular cinematographic landscape therefore becomes emptied of its original content. It’s the Disney + model of filmmaking: it commands the current box office and adds to the voracious library on demand of the company’s identity mega-hits. Disney films follow this model, and increasingly those of its competitors.
This summer’s blockbusters illustrate this all too well. Think of Cruella. It received great reviews, but as a major addition to the year’s film offerings, it was unnecessary, a franchise starter no one asked for. Cruella de Vil had survived for 60 years without an origin story – did she really need it now? And one with a budget of $ 100 million? What about the $ 200 million budgeted Black Widow superhero prequel? The company may not have needed these movies, but Disney + did. The obsessive logic of this streaming service demands that every gap in the fictional universes of its franchises be filled, and every storyline dragged forward, backward and – as Disney cultivates new “multiverse” – sideways. The business strategy of the all-conqueror Marvel Cinematic Universe (which Disney bought in 2009) now dictates the content and direction of all other Disney titles, including Star Wars (which Disney bought in 2012). Does the film have no franchise? Make one. The viewer’s attention must be retained at all costs. Click unsubscribe at your own risk.
The baseline is this: Disney must maintain a concurrent interest in both its new releases and its growing catalog of already released on-demand movies. It should allow the public to see Disney films in theaters while increasing subscriptions to Disney +. Franchises meet these needs, for mutual benefit. Audiences gorged themselves on vast franchises on Disney +, then rushed to watch their latest episodes in theaters. Likewise, audiences watch franchise sequels on the big screen and then hurry to catch up with the rest of that movie’s universe via Disney +.
Franchises existed before Disney +, but the streaming service is defined by them and after the pandemic is now virtually indestructible. After launching in November 2019, Disney + signed more than 50 million subscribers in five months. It managed 103.9 million in June 2021. Netflix took more than a decade to reach only double. The development of Disney + is now Disney’s primary business imperative, so naturally the development of franchises – the lifeblood of the streaming service, filling vast repositories of content – dominates its filmmaking.
Not all Disney movies are part of established franchises. But those who aren’t yet are embracing the company’s formulas on blockbuster-making and making the necessary references to already established films. Take the recent Jungle Cruise, adapted from a ride to Disneyland, and share more with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise than that. Like those movies – all five – Jungle Cruise is full of onboard feuds and CGI monsters. He even managed to crowd in rural imperialists. Like Cruella, Jungle Cruise might not have been a bad movie, but it certainly wasn’t an original.
Some blockbusters stay out of Disney’s clutches – Sony still owns Spider-Man, for example. But they can’t escape Disney influence or logic, and they also build franchises from details into overlapping franchises. Hence the new pseudo-subversive The Suicide Squad. There might have been more blood bombs and f-bombs than the Mouse House would allow, but it was still a superhero extravaganza with a very Marvel focus on jokes. And it still hinged on the fact that viewers were eager to follow the new adventures of the heroes established in the previous films – in this case, 2016’s Suicide Squad, effectively remade only five years later. Following Disney’s example, The Suicide Squad was born without originality.
The truth is, decades from now, the Disney-era blockbuster will be as quaint and uninteresting as the 1930s melodrama or the 1950s western. A few high-quality exceptions will be celebrated, and the rest will congeal into a mass. dated capes, quips and cameos. The Disney-era blockbuster will become an embarrassing relic, once companies controlled the culture and decided to drive it into the ground.
In the meantime, does anyone have a Disney + ID that I can use?