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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ben Child

Disney minus: is the streaming platform spreading Star Wars and Marvel too thin?

What’s on the Disney horizon? … Jonathan Majors as Kang The Conqueror in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantimania.
What’s on Disney’s horizon? … Jonathan Majors as Kang The Conqueror in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantimania. Photograph: Marvel Studios/Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Geeky couch potatoes are spoilt for choice these days. In the 1980s, we were lucky if Star Wars came on the telly once a year, while superhero movies arrived in multiplexes at a pace of about three a decade. These days, the average fan boy or girl is like Jabba the Hutt, slavering with gruesome delight as we devour content from streaming sites, cinema screens and social media. There is so much out there that missing the odd show or even movie isn’t quite the travesty it might once have been – I still haven’t caught all episodes of the Willow TV series despite the original film being one of my childhood favourites. There will be more content along soon, and Disney+ seems to retain most of it in perpetuity, so what’s the rush?

A recent piece in the Hollywood Reporter, however, suggests this might not always be so. It touches on comments from Disney boss Bob Iger suggesting that the studio needs to get “better at curating” franchise content such as Star Wars and Marvel because of the extraordinary expense of creating it. Could the era of three Marvel movies a year, space opera spin-offs galore and endless interlinked superhero shows be coming to an end? It seems unlikely, especially given the excellent opening box office for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and the impending debut of The Mandalorian season three in a week’s time. But is there an argument that Disney would be better off making less and focusing more on its big hitters?

Quantumania, and indeed a number of recent Marvel movies, offer a case in point. While fans still flocked to catch Ant-Man’s third adventure, Peyton Reed’s film has also suffered the indignity of becoming the second-worst reviewed Marvel movie of all time, according to the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. With a rating of 48% “rotten” it is better off by only 1% than the bottom-ranked film, 2021’s bizarrely insipid Eternals.

Could we have done without it? Not really, for Quantumania sets off a chain of events that will eventually set up the climax of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s phase five, with 2025’s Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and 2026’s Avengers: Secret Wars. It’s an integral part of the big Marvel picture, and its critical failure could cause more long-term damage than any film in the mega superhero saga so far. Nobody really minded that last year’s Thor: Love and Thunder was middling at best, because the musclebound Norse deity spent most of it battling gods and monsters in the far-flung corners of the meta-cosmos, rather than defending the Earth. Quantumania, on the other hand, is a Marvel centrepiece that spent so much time worrying about its impact on future events that fans have been complaining it didn’t really feel like an Ant-Man movie at all.

Eternals, however, is a film nobody needed. And there are other movies out there in the Disney creative cloud that we might also wonder about. I wasn’t a big fan of the Pixar teen flick Turning Red, while studio head Pete Docter recently hinted that the Toy Story spin-off Lightyear might have asked too much of audiences.

“When they hear Buzz, they’re like, ‘Great, where’s Mr Potato Head and Woody and Rex?’ And then we drop them into this science fiction film that they’re like, ‘What?’” Docter told the Wrap, after the film barely made back its production budget at the box office. “It was much more of a science fiction. And Angus [MacLane, director], to his credit, took it very seriously and genuinely and wanted to represent those characters as real characters. But the characters in Toy Story are much broader, and so I think there was a disconnect between what people wanted/expected and what we were giving to them.”

It is easy to imagine Lightyear, a bold and far-out reimagining of space ranger’s story, never existing at all had it not been for the perceived financial safety cushion of Disney+. Likewise Turning Red, and perhaps even in a weird sort of way, Love and Thunder. They are all inessential in their own way, to the bigger picture – but then so seemed The Mandalorian when it was still just one of Jon Favreau’s geeky fever dreams. As we wait to catch season three, it has never seemed closer to the centre of the Star Wars galaxy. So how do you tell which projects are your big hitters in an era in which a TV show about a bounty hunter and his adopted alien sprog is more popular than megabudget movies about battling Jedi?

At the very least it would be fair to say that the arrival of Disney+ has given the studio more licence to take risks and experiment. It’s perhaps therefore inevitable that while most of the time the demand for all that extra content pays off in spades, there are times when quality levels dip.

If Iger’s comments are anything to go by, the streaming service can no longer be seen as a safety valve to avoid financial disaster if a movie underperforms at the box office – we can’t just assume that everything will be OK because it will all just end up on Disney+. There are still risks involved in churning out all this ambitious material. After all, everybody saw what ultimately happened to Jabba when he took his eye off the matter at hand to continue stuffing himself rotten.

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