Disney+ is killing the blockbuster movie with its identikit mega-hits | Movies

It’s a shame the German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse died in 1979, because he would have loved Disney+. Not because he might have been a secret Muppets obsessive, thrilled to have their collected work available in one place; nor because he’d caught the Star Wars Holiday Special in the year before his death and pined for a rewatch. No, Marcuse would have loved Disney+ because it proved his theories right.

For Marcuse, consumerism offered “a good way of life – much better than before”. Through Disney+ we’ve been offered, and have accepted, a specific form of cinematic good life: the modern blockbuster. However, much like Marcuse’s consumerism, “it militates against qualitative change”. The modern blockbuster has found a solid, apparentlywinning formula, so it plays safe and endlessly replicates itself. The popular film landscape consequently becomes drained of original content. This is the Disney+ model of film-making: it commands the current box office and adds to the corporation’s voracious on-demand library of identikit mega-hits. The films Disney makes follow this template, and increasingly so do those of its competitors.

This summer’s blockbusters illustrate this only too well. Think of Cruella. It got good reviews, but as a major addition to the year’s cinematic offerings it was unnecessary, a franchise-starter nobody asked for. Cruella de Vil had survived for 60 years without an origins story – did she really need one now? And one with a $100m budget? What about $200m-budgeted superhero prequel Black Widow? Society may not have needed these movies, but Disney+ did. The obsessive logic of this streaming service demands that every gap in its franchises’ fictional universes be filled, and every storyline dragged forwards, backwards and – as Disney cultivates new “multiverses” – sideways. The business-strategy of the all-conquering 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). Film not got a franchise? Make one up. Viewer attention must be held at all costs. Click unsubscribe at your own risk.

The baseline is this: Disney needs to maintain simultaneous interest both in its new releases and in its growing catalogue of previously released on-demand movies. It needs to keep audiences seeing Disney films in cinemas while also driving up subscriptions to Disney+. Franchises suits these needs, to mutual benefit. Audiences binge vast franchises on Disney+, then rush to watch their newest instalments in cinemas. Equally, audiences watch hyped-up franchise sequels on the big screen, and then hurry to catch up on the rest of that film’s universe through Disney+.

Franchises existed before Disney+, but the streaming service is defined by them and, after the pandemic, it’s now all but indestructible. After launching in November 2019, Disney+ signed up over 50m subscribers in five months. It managed 103.9 million by June 2021. Netflix took over a decade to reach only double that. 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 film-making.

The future … Emma Stone in Cruella. Photograph: Disney

Not all of Disney’s movies are part of established franchises. But those that aren’t still adhere to the company’s formulas on blockbuster-making and make the requisite references to already-established films. Take the recent Jungle Cruise, adapted from a ride at Disneyland, and sharing more with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise than just this. Like those films – all five of them – Jungle Cruise is stuffed with on-ship bickering and CGI monsters. It even managed to cram in campy imperialists. Like Cruella, Jungle Cruise was perhaps not a bad film, but it certainly wasn’t an original one.

Some blockbusters do remain outside Disney’s clutches – Sony still owns Spider-Man, for example. But they can’t escape Disney’s influence, or logic, and also build franchises from details in overlapping franchises. Hence the new, pseudo-subversive The Suicide Squad. It may have had more gore and f-bombs than the Mouse House would permit, but it was still a superhero extravaganza with a very Marvel emphasis on quips. And it still relied on viewers being eager to follow the new adventures of heroes established in previous movies – in this case, 2016’s Suicide Squad, effectively remade only five years later. Following Disney’s example, The Suicide Squad was born unoriginal.

The truth is that, 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 dated mass of capes, quips and cameos. The Disney-era blockbuster will become an embarrassing relic, from when business controlled culture and decided to run it into the ground.

In the meantime, does anyone have a Disney+ login I could use?

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Disney+ is killing the blockbuster movie with its identikit mega-hits | Movies