Somewhere in the middle of “Spiderman: No Way Home,” I found myself audibly sighing in the theater. Wasn’t I supposed to be excited? There’s THREE beloved Spidermen back in a crazy crossover! Despite what I was supposed to feel, I had enough of the expanding complications of Marvel’s “multiverse”: time travel, alternate identities and, of course, the whole situation where half of the human population disappears and then comes alive again in the final two Avengers movies. The never-ending absurdities of these Marvel movies left me with the dragging feeling associated with soap operas that never tie their loose ends. At a certain point, Marvel, like many soap operas, fails to present a meaningful story. The overproduced action, melodramatic twists and manufactured cliffhangers only serve to keep audiences coming back to theaters every few months.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, isn’t the only franchise to strain their beloved characters to their absolute potential. The Star Wars franchise began pumping out movies when it was sold by its original creator, George Lucas, in 2012. The original iconic six movies no longer exist in solitude. Instead, the storylines continue expanding, capitalizing off any leftover nostalgia. Why is there a trend of cashing in on reboots and spin-offs?
Not coincidentally, both the MCU and Star Wars franchises are owned by a larger corporation: The Walt Disney Company, a mass media and entertainment giant with the growing potential to overtake competitors, especially as it plans to expand into an all-encompassing metaverse. The Walt Disney Company, or simply Disney, owns a multitude of “smaller companies.” All in all, it comes to 200 companies and counting – ABC, ESPN, FX, 21st Century Fox and National Geographic, to name a few. Its young streaming service, Disney Plus, brought in $2.6 billion in its first year. Even still, this revenue is minute compared to the conglomerate’s endless streams of money from theme parks, cruises, live performances and box office sales.
But what makes these figures upsetting is that it’s increasingly obvious that Disney is now trading in creativity for money. The MCU franchise spends an average of $190,350,000 on each of their movies — mostly for overproduced CGI — to tell the same story dressed in a new color. The MCU owns the rights to over 50,000 characters, and keeps a tight grip on them all. They don’t sell rights out for any niche, unused characters because of the ongoing potential they have to make money for the franchise. Instead, these old comic characters remain locked away from creative potential outside of Disney, as chronicled by NPR’s “We Bought a Superhero.”
While some may appreciate Disney’s robust collection of ownership rights that expand upon their favorite characters and franchises, it ultimately represents an implicit danger. Disney has the power to shape opinions and attitudes through the amount of media it produces — so much power, in fact, that it is literally changing the values of American filmmaking.
One such example is in Disney’s relationship with China. Since 1994, China has become the largest movie market. However, these movies must pass through the Chinese Ministry of Propaganda, which reviews films beforehand to make sure they align with their values. The Ministry rejects movies with any obvious conflicting political views, but also movies with time-travel, homosexuality or characters that challenge authority in even the smallest ways. With this in mind, giants in Hollywood like Disney have begun catering to China, even going as far to open up schools in China, Disney English, to teach young audiences the language of their movies. The Marvel movie “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was made with a mixture of pseudo-activism and pro-nationalism, meant to sell to Chinese audiences. Ironically, the movie hasn’t been released in China.
Disney’s attempts to progress their films come off as inauthentic. Does diversifying casts and incorporating progressive themes really mean anything if it’s only to appease and retain audiences? The studio A24 Films is a counterexample of a studio that supports creative filmmakers with single-standing (and surprisingly low-budget!) movies, giving a genuine platform to strong, independent voices. The need for authentic, individual voices becomes more important as corporations like these grow. When directors, producers and actors are constantly being swapped out for one another, the tone of the movie series becomes more impersonal and less nuanced. The storytelling becomes crowdsourced and conformist; movies become no more than a money-making medium.
Of course, Disney isn’t the only entertainment giant with such a large-scale span of control. Plenty of conglomerates work quietly in the background of daily life, slowly gaining a more subtle, implicit influence; however, it seems that Disney is attempting to gain all the Infinity Stones, which is clearly too dangerous an amount of power for one to hold.