Disney’s much vaunted centennial jubilee has taken on a sour note, at least at the multiplex. Trumpeted in the press as a celebration for a hundred years of classics, 2023 was likely intended to be a victory lap in the vein of 2019, when the once and future Disney CEO Bob Iger saw his “final year” coincide with a fire sale at the cinemas. Eight of the 10 highest grossing movies that year were either Disney releases or productions Disney had a profit share in, and each grossed more than $1 billion. Avengers: Endgame nearly touched $3 billion. The lone “original” film among the lot, with it being neither a sequel or remake, was Captain Marvel.

2023 has told a different story, with Iger’s first year back in the big chair seeing him preside over a string of box office disappointments and misfires, culminating in what could be qualified as an outright flop in the third Marvel Studios release of the year, The Marvels. Whereas the first 2019 film grossed $1.1 billion, the sequel has earned only $187 million worldwide as of press time and looks unlikely to recoup its reported $220 million production budget when you factor in that cinemas take anywhere between 40 to 50 percent of the theatrical revenue.

So as Iger takes stock of the first year back at Disney, he has decided to be candid with the press about the frustrations the company is facing this year—although one cannot help but wonder about where he is placing the blame. In a public discussion Wednesday with Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times’ DealBook Summit (via CNBC), Iger cast regret for Disney’s rocky 100th far and wide, and in the case of The Marvels, he seemed to pick a curious target: the film’s creatives, including director and co-writer Nia DaCosta, in all but name.

The Marvels was shot during COVID,” Iger said during the summit. “There wasn’t as much supervision on the set, so to speak, where we have executives [that are] really looking over what’s being done day after day after day.”

To be certain, The Marvels did have creative problems, as indicated by the fact the film spent nearly two years in post-production and underwent reportedly extensive reshoots and reedits. We personally did not care for the end result either. Nonetheless, suggesting that the film needed to be even more micromanaged than it already was betrays an arguable flaw in the Disney method over the last decade—and it certainly pushes the blame away from Disney’s larger problems that spread far beyond a couple of disappointing Marvel Studios releases.

There is no denying that in the case of Marvel, the studio’s president and unofficial authorial voice, Kevin Feige, has indeed been spread very thin the last few years, although for reasons more complex than just COVID. In fact, it was back in 2019 when the seeds for Disney’s current headaches seemed to have been sown. While the company line these days seems to be that Iger handed a well-oiled machine off to new CEO Bob Chapek, who then put too many eggs in the streaming basket because of the pandemic, that strategy actually began directly under Iger’s supervision.

It was even a point of crowing pride when Feige stood before San Diego Comic-Con Hall H audiences in 2019 and announced Disney would be bringing The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, Loki, What If… ?, and Hawkeye to Disney+ all within the streaming service’s first two years.

It’s become apparent in hindsight that this was a corporate initiative hoisted onto Feige and Marvel, with the golden goose being tasked with creating more streaming shows per year than films. Conceptually, this promised there would be a Marvel project within fans’ reach every fiscal quarter (potentially every month), but in execution it has clearly led to a degree of exhaustion and oversaturation with the brand. It also spread Feige and his people thin, as Iger attests.

Beyond Marvel, though, Disney’s pivot to prioritize streaming has weakened the entire theatrical model for the company. When COVID shut down movie theaters in 2020, releasing Pixar’s Soul to Disney+ for free seemed like a godsend to families forced to shelter in place during a holiday season. At least Disney isn’t making them wait over a year for a little Pixar escapism and bliss. But the company—now definitely under Chapek’s stewardship—then continued to release the next two Pixar films and next two Walt Disney Animation Studios films (Luca, Turning Red, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Encanto) either exclusively on Disney+, simultaneously on Disney+ and in theaters, or in an exceedingly brief theatrical window before going straight to Disney+, which was the emphasis in the marketing, in the case of Encanto.

The result has been families around the world being encouraged to no longer think of these films as the “events” Disney has been brilliantly selling them as for decades, but rather as disposable content to watch at home whenever. These movies were being released as loss leaders to prop up Disney+, with the intention of being able to go back to releasing the animated films theatrically at a later date. But when that date came with the release of films like last year’s Lightyear, or this month’s Wish, the result has been audiences genuinely tuning out. They know they can wait for Disney+.

One cannot help but wonder how audiences might receive a new Star Wars film now after the brand became exclusively the province of Disney+ for the last four years and counting. Next year alone is expected to see five new Star Wars shows exclusively on Disney+.

Iger is of course aware of this phenomenon and conceded as much at the summit Wednesday. “The experience of accessing [the films] and watching them at home is better than it ever was,” Iger said. “And [it’s] a bargain when you think about it. Streaming Disney+ you can get for $7 a month. That’s a lot cheaper than taking your whole family to a film. So I think the bar is now raised in terms of quality about what gets people out of their homes, into movie theaters.”

The expectation of quality has been raised, which makes the suggestion Marvel movies need to be more micromanaged and finessed into edgeless Disney content seem ill-advised. Only Disney and the filmmakers know what difficulties The Marvels faced on closed soundstages, however the final film is one of the patchiest and most stitched together Disney products devoid of cinematic personality or authorial voice in the MCU canon. It was clearly meddled with by executives ad nauseam.

Conversely, what are the two theatrical bright spots in Disney’s 100th year? The first is another Marvel sequel, but one which clearly had a longer leash for its chief creative, James Gunn. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 grossed more than $800 million in the same year that Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Marvels stumbled. The third Guardians movie is also the only one with a strong directorial stamp and an emphasis on characters and emotions. Its theme or “message” might be on-the-nose—asking audiences to consider the horrors and cruelties of animal testing, and treating animals as creatures worthy of dignity—but it absolutely nailed that point for a wide audience with grace and sentiment.

The other arguable Disney success was the animated film that, unlike Wish, felt like its director, Peter Sohn, got across the message and story he wanted to tell about mixed heritage relationships and the American immigrant experience. Like all animated movies for Disney these days, Elemental opened soft, but audiences and families responded to those themes and how cleanly the film told a meet-cute rom-com narrative in Pixar’s distinct style. Elemental had legs and more than quintupled its weak $29 million opening in the U.S., going on to gross almost $500 million worldwide.

Perhaps the takeaway isn’t that these movies need more corporate meddling, but less. They really need not fear “messages,” as Iger also suggested this week when he said Disney lost sight of their responsibility to “entertain first, not messages.”

The thematic and creative resonance (or messages) are what made Guardians Vol. 3 and Elemental stand out. There is also the biggest hit of the year, Barbie, another movie based on a brand of intellectual property but brazenly, daringly defined by the point-of-view of its director and co-writer, Greta Gerwig. The movie openly sends a message about the menace of the patriarchy. The same online cranks who claim Disney has become “too woke” also suggested Barbie is “anti-male” and would sink like a stone at the box office after its first weekend. The film grossed $1.4 billion—the kind of numbers that used to define Iger’s tenure in the 2010s.

Disney has big problems after 2023, but placing the blame on not enough suits looking over a director’s shoulder seems a dubious solution.

The post Disney Blames The Marvels Failure on Wrong Targets appeared first on Den of Geek.

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