With Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Studios accomplished something no other studio had done before. Even though each film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe had a different title, and sometimes different characters, “Phases One through Three” were really one long narrative. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige even retroactively dubbed it “The Infinity Quest,” and if there were plot holes and contradictions, well, that’s in keeping with most comic book crossover events, too.
The only company to come close to accomplishing the same thing is Lucasfilm, coincidentally now also owned by the Walt Disney Company. Star Wars has mostly focused on one story over four decades, and faces an allegedly uncertain future as the company promises that the Skywalker Saga is coming to a close in December, though more stories will still be Star Wars.
There have been side stories, perhaps — a couple of Ewok Adventures, some animated series — but like the tie-in novels, none of have been consumed by the mainstream culture the way the films did. To be fair, the same could be said for Marvel. Hundreds of thousands more people watch the movies than pick up any Marvel comic on any given month.
Which is why the imminent launch of Disney+, Disney’s streaming service (for now), means so much. You can believe Disney President Bob Iger when he says Disney+ is the future of the company. Because audience habits are changing, and if Disney plays it right, the company will be the one with the strongest hand on the change.
For years, the time between theatrical release and home video release has been shrinking. If you saw Endgame on opening weekend this year, you could stream it digitally within three months, and have the physical DVD or blu-ray a couple of weeks later. Compare that to the first Star Wars, which played in theaters for well over a year when it first opened (and successfully came back to theaters months after that).
As Mac Williams noted, when Lucasfilm took the spotlight at Disney’s movie panel at D23, studio head Kathleen Kennedy brought plenty of fun related to The Rise of Skywalker, which finishes the main saga, but stayed quiet about the previously announced trilogies that would carry the studio into the next decade. Sure, the focus needed to be on the next film, but it’s because over at Disney+, Lucasfilm is experimenting.
After the (perhaps unfair) box office troubles of Solo, there are studio executives skittish about telling different kinds of stories set in the Star Wars universe. Sure, gamers and readers love the Knights of the Old Republic, but mainstream consumers? The Mandalorian will be the real testing ground — a gritty television series with high production value that will have little or nothing to do with the Empire or the Rebellion or the Resistance. And once audiences go there, why would they want to go back to the theater?
Movie attendance is dropping. Consumers spend more time watching television on their high-def 4k screens with an immersive sound system, all at home. But that’s consumers in their 40s and above. There’s a generation coming up that got used to watching things on their phone screens, so really, they’re content with that. At that size, what’s the difference between a movie or an episodic television show? These days, the TV show is probably more compelling.
So the line is blurring between movie and TV (hard to call it “film,” when it’s probably shot on digital). And while Lucasfilm will start blurring it with The Mandalorian on November 12, Marvel Studios is right behind them ready to transform their storytelling. When I call Disney Plus a game changer, this is what I mean.
Each of the first wave of announced Marvel series on Disney Plus — all produced by Feige’s Marvel Studios and not Jeph Loeb/Ike Perlmutter’s Marvel Television — both spin directly out of Avengers: Endgame and then loop back into other films (though I admit that in one case, it’s speculation on my part).
First, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. An elderly Steve Rogers has given Sam Wilson the shield and the mantle of Captain America. Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, was not in the running, partially because he still has to atone for the crimes he committed when under Hydra’s control. The series will follow Sam’s earning the trust Steve gave him, and we learned yesterday that he will come into conflict with John Walker, aka USAgent. Since we know that Bucky was known as the White Wolf in the MCU Wakanda, it’s likely that this series will feed into Black Panther II.
As a result of the Snap, Wanda Maximoff released her mental blocks against her power, possibly changing the way her abilities work. Resurrecting her dead lover the Vision, Wanda has insulated them in a picture-perfect 50s sitcom life for the series Wandavision. But just as in the comics, it’s a vision destined not to last, and Wanda will be drawn into the events of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Though Clint Barton will be training Kate Bishop to take on the mantle of Hawkeye, there’s also no doubt he’ll be dealing with some heavy survivor’s guilt for having watched Natasha Romanoff die. It’s probably the most tenuous connection to the movies, but rumor has it we’ll be seeing what really happened in Budapest when Black Widow hits theaters in 2020. And that will affect the action of Hawkeye’s series. It might also make sense that a hero with a bow and arrow with a history of international intrigue might also cross paths with Shang-Chi.
Last but not least, we’ll see what Loki has been up to since escaping with the Tesseract. As this first wave of series go, it’s the furthest out, but it’s been confirmed that it will lead directly to Thor: Blood and Thunder.
We might presume that each of those films also sets up a second season of each of the series. (And yes, there are still two unrelated films, The Eternals and Blade.) But in three years, that gap between theatrical and home video might have gotten smaller, to the point that the movies are just another episode and never making it to theaters at all. Because no one is making it to theaters. And then yesterday yet another wave of series were announced, including Ms. Marvel, who could easily team with Kate Bishop to start a new Avengers team of Champions — which could be a movie or, by that time, there might just not be movies, because why bother? We’re getting our hit of this story fed to us right through our PS5s and XBoxes.
Obviously, people will still go to movies. But Disney will be making it easy not to want to. And once they expand the functionality of their app — and they will — they’ll hold more of our attention. Disney+ is the future of Disney because within five years, it could be the one-stop portal for everything that Disney can survey. And in this case, it didn’t all start with a mouse. It started with a Marvel.