Disney has turned all of Hollywood into a recycling machine—obsessed with wringing every last penny from throwback content. In part two of this series on the Disney effect, we look at the company’s recent flops—and whether they spell the beginning of the end of its ‘nostalgia strategy’.
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali & Anannya Parekh
Editor’s note: ICYMI, in part one, we looked at Disney's obsessive focus on reboots, sequels and spinoffs–and how it changed every aspect of Hollywood–from demoting movie stars to killing romcoms and thrillers.
The ‘everything’ fatigue
Over the past decade, the company became an entertainment godzilla by buying up rights to everything you ever loved watching. And the strategy of squeezing out endless sequels, reboots and spinoffs seemed to be working really well. As of 2021, 24 Marvel titles collectively grossed $21.9 billion for Disney. And its imitators—like DC which created its own superhero universe—appeared to be thriving as well. Almost anything that was old and good—‘Sex and The City’, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ or ‘The Mummy’—was reheated and served.
But over the last year, there have been ominous signs of audience exhaustion.
Superhero fatigue: The latest superhero offering ‘The Flash’ bombed at the box office—despite being touted as “the second coming of ‘Citizen Kane’.” And DC really needed a win after its two previous superhero movies, ‘Black Adam’ and ‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ bombed last year. And yet it has only earned $135.7 million at the box office. The reviews were brutal. And now everyone is talking about ‘superhero fatigue’:
Yet for the first time… since the launch of the MCU, which was 15 years ago last month (when “Iron Man” was released in the U.S.), superhero fatigue is palpable. You can read it in the numbers… You can feel it in Chris Hemsworth’s blithe willingness to trash last summer’s “Thor” sequel... You can feel it in the reviews: the jadedness of critics when it comes to sitting through another warmed-over version of these tropes, that CGI, all that interconnected multiverse busy-ness, with less at stake each time.
The sheer volume—and therefore complexity—of these universes now feels exhausting:
Every superhero franchise is now weighed down with the baggage of earlier films, so a genre that used to be about the exhilarating thrill of forward motion is no longer going anywhere fast. For the viewer, it's getting difficult to remember who is in the Avengers, who is playing the Joker, whether Wolverine is alive or dead, and whether Venom is in Sony's Spider-Man Universe or the Marvel Cinematic Universe or some other universe altogether. Superhero films now seem to have more of a past than a future. They're exhausted, and so are their viewers.
More of the same: Not to belabour the point, but there has been plenty of raging about remakes, as well. As ScreenRant notes, only one Disney live-action reboot has a better rating than the animated original—‘The Jungle Book’. And the underwhelming numbers of the new ‘Little Mermaid’ haven't bucked the trend.
But, but, but: The blockbuster success of the latest instalments of the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy' and ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ suggest otherwise. So what’s going on? For one, people seem far more willing to come out for the familiar and well-loved superhero or franchise—rather than a lazy reboot of “low-cost source material left languishing in baby boomers’ attics and long boxes.”
The desperate attempt to spin out lesser known and loved characters isn’t going to work. Or as Variety puts it: “That’s what everyone is tired of: when a comic-book movie looks and feels like every other damn comic-book movie. And the more of them that come out, the more that will happen.”
Is this the end of the recycle era?
The short answer: no. But we may see studios favour quality over quantity as they look to cut costs.
The first cutbacks: No one reads the signs better than Disney. CEO Bob Iger has already acknowledged “there is too much product out there”—and revealed plans to stagger the release of its future franchise flicks. More recently, he said: “Sequels typically work well for us, but do you need a third or a fourth, for instance?” Warner Bros has now killed a number of superhero projects—including ‘Batgirl’ and ‘Wonder Twins’. As studios rush to cut costs, the days of mindless universe-building may be over.
But, but, but: Hollywood today is owned by corporate investors—who are the real decision makers. They are under tremendous pressure in an uncertain financial climate. That’s why Iger told Disney investors that he will “doubl[e] down on its big brands like Marvel and Frozen, time-tested profit-makers, while slashing spending on more risky ‘general entertainment’ fare.”
As one expert explains, Hollywood always turns to the comfort of recycled content in times of economic upheaval—be it the 2008 recession or the 2020 pandemic:
In these moments, audiences find themselves with less disposable income in their pockets and Hollywood knows that, as a result, cinema ticket sales will take a hit. As a consequence, the studios' appetite for risk collapses and they turn to safe bets that they can guarantee will get bums on seats.
Point to note: It is also unlikely that anyone in the C-suite missed the astonishing success of two Tom Cruise-led sequels to ‘Mission Impossible’ and ‘Top Gun.’ As Variety puts it:
[R]ehashing the same old crap, over and over, and expecting people to show up for it is what Hollywood has done for 40 years. And — news flash! — it works. More often than it doesn’t. And more consistently than originality.
The bottomline: Hollywood today is owned by corporations—who prefer the safety of content that has a built-in audience and proven track record—and which they already own. We now live in the era of IP-driven entertainment and it isn’t going to change anytime soon—whether we are ‘fatigued’ or not.
BBC News is very good on superhero fatigue—as is this Ringer piece on ‘The Flash’. The Atlantic reveals how Pixar became a victim of Disney’s monetisation strategy. Worth reading: Martin Scorcese on why Marvel flicks are not really cinema. Vox argues that there is no such thing as a new idea—using ‘Little Mermaid’ as an example. Jacobin is very good at laying out how corporate investors have changed what you see on the screen. This Variety column pushes back at the idea of franchise fatigue.