The control Disney has on pop culture right now is so enormous it’s kind of terrifying. Marvel’s superhero movies and Star Wars are two of—if not the—biggest franchises in the world. Add those to Pixar’s beloved library of films and its own perennially popular movies, and Disney is effectively in charge of an enormous percentage of what people watch. What it doesn’t own outright, its dominance influences.
Obviously, it’s not like Disney was hurting for entertainment power prior to 2010, but acquiring Marvel was its first step in its progression from major force to unbeatable juggernaut. On December 31, 2009, the Walt Disney Company finalized a deal to buy Marvel Entertainment for $4.3 billion. I doubt the transaction was done at a New Year’s Eve party—although I suspect champagne was opened anyway—but in terms of welcoming in the upcoming decade, Disney couldn’t have done better. No one knew it then, but it was the company’s first move into a new era of entertainment—with the TV and film industry evolving at a rapid pace—an era Disney has completely conquered.
The Disney/Marvel deal has been so successful for the company it’s genuinely difficult to remember that Disney’s decision to buy Marvel was once considered weird. Prior to 2010, the company had been laser-focused on exceedingly family-friendly (i.e., kid-targeted) content pretty much since Walt created his first Mickey Mouse. In purely entertainment terms, the company’s biggest license acquisitions thus far had been Pixar and the Muppets.
The primary audience of Marvel’s nascent movie business, along with its comics, meanwhile, was decidedly targeted toward teens and nostalgia-driven adults. This was a new audience for Disney, but a potentially lucrative one, given the success of the PG-13 superhero movies of the post-X-Men era. Marvel Studios only had two movies under its belt, 2008's surprise success Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton (profitable but unremarkable) which had fans worried that Disney would recalibrate the movies to serve its PG audience base. A few even feared that Disney might shut down Marvel Comics entirely because the comics business was so comparatively tiny to everything else Disney produced. Whoever was asking, the main question was not “Will Disney change Marvel?” but this: “How will Disney change Marvel?”
The first Marvel movie that Disney officially distributed was 2012’s Avengers, by which time superhero fans had breathed a sigh of relief. Wisely—if perhaps surprisingly—Disney decided not to mess with the company’s increasing success, and let Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige continue to steer the ship, resulting in movies that as often as not have grossed over a billion dollars. What Disney did was have the means to allow Marvel to increase production, to the point that we’ve received three Marvel Cinematic Universe films a year since 2017—and audiences are pretty much showing up for all of them. In fact, the 16 MCU movies Disney has distributed—not counting the two Sony-owned Spider-Man films—have made over $18 billion, and of course there are plenty more movies on the way.
Half of the decade’s 10 highest-grossing movies are Marvel movies, namely the four Avengers films and Black Panther. But Disney also has two more titles in the top 10 of the 2010s, the first being recent CGI Lion King, which is a good reminder that Disney still has plenty of kid-friendly intellectual properties to make additional bank on. The second, and the second highest-grossing movie of the decade overall, is, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Disney announced it would be buying Lucasfilm and all things Star Wars on October 30, 2012, for $4.05 billion, adding another of entertainment’s most profitable franchises to its growing empire. There hadn’t been a new Star Wars movie for a full decade, but Disney fixed that quickly; on the same day, it announced a movie that would eventually be titled The Force Awakens—the first in a sequel trilogy, to premiere in 2015, with more to follow.
When The Rise of Skywalker premieres in December, Disney will have released five of the 11 total Star Wars movies in a mere five years. Although the franchise will take a cinematic break afterward for a few years, following the underperformance of Solo, suffice to say the purchase of the Star Wars license has been an overall good deal for Disney shareholders and nerds alike.
Considering Marvel and Star Wars tend to dominate the pop culture headlines, it’s worth remembering that Disney spent the 2010s doing some other stuff, too. It kept churning out beloved Pixar movies while discovering live-action remakes of their beloved classics could be huge moneymakers. It won six Oscar for Best Animated Feature in a row, from 2012-17. It somehow managed to get Sony to let it borrow Spider-Man for a while. It added Avatar and Star Wars-themed areas to its theme parks, as well as an entirely new Disneyland in Shanghai. Hell, it bought 20th Century Fox earlier this year, a deal which among other things, matters because it gets the X-Men movie rights back to Marvel Studios, where it will almost certainly turn them into billions and billions of dollars.
The fact that Disney gobbled up one of Hollywood’s oldest, biggest studios like it was nothing should be all the proof you need to realize how the company has come to dominate the entertainment industry. If you’d like to see more, all you have to do is look around the rest of the entertainment industry’s ravaged landscape. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is as much Disney’s success as it is Marvel’s, and its very existence has fucked everybody else up.
The idea of the MCU—making each movie part of a single story you can’t miss any part of—is a recipe for success that so many studios have tried to emulate, and none of them have succeeded. We all know how Warner Bros. tried to speed-build its own with DC’s superheroes, which fell like a house of cards and left its DC movie plans a mess it’s still trying to figure out. Universal began its “Dark Universe” series of films that made it as far as a single movie, The Mummy. Legendary Pictures says the U.S. Godzilla films take place in a Monsterverse with Skull Island’s Kong, although they won’t meet until Godzilla vs. Kong next year.
My personal favorite was Paramount’s announcement of the Hasbro Cinematic Universe, which would consist of a new G.I.Joe film and four of the least remembered toylines of the ‘80s. Even if any of these studios had succeeded in creating new, long-running franchises, none of them would stand a chance against the combined box office might of Disney’s offerings.
And if you thought Disney was going to rest on its laurels after that, you’d be wrong. It has another world left to conquer—streaming services. On November 12, the company launched Disney+, entering a crowded market filled by Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and more than a few others, which is why each service has gone out of its way to make its own, original, exclusive content. What none of these other services have, however, is original, exclusive content based on the two most-profitable film franchises in the world.
Disney+ premiered with The Mandalorian, the first-ever live-action Star Wars TV series. It will also eventually hold eight shows not just set in the MCU (as other Marvel shows have been), but starring major characters from the movies, and two additional Star Wars shows. All of that is backed by Disney’s vast library of movie and TV content—and, more importantly, the only location where you can stream its future blockbusters. It remains to be seen how many subscribers Netflix and the others will lose to Disney+, but suffice to say none of them are happy about the competition.
That’s because Disney tends to win. It’s become the dominant force in the movie industry by an enormous margin. It owns the two most lucrative properties in pop culture. I can’t think of a studio or company that could even loosen Disney’s hold on the market at this point, let alone challenge it. Right now, I don’t think fans would want anyone to, because Disney has been making nerds’ dreams come true. They’re getting more Marvel superhero content than anyone could have ever dreamed of getting in 2010, and an entirely new, exciting era of Star Wars has begun. Guys, a Star Wars theme park exists now—and we’re in the midst of the first season of the first live-action Star Wars TV series ever. These things almost certainly wouldn’t have happened without Disney.
But as magical as things may seem right now, someone has to lose a game for someone else to win, and there’s a cost to pay for Disney’s dominance. The entire Star Wars Expanded Universe had to die for The Force Awakens to be made. Fox’s Deadpool may lose a little of his R-rated edge to join the MCU, and we may never see that great-looking New Mutants film that got made. Who knows what a decade of DC superhero movies would have looked like in a world where Marvel didn’t make them look like idiots multiple times a year, panicking them into trying to follow hurriedly in its footsteps. Perhaps most importantly, 2019 is closing the Avengers era of Marvel movies and Star Wars’ Skywalker saga, the overarching stories that have driven both franchises’ success. What they will be going forward remains to be seen.
Disney’s entertainment dominance has given nerds a lot to be grateful for, and because it’s won, it’s easy to believe we’ve won, too. But don’t forget: We aren’t actually on Disney’s team. We’re the pieces on the game board.
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