With Tuesday’s launch of Disney+, Disney has now entered, to borrow two of Marvel’s favorite buzzwords, Phase 1 of its plan for hegemonic streaming domination. There are a lot of new players trying to gain a foothold in the streaming wars—Apple TV+ also launched earlier this month, HBO Max and Peacock are scheduled to arrive next year, and Quibi is presumably going to be an actual thing—but Disney+ already carries undeniable momentum, thanks to a low subscription fee and a tantalizing library of big-name IP. Unsurprisingly, the centerpiece of the first batch of Disney+ original programming is an extension of something that’s already ridiculously popular: The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars series and a celebration of the franchise’s long history of cool bounty hunters. Banking on something from a galaxy far, far away resonating with lots of people seems like a low-risk proposition for the new streamer—Solo’s tepid box office performance notwithstanding.
The success of Disney+, however, won’t be solely defined by how much subscribers like/watch The Mandalorian, which is just one glitzy cog in the monolithic Disney machine. The company plans to have more than 50 original shows on its service by 2024—from additional Star Wars shows to a Lizzie McGuire TV sequel to Forky sharing his existential dread with children. But it’s hard to have any conversation about Disney’s dominance without bringing up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the thing that Martin Scorsese opines is not cinema but that has nevertheless changed the Hollywood landscape over the past decade.
While the MCU can lay claim to several box office behemoths—including Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing movie of all time—the franchise’s approach is more akin to a long-running TV series than to traditional blockbuster filmmaking. You can certainly watch and enjoy a Marvel movie on its own terms, but getting the full picture means having familiarity with all the films that preceded it. (Like all the Infinity Stone nonsense prior to Avengers: Infinity War.) And as much as directors like Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler try to leave their unique stamp on a Marvel movie, they all must, to some extent, adhere to the MCU house style: a confluence of sitcom-esque one-liners, generic CGI action, and a post-credits scene (or two) to convince you to watch the next film in the assembly line. That’s just what Marvel does, really effectively, and its success isn’t necessarily replicable—just ask DC about the (literal) dark days of Zack Snyder, or ask Universal about its hilariously ill-fated “Dark Universe.”
But instead of being like TV, what if the MCU became TV itself? That’s among the biggest developments happening at Disney+, which will incorporate original shows starring MCU heroes from the big screen beginning in fall 2020 with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. (Other MCU shows on the docket include WandaVision, Loki, and an untitled Hawkeye series, all of which would air in 2021.) This is all part of “Phase 4” of the MCU, as Marvel demands that its most fastidious fans treat Disney+ MCU shows as canon because, well, they are—not watching them will mean missing out on theoretically important plot machinations in upcoming films. As MCU head Kevin Feige told Bloomberg earlier this month, the Disney+ Marvel shows are going to explicitly tie into the movies, using WandaVision as an example of a show that will connect to the Doctor Strange sequel. Beyond that, heroes who will eventually make their big-screen MCU debuts—She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, and Moon Knight—are going to be seen on their respective Disney+ shows beforehand, so their cinematic introductions might be really difficult to understand without the proper streaming context. So, uh, yeah—as if the MCU didn’t already feel culturally ubiquitous.
It’s important to stress this development is quite different from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s meandering existence on ABC, or the gritty shows from the now-defunct Netflix-Marvel universe, which were enjoyable on their own terms but never had meaningful revelations related to the MCU movies. (At most, the Netflix-Marvel shows would vaguely allude to the incident in New York that decimated the city, a.k.a. when bad-guy aliens showed up at the end of The Avengers.) But moving forward, the MCU doesn’t want to delineate between Marvel movies and Marvel shows: Thanks to Disney+ they’ll happily coexist, feeding into each other’s respective narratives. And given how insatiable moviegoers have been for MCU content, the company doesn’t expect consumers to have much of a problem with the idea.
I suppose $6.99 a month isn’t a ridiculous commitment to make in exchange for more Marvel (and Pixar, and Star Wars, and Disney animated films) if you’re a fan of the movies, but Disney setting this precedent with the MCU could be replicated with other things. What if the new Obi-Wan Kenobi series somehow becomes integral to the new Rian Johnson–led Star Wars trilogy on the big screen? What if something similar happens with the Cassian Andor show? (Note: It would be totally OK if Lucasfilm did decide to let Diego Luna fulfill his greatest fantasy and touch Jabba the Hutt’s slimy skin.) What if, one day, we hear this cursed term: The Pixar Cinematic Universe.
The butterfly effect of this corporate synergy could be big, if only because the MCU is such a popular enterprise that it’s hard to imagine this Marvel-Disney+ experiment being anything but a fruitful endeavor. Scorsese’s own concerns with Marvel movies had more to do with their lack of genuine stakes—hard agree!—and how the MCU’s box office hegemony has resulted in fewer creative risks from major studios while reducing opportunities for aspiring auteurs to get any eyeballs on their work. (Even Scorsese, one of the greatest living filmmakers on the planet, couldn’t get The Irishman financed by a major Hollywood studio before Netflix swooped in to foot the bill.) This Marvel interconnectivity between the big and small screens doesn’t necessarily make things better or worse for those types of films and would-be auteurs, but it does highlight the extent to which Disney wants to make the MCU the centerpiece of all the entertainment you consume, making it so that you have even less time to watch other things. It’s no longer enough to go to the theater a couple of times a year to check out the latest Marvel movie—now you’re gonna have to watch all the Disney+ shows to fully “get” the MCU.
It’s hard to discern the extent to which Feige’s master plan was set when he helped kick-start the MCU with Iron Man in 2008. The “Avengers initiative” was obviously something Feige and Co. flirted with from the start, but a handful of releases leading up to and connecting with The Avengers feels downright quaint compared with the 20-plus films required to fully grasp the self-referential beats of Endgame. But Disney+ becoming the home of small-screen MCU projects might be the culmination of its corporate strategy, the final step in a decades-long journey of Marvel’s overwhelming, overbearing dominance. Or, at least, it feels like a final step. Who knows, maybe in five years Disney will be like, “Find out what really happened to Ultron, exclusively on the Marvel app.” (Oh God, I hope I didn’t will this into existence.)
While the incorporation of Disney+ shows won’t matter too much for a Marvel completist, it sure feels like casual fans looking for a chill, low-stakes superhero commitment have become increasingly entrapped in a limitless web of cinematic interconnectivity. Marvel movies, bolstered by some of the most famous actors on the planet, can be very entertaining—but the more intricate and wide-ranging the MCU becomes, the more keeping track of all the heroes, villains, and shiny MacGuffins starts to feel like a homework assignment, which is kind of antithetical to the blockbuster theatrical experience. Maybe that’s why the newest DC movies, like Aquaman, have become such a refreshing change of pace—a knowingly silly product (see: Pitbull’s truly iconic cover of Toto’s “Africa”) that doesn’t have any pretensions outside of setting up a sequel, and perhaps a spinoff about the Trench. (I’ll take this all back if an executive at Warner Bros. ever says the words “Trench Cinematic Universe.”)
But given how many people are already invested in the MCU—or at least care enough to help Endgame become the biggest movie in history, and to push Spider-Man: Far From Home across the billion-dollar threshold a few months later—it’s unlikely there will be a huge outcry over the insistence that fans need to watch the Disney+ shows to get the full Marvel experience. Over the past 11 years, the MCU’s suckered so many of us in, morphing into a pop culture force as inevitable as Thanos. At this point, it doesn’t matter who snaps their fingers.