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Disney+ Needs Something Other Than ‘Star Wars’ and Marvel. Is Percy Jackson the Missing Piece?

After the surprising success of Season 1 of ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians,’ Disney might finally have another piece of powerful IP for its streamer to rely on

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Let’s wind back the clock to early March 2021. Disney+ had produced one of the most popular original series across streaming with The Mandalorian and eclipsed 100 million subscribers in just 16 months—Netflix took 10 years to reach that mark—and was mere days away from the highly anticipated premiere of Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. It was not only the hottest new streamer, but a competitive rival positioned to upend Netflix’s commanding, decade-long run at the top of the streaming pecking order.

Almost three years and a combined 12 Star Wars and Marvel live-action television shows later, that’s no longer the case. That’s not to say Disney’s titular streaming service isn’t still one of the most desirable platforms on the market, but there’s no question things have changed quite a bit. Much of its programming has turned stale, and many have grown tired of the capes and lightsabers that continue dominating the Disney+ homepage. At the time of writing it sits near the bottom of The Ringer’s Streaming Wars rankings.

Enter Percy Jackson and the Olympians. The Disney+ original series—adapted from the beloved books of the same name—wrapped up a triumphant first season that finally showed how good a faithful adaptation could be. Percy’s arrival is a breath of fresh air for Disney+ and a much-needed (albeit brief) antidote to its current slump. As the show awaits a likely renewal for a second season, the Greek mythological tale looks as though it may become a solution to the stagnation that’s set in at Disney’s prized streaming service.

The original promise of Disney+ revolved around two things: an infinite well of children’s programming consisting mainly of classic movies from the Disney Vault and Pixar’s iconic animated franchises, and (most thrillingly) a year-round source of brand-new, high-budget Star Wars and Marvel content—all to be enjoyed from the comfort of your home at the affordable price point of just $6.99 per month. (Of course, the price of the ad-free brick has more than doubled since then.) Disney+ boasted a catalog that was as deep as it was buzzy. You could go from rewatching episodes of Hannah Montana to firing up Marvel’s Black Widow on the same day it came out in theaters. And this worked … for a while. Disney+’s presence was felt immediately upon its rollout in late 2019, accumulating more than 10 million sign-ups on its first day and totaling more than 73 million after its first year. The streaming service’s meteoric rise could be charted alongside the mainstream success of The Mandalorian: The Star Wars spinoff won over hard-core fans, garnered critical acclaim, and converted many who were previously agnostic when it came to the galaxy far, far away. Mando became one of the most in-demand streaming originals of that year, beating out Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy and Prime’s The Boys.

Two years later, Disney+ premiered WandaVision, the first TV series to take place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Soon after WandaVision’s finale, the streamer premiered The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in March. And then Loki in June. And then Hawkeye in November. The following year came Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Seven live-action MCU shows in just two years. On the Star Wars side, Disney+ kicked off another connected TV universe with The Book of Boba Fett in December 2021, spun off from the events of The Mandalorian’s second season. The streamer subsequently racked up billions of minutes of watch time and a boatload of new subscribers, peaking at the end of 2022 with more than 164 million.

Things were going well for Disney+ until they weren’t. The breakneck pace allowed Disney to flood the market and dominate the online discourse, but at the expense of quality and at the risk of oversaturation. Amid criticisms of shows like She-Hulk and Boba Fett, complaints from overworked SFX artists, and disappointing box office returns, each new Star Wars and Marvel series was more often greeted with apathy and disappointment than excitement. This all came to a head with the incredibly disappointing release of Marvel’s Secret Invasion. Despite having no shortage of marketable stars—Samuel L. Jackson, Emilia Clarke, and Olivia Colman, to name a few—Secret Invasion became Disney+’s most embarrassing miss. It ranked as the second-lowest premiere audience for an MCU series in the history of the platform, according to Samba TV, and its final episode registered a staggering 7 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the lowest-rated Marvel title of all time among fans.

At this point, it was clear the Disney+ release pattern had to change. Bob Iger admitted as much shortly after his return as Disney’s chief executive. “You pull back not just to focus, but also as part of our cost containment initiative. Spending less on what we make, and making less. … [Marvel] had not been in the television business at any significant level, and not only did they increase their movie output, but they ended up making a number of TV series,” he said last July. “Frankly, it diluted focus and attention.” The industry veteran has since stated that one of Disney’s goals in 2024 is to spend $2 billion less on content. And not even a month after The Marvels bombed in its opening weekend at the box office (it would go on to finish its run as the lowest-grossing MCU film in history), Iger reiterated the need to shake things up: “Quantity, in our case, diluted quality, and Marvel has suffered greatly from that.”

Ironically, Disney+’s recent decline has, in large part, been caused by an overreliance on the same prized IP that fast-tracked it to the top of the Streaming Wars in the first place. It devolved into a two-trick pony in which both tricks became tired and half-baked. To be fair, Disney has tried to fix this. Willow, National Treasure: Edge of History, and American Born Chinese were all attempts at IP expansion—and all of them were canceled after a single season. Disney even went so far as to scrub Willow from its platform entirely, even though the series creator revealed that a follow-up season had already been written. A painful narrative for Disney has emerged: Interest in Star Wars and Marvel is dwindling, and interest in non–Star Wars and non-Marvel originals is practically nonexistent.

Which brings us to that troubled 12-year-old boy from New York, who also happens to be the demigod son of Poseidon. Disney+ met the Percy Jackson property in a similar state of dysfunction. Coming off a botched big-screen attempt in the early 2010s, author Rick Riordan’s story needed a new medium—and Disney+ needed something fresh to diversify its slate. So far it’s turned out to be a match made in Mount Olympus.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians marks the first time that Disney+ has found extended breakout success with something other than its Star Wars and Marvel properties. The show’s two-episode premiere, which was available on both Disney+ and Hulu, brought in 13.3 million viewers in its first six days and debuted on the Nielsen Top 10 streaming chart. Its debut episode was one of the five most-watched season premieres across both Disney+ and Hulu in 2023, matching up closely with the viewership of the premieres of the highly touted Ahsoka and the second season of Loki. Percy didn’t just start fast, either—the audience kept coming back week after week. In mid-January, Disney said that all five episodes that had aired at the time surpassed 10 million views; the premiere had since climbed up past 26 million. Percy also connected with critics, clocking in at 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 73/100 score on Metacritic—vast improvements from its cinematic predecessor.

Percy Jackson has one other thing going for it: opportunity. With more than a dozen books in the universe—a.k.a. The Camp Half-Blood Chronicles—left to adapt, Percy can be a winner for years to come. Season 1 got a head start on laying the groundwork for future seasons, including fleshing out Sally Jackson, introducing Greek gods earlier than in the books, hinting at the Sea of Monsters story line in the finale, and dropping Easter eggs for eagle-eyed viewers. Despite not yet officially receiving the green light for a second season, a writers room is open and executive producer Rebecca Riordan has confirmed the existence of scripts for the would-be opening episodes of Season 2.

While it’s unlikely that Percy will ever reach the heights of Star Wars or Marvel, it’s not far-fetched to think it could develop into a legitimate franchise hit for Disney if given the time, money, and freedom to do so. Disney doesn’t necessarily need another MCU—it simply needs something else besides the MCU. Percy checks all the right boxes. A passionate, at times overzealous, fan base? Check. Four-quadrant appeal? Check. A deep vat of existing source material to pull from? Check. Eases the pressure off Star Wars and Marvel? Check.

Hold fast, Disney+. Brave the storm. Percy Jackson and the Olympians is here to save you.

Editor’s note: Shortly after this piece was published, it was announced that Percy Jackson and the Olympians has been renewed for a second season.