Like more or less everyone I know, I have no desire to see a single entertainment company take over the future, dominating what had been a movie industry of multiple entities, each one fighting for their slice of your attention span. Disney, the movie studio so powerful that it ate another movie studio, looks, to many, like it could be that company. The full impact of its absorption of 20th Century Fox has yet to be felt, but now that the smoke has cleared, the mega-corporation that was formed stands before us like an unprecedented colossus, looming over all other studios, maybe over the entertainment business itself.
Yet let’s be clear: It’s not just, or maybe even primarily, the size of the company that is giving people the shakes. It’s the fact that a single film corporation now seems to own everything worth having — at least, in stark capitalistic blockbuster terms. Disney owns Marvel, it owns “Star Wars,” it owns “Avatar,” it owns the fabled animated features that it has been using to mint live-action-remake megahits as if it were printing money. What’s still on the table — “Godzilla”? The shards of “Harry Potter”? The fumbling-out-of-the-vampire-gate Dark Universe? You can make the case that the merger of Disney and Fox, when you boil out of the feathers, really comes down to the merger of Marvel and “Star Wars.” That sounds like the merger of Christmas and the Fourth of July, with Halloween thrown in as a bonus.
Viewed according to the logic of 21st-century fantasy culture, Disney doesn’t just suddenly own all the properties. It owns all the mythologies. Long ago, Hollywood was called the Dream Factory. The intimidation factor of the new bulked-up, bursting-with-franchise-moxie Disney is the suspicion that a single company has become the Dream Factory. And the anxiety this has provoked is about something beyond market share. What a lot of people are wondering is: Will Disney now have the power to control our dreams?
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That power has long been implicit in the word “Disney.” Walt Disney started off as a hand-drawn rebel visionary, rooting his rise in the scrappy image of Steamboat Willie (i.e., Mickey Mouse), and starting in 1937, the animated films that became the foundation of the Disney empire (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Dumbo,” “Bambi”) were, one after another, astonishing works of art.
It was with the opening of Disneyland, on July 17, 1955, that Disney began to take over our consciousness in a new way. Disneyland was more than a rollicking fun place to visit. It was the foundation stone of virtual reality, a place that turned amusement into “magic,” that made you feel like you were entering into the fantasies the movies had only shown you. It was more than a theme park — it was a looking glass, and you can make the case that as all of us passed through it, we began to enter the zone we’re now in, where everything in American life, from consumer shopping to social media to presidential politics, has become a form of entertainment. If it suddenly seems like the new Disney might own the future, maybe that’s because Walt Disney was so instrumental in creating the future.
To me, though, the fear of Disney is unwarranted in several ways. Make no mistake: I believe it’s possible, in any industry, for a company to get too big, and if it were up to me, the kind of antitrust, anti-monopoly consciousness that was, for a while, a pillar of American lawmaking, and that has gone out of style in our top-down age of corporate favor trading, would make a roaring comeback. Is the new Disney too big? Maybe it is. I’m sure there are metrics involved in the future of streaming that I couldn’t even wrap my head around, and that are all wired into Disney’s master plans. But in the concern over the new company’s monolithic import, a couple of key issues have been lost.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the Hollywood future that’s being fretted about, one that’s dominated in economy and in spirit by Disney, is already here. It’s called the New Fantasy Entertainment State. It started 42 summers ago, with the release of “Star Wars,” and to say that it has been growing ever since would be an understatement; it’s been metastasizing. It includes comic-book movies and space operas and violent action thrillers and immersive video games and theme parks that are like national capitals and fantasy conventions that are like Mecca with Chewbacca and Wonder Woman costumes.
More to the point, though, it includes the merger of all those things. The literal and psychological merger. The video games that are knockoffs of combat films that form the climax of space operas that create the paradigm of intergalactic superhero teams, and on and on. All consumed on the same devices! George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is the most prophetic novel of the 20th century, but the one thing Orwell left out is that in the cold gray überstate of Oceania, there’s a television in every room, and it’s used for surveillance, but it’s not used for entertainment, which — with apologies to religion — is the new opiate of the masses. (It’s what we’re now using to fiddle while Rome burns.)
In a highly thoughtful piece about the new Disney empire, entitled “For the Sake of Cinema, Disney Needs to Be Broken Up,” my colleague Guy Lodge, writing in The Guardian, argues that the company’s dominating might now poses an existential threat to the art and innovation of motion pictures. Sounding a bit like the Bernie Sanders of cinephilia, Guy exquisitely articulates the threat, yet where I disagree with him is that the threat transcends Disney, because it was already here. The movie studios of Hollywood ruthlessly compete, but where they’ve colluded is in the creation of a brash hypnotic fantasy-based theme-park movie culture that’s the enemy of organic cinematic intimacy.
And the ultimate colluder, of course, is the audience. We the people. It’s become de rigueur for film critics to grouse on a regular basis, in their reviews, about the state of blockbuster cinema. And while I’m as guilty as anyone, what I don’t share is the left-wing perception that the movie industry has become the aesthetic equivalent of an oppressive political force, jamming all these junk sequels and reboots and fantasy narcotics down our throats. To a degree, I blame them, but I really blame us, the moviegoers, who vote, week in and week out, with our ticket dollars. We exist in a democratic landscape of entertaining ourselves to death. We have chosen the post-“Star Wars” universe we now live in. To blame the studios seems, to me, a fundamentally misplaced sentiment.
But none of this is the real reason that I think we don’t have to be scared of the new Disney. I said earlier that Disney now owns the key mythologies: Marvel, “Stars Wars,” the roster of animated glory. The company itself surely thinks so; I’m certain, once the merger happened, that there was a feeling among Disney executives of “We’ve got it all!” But the reason they’ve “got it all” isn’t that Disney owns the future. It’s that it owns the past. And if you look closely, you’ll realize that the crucial power surge of the past is already looming up behind it.
This may sound wildly counterintuitive, but the properties that Disney has made the foundation of its new empire have already, to a large degree, been strip mined. Don’t get me wrong: We’ll be seeing “Star Wars” movies and Marvel movies for a long time, and some of them are going to make a lot of money. But take the properties one by one. This December will see the release of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the ninth and final installment of a four-decade-old saga. It’s the last film whose narrative DNA will be tied, in a fundamental way, to the revolutionary film that George Lucas released in 1977. For some of us (and, I believe, for many fans), this series has already dragged on too long, feeding on fumes of nostalgia. After eight movies, if you asked me to name the great “Star Wars” films, my response would be as easy today as it would have been in 1985. I’d say “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” (Okay, I beg your pardon. I’d say “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” and “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back.”)
But why can’t it all just…go on? That’s been the premise of all the prequels and sequels. Yet the audience response to “Solo: A Star Wars Story” was not encouraging. The box-office grosses were downright earthly. Those numbers poked a hole in the “Star Wars” mythology. They didn’t bode well for the spinoffs, the divergent byways, the new sagas to come. “Star Wars,” now that it’s fully severed from the soul of George Lucas, may turn out to be more like any other blockbuster movie series than you think.
As for Marvel, with back-to-back “Avengers” sequels that have each grossed $2 billion worldwide (“Avengers: Endgame” has made close to $3 billion), and with “Captain Marvel” and the first post-Avengers film, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (both of which I liked), each looking at $400 million domestic, how could the future be anything but supernova bright?
Yet the end of the “Avengers” saga is no small thing. These characters — Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk — possess an iconic mojo that’s been rooted, from the start, in just how far back they go. There are many other Marvel characters for Disney to tap, and Black Panther and Captain Marvel are off to fantastic starts, pointing to a comic-book movie future of triumphant diversity. But if there’s an eternal truth in the film industry, it’s that all genres fade. I’m sure Disney is already planning out their reboots (who will be the new Magneto?!), but the magic of the MCU, rooted in multiple overlapping generations of collective comic-book memory, has gone on for a quite a while, and it’s my feeling that it will be a challenge for Disney to sustain it on that level.
And the animated remakes? Disney is going through them like chocolate-covered peanuts. “The Lion King” is the first of them that I think totally works (I agree with every word of Peter Debruge’s rave), but after “Mulan” and “The Lady and the Tramp” and “Snow White,” there won’t be a lot of them left, which makes you wonder: What’s next, live-action versions of the Pixar films? Disney, even before the merger, had already proved itself a master of pillaging its own past, and you could argue that that all really began with Disneyland. Disney’s premise is: Our brands will never get old. But if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that the future is always unpredictable. That’s especially true in the realm of movies. To be scared of the new Disney is really to fear a future that’s probably less than accurate, because it’s a 20-20 reflection of the rearview mirror.