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Jan 5, 2024 | Streaming

Where does Disney go from here?

Disney reigned supreme just a few years back thanks to its comic book movies. Now, they’re the studio’s biggest headache.

Photo: Benjamin Suter / Unsplash

Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson made a bold declaration leading up to the release of his high-profile superhero film “Black Adam” in 2022. Priming audiences for a forthcoming toppling of the “hierarchy of power” within the DC Extended Universe, Johnson was charging toward an eventual clash between his anti-hero and Superman — paving the way for DCEU to perhaps catch up to Marvel. Warner Bros. bet big on the wrestler-turned-actor’s star power, but things quickly got out of hand. Bombing at theaters, Black Adam’s future at DC was quickly cut off, and the studio instead chose for a complete reboot.

This was, in retrospect, a sign that cracks were beginning to emerge in the superhero-film model — a genre that dominated box offices for most of the previous two decades. What followed was a year of mediocre sequels that drew in less money than their predecessors and a near-historic low for Disney. It was the first time since 2015 that the Mouse House was not the global box office leader.

It wasn’t that the audiences were reluctant to visit theaters owing to superhero fatigue. Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” was one of the highest-grossing films of the year, nearly doubling the box office revenue from “Into the Spider-Verse.” Disney’s only real box office success came with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” even if it failed to live up to expectations. The top performers of 2023 — “Barbie” and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” — were both based on well-known IP, having opened the floodgates to previously closed-off intellectual libraries.

Disney’s position has changed drastically over the last couple of years: The company was trying to topple Netflix by burning large piles of cash to make its streaming service work — and it worked for a while. Investors cheered even as they lost billions, probably because everyone recognized the perpetual decline that cable TV is undergoing. Now, the company is searching for ways to manage its losses while struggling to retain audiences after a barrage of redundant films.

Following “The Marvels” failing on multiple levels, Disney CEO Bob Iger made a bold statement, acknowledging that the studio needs to be “more realistic” and account for exhaustion on the creative end. Where then, does the studio go from here?

Comic book stories have changed the industry remarkably, and even for a bad year, Disney raked in billions of dollars at the box office — signifying that they just need to look for the right stories to make rather. Churning out multiple shows or movies every month only adds to the disarray. Something similar is already underway at the DCEU, as the newly-anointed co-lead James Gunn has detailed a more interconnected road map for DC that brings in several characters that have largely been sidelined from pop culture. This has meant canceling projects and even releasing movies that are irrelevant to the big picture, but it is a move meant to offer the interconnectivity and stability that has long evaded the studio.

Marvel will continue to expand its roster of heroes as it spends most of the time fabricating vaguely related adventures that eventually end up coalescing into one single event. This makes keeping up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe a headache for the casual viewer — and the recent time-travel shenanigans have only added to the confusion. Almost every Marvel story now spends much of its time explaining what’s going on or the events that led up to the present.

Watching every film needs to be preceded by extensive homework, and audiences are simply overwhelmed. An eventual universe-wide reset promised a refresher, but even those plans are in jeopardy since it lost its primary villain. The studio has indubitably looking to turn things around — searching for a new villain to carry the narrative, restructuring how it makes TV, and even considering bringing back heroes previously put to rest.