In recent days, trading on Disney’s stock hit record highs, a short-term indicator the company succeeded with their much-hyped presentation of upcoming films and shows. But the long-term outcome is a more complex story. After all, over the past year, Disney laid off more than 30,000 employees (mostly related to still-closed theme parks) and streaming video platforms have not yet proven the profit potential of theatrical releases.
Over a four-hour unveiling that resembled Comic Con, Disney executives and producers announced 52 new TV series and movies. The majority will be exclusive to streaming service Disney Plus, with a few theatrical releases sprinkled in (unlike WarnerMedia’s HBOMax plans, Disney has managed not to tick off dozens of top actors and directors with its strategy.)
Hollywood media has already spent a lot of virtual ink pouring over every release, even though many will not premiere for two or three years. Indeed, some projects in development are likely to never materialize.
To analyze big-picture trends and provide need-to-know details on Disney’s mega event, here are five insights on how the Magic Kingdom plans to rule your living room TV set.
1. Marvel Studios TV Series Will Rule 2021
Two years ago, Marvel President Kevin Feige and his team began an ambitious plan: to integrate several TV series into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that has dominated the global box office since 2008’s “Iron Man.” Audiences will finally get their first taste of it when speculative sci-fi series “WandaVision” premieres on Jan. 15. It stars Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen reprising their superhero roles from several “Avengers” films.
As soon as that six-episode series concludes, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” starring Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan will premiere in March. Reportedly, it’s an action-packed political thriller in the vein of hit MCU film “Captain America: The Winter Solider.” On the heels of that show, in May, Tom Hiddleston returns as “Loki” in a time-traveling series that follows directly from the events of “Avengers: Endgame.”
Essentially, for the next six months, fans of Marvel films will have new TV episodes to enjoy every weekend on Disney Plus. These initial series particularly look compelling. Further out, it’s hard to judge the quality or originality of such entries as “Secret Invasion,” “Ms. Marvel,” “Hawkeye,” “She-Hulk,” “Ironheart,” and a host of others.
2. Half the Star Wars Output Looks Worth Viewing
In summer 2018, the unthinkable happened for Disney: “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” a big-budget entry in their crown-jewel franchise, flopped at the box office. Released six months after the widely panned-by-fans “The Last Jedi,” many took it as retaliation. Then-Disney CEO Bob Iger later admitted about their wall-to-wall Star Wars strategy: “We might’ve put a little bit too much in the marketplace too fast.”
Fast-forward two years and Disney has apparently ret-conned that admission. On Thursday, Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy announced ten new projects set in a galaxy far, far away—seven TV series, two films, and “The Mandalorian” continuing for several seasons—coming in the next three years.
Without trailers, skeptical longtime Star Wars fans have lately learned how to gauge the potential of future projects. Is story guru Dave Filoni listed as producer or executive producer? If yes, add to the watch list.
Thankfully, Filoni is behind at least four of these projects: “The Bad Batch,” an explosive continuation of his “Clone Wars” animated series, along with “The Mandalorian” and its two live-action spin-off series: “Ahsoka” starring Rosario Dawson and “Rangers of the New Republic.”
One other Star Wars miniseries, “Andor” from “Rogue One” writer/producer Tony Gilroy slated for 2022 release, looks promising and even old-school in its production approach. Time and previews should tell what’s worthwhile.
3. Disney’s ‘Mature Content’ Strategy Is a Confusing Mess
Since launch, family-friendly Disney Plus has relegated R-rated titles to companion U.S. streaming service Hulu. Now they throw a wrench into that with Disney Plus Star, offered only internationally for the time being.
Billed as a selection of R-rated and TV-MA “general entertainment” titles, all global subscribers will be charged for Star, although users must opt-in to access those titles. Disney’s convergence into mature content can be seen in a surprising Kardashians mention on their Twitter handle:
The Kardashian Jenners will create new global content under a multi-year deal, to stream exclusively on Hulu in the U.S. and in multiple territories on Star internationally. pic.twitter.com/dqO3MVaPKB
— Disney (@Disney) December 10, 2020
Star creates confusion on two fronts. In the United States, some Disney Plus subscribers are miffed they cannot yet access Star “mature content” titles.
On the flip side, integrating hundreds of R-rated films into Disney Plus internationally raises questions for parents wanting to limit access for little ones. Disney’s initial fact sheet on Star claims that “new parental controls will include the ability to set limits on access to content for specific profiles, based on content ratings.”
With the most extensive parental controls of any streamer, Netflix reveals such tech features do not always serve families’ needs well. Because streaming services set ratings for their own shows, it often leads to inconsistent standards. On Netflix, superhero films with comic violence are rated the same as TV-14 titles like “Atypical” with sexual content and harsh profanities. Bottom line: R-rated titles are currently on Hulu and not Disney Plus in the United States, but parents should be aware of how things are shifting.
4. Disney Has Narrowed Its Family Entertainment Definition
At the same time Disney is opening the floodgates to mature content globally, the way it defines its core brand seems to be narrowing. When Walt Disney set their slate of family entertainment, historically grounded films like “The Great Locomotive Chase” and “Johnny Tremain” earned solid reviews, as did musicals like “Summer Magic,” while on TV swashbuckling adventure series “Zorro” was a ratings hit. (Curiously, none of those legacy titles are currently on Disney Plus.)
Today, Disney seems to have a few distinct molds it uses for one film after another. For instance, their animation division has made a cultural impact with female protagonists like “Moana” and the “Frozen” sisters: spirited, independent, combat-ready princesses who overcome adversity with dreams and songs.
In March, Disney will introduce “Raya” chiseled from that same cast (albeit set in Asian locales), and a preview of their fall musical “Encanto” mentioned a similar teenage Colombian female protagonist. It all starts to run together, which is also a common criticism of Marvel’s on-screen universe.
A brand-driven, risk-averse approach to moviemaking leaves little room for stories and franchises that surprise and challenge audiences. This has been evident with the Muppets, which Disney purchased in 2004. Even if the Jim Henson-created colorful comedy troupe has no new productions upcoming, perhaps Disney Plus could release a few of the Muppets’ missing titles? Or some of those based-on-true-stories films the studio used to produce?
5. Some Releases Might Capture What Families Love About Disney
Among those 52 announced films and series, some stand out as likely to deliver stories beyond cookie-cutter expectations. For audiences older than age 12, look for a dramatic miniseries on the founder of biotech company Theranos, which raised $700 million from investors in what federal investigators later called “an elaborate, years-long fraud.” “Saturday Night Live” alum Kate McKinnon stars in “The Dropout,” a miniseries coming soon to Hulu.
Disney Plus subscribers of any generation will appreciate that National Geographic seems poised to significantly up its game. Big-budget nature series “America the Beautiful” promises to highlight natural wonders from sea to shining sea. NatGeo’s acclaimed “Genius” anthology series, dramatized in a co-production from Ron Howard, will bring the life story of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to new audiences.
Slated for this spring on Disney Plus, “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” features Lauren Graham (“Parenthood,” “Gilmore Girls”) as a hockey mom whose son was cut from the team. She sets out to start an upstart rival to the dominant Ducks, enlisting former coach Gordon Bombay (franchise star Emilio Estevez). This series looks like it will offer some fun story twists along with the requisite nostalgia trip.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see the first year of Disney Plus as a “soft launch,” with 2021 finally delivering on promises of top-tier new series from Marvel and Star Wars. Whether the streaming service will honor Disney’s century-long legacy of family films remains to be seen.