‘Avengers Endgame’ and ‘Star Wars The Force Awakens’
Disney, Marvel and Lucasfilm
Will audiences care about the MCU without Iron Man, Captain America and the “Infinity Saga?” Will audiences still care about Star Wars movies that aren’t about the Skywalkers?
Despite the near-daily “Egad!” news stories concerning their respective franchises, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Disney’s Star Wars brand are both at least moderately healthy. Yes, I’m disturbed that Scott Dickerson ended up leaving the director’s chair for Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. I’m curious that Lucasfilm and/or Disney just now apparently realized that Deborah Chow’s planned Obi-Wan Kenobi mini-series was similar enough to The Mandalorian to merit a delay. I like Anna Borden and Ryan Fleck pre-MCU films, they didn’t (at least in terms of pop culture awareness) make as much of an impact with Captain Marvel compared to, for example, Ryan Coogler on Black Panther or Taiki Waititi on Thor: Love and Thunder. It’s dispiriting to see what we might have gotten in Colin Trevorrow’s Star Wars: Duel of the Fates via leaked scripts and preproduction artwork, but we shouldn’t judge a theoretical film against a finished product.
With Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker being something of a critical and (relative) commercial disappointment (it’ll earn less than Rogue One here and abroad), news of a delay for Ewan McGregor’s Disney+ episodic seems to play to “Disney is losing it” narratives. Maybe it is a panicky reaction to Rise of Skywalker. Maybe it’s just another behind-the-scenes snafu that has plagued every (live-action) Disney Star Wars project save for The Last Jedi and The Mandalorian. Maybe Lucasfilm and Disney realize that they shouldn’t have rushed Rise of Skywalker into theaters during a year where they already have surefire mega-smashes like Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Aladdin, Toy Story 4, The Lion King and Frozen II on deck. If Rise of Skywalker was rushed for the same reason Maleficent: Mistress of Evil was moved to October 2019, to get this prime content onto Disney+ that much faster, maybe Disney isn’t making the same mistake.
As for the MCU news, there are two pessimistic presumptions about Derrickson leaving Doctor Strange 2. Doomsday theory number 01: He and Kevin Feige clashed over to what extent Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sorcerer Supreme flick should be Marvel’s first horror movie. It was odd to hear Feige downplay that genre appropriation after the SDCC announcements. The “It’s not a superhero movie, it’s a (insert genre) flick!” has been a critical marketing tool. Disney and Marvel successfully sold the Russo Bros.’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014 as essentially “Alan J. Pakula meets Tom Clancy with Captain America.” That it was better Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit that opened several weeks prior was a big part of why it earned $259 million domestic and $714 million worldwide and paved the way for Marvel’s blockbuster dominance. Feige’s “It’s more of an Amblin-style scary movie” disclaimer was odd, especially as DC Films just did that with Shazam!
The second “doomsday theory” is that there were disagreements over how integrated this summer 2021 feature film should be with the (now debuting in 2020) Disney+ WandaVision episodic. We knew that WandaVision would tie into The Multiverse of Madness and that Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlett Witch would be prominently featured in the Strange flick. We don’t yet know the extent to which Feige and company were bluffing when they stated that Disney+ shows would be integral to Marvel movies. One key reason Marvel became the dominant blockbuster franchise was that it was, contrary to popular belief, exceptionally newbie-friendly. There was an expectation that audiences would show up for each “big” Avengers movie, but you did not have to see Thor: The Dark World to enjoy Black Panther. You didn’t have to watch Agents of Shield to understand Ant-Man and the Wasp. The inter-connectivity was a seasoning, not the main course.
It is possible Marvel and/or Disney are really going all-in for connecting the Disney+ TV shows with the theatrical feature films. It’s a risky gambit, but A) Marvel has made very few false steps since The Avengers turned them into a powerhouse and B) it’ll be something to differentiate the Marvel content arriving after the conclusion of the “Infinity Saga.” Maybe Disney is willing to risk theatrical downturn due to audiences losing track of the big picture in order to spur Disney+ subscriptions, safe in the knowledge that consumers will eventually consume all of this MCU content in one platform or another. Or maybe the inter-connectivity between the movies and the shows will be somewhat execrated and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness will open with a cheeky “for those who came in late” WandaVision recap. If this is how goes, hire Michael Peña’s Ant-Man character to do the recaps.
The Star Wars situation is more complicated. Four out of the five new Star Wars movies have suffered from rushed productions, copious reshoots, director replacements and the like. Nonetheless, those first five Star Wars movies, four of which came out “fine,” have also earned $5.9 billion worldwide on a combined budget of $1.25 billion. Although it is ironic that that one film that wasn’t rushed and went smooth as silk (Why do you think Lucasfilm offered Rian Johnson his own trilogy before his movie even opened?) was The Last Jedi, which earned rave pre-release reviews (and $1.33 billion worldwide) but set off a two-year online debate about its quality and/or whether it was too much of a deconstructionist fable for traditionalist fans. For that matter, the one flop, Solo ($394 million), was destined to flop almost no matter what, since audiences (especially overseas) didn’t want a young Han Solo prequel.
Kevin Feige’s MCU can offer both new characters from the comics world and sequels to previous solo superhero flicks with an emphasis on inclusivity and diversity to make the next batch different from the deluge of “white guys named Chris” flicks. Kathleen Kennedy’s Lucasfilm has to make up new Star Wars stories and new Star Wars characters from scratch. They also have to contend with a fanbase that is bitterly divided over what a Star Wars movie should be, with the loudest naysayers dominating the debate in an SEO-fueled media environment, for a franchise that won’t be dropping three or four varied movies (along with a few TV shows) every year. Each film and each TV show will represent *Star Wars* to the masses for better or worse in a way that each MCU movie won’t. Without the Skywalker story as a linchpin, it will be a challenge.
That’s the other thing that links these two significant Disney properties. They are both finding their way, with possible growing pains to be expected, without the very things that made them so damn popular in the first place. Every major theatrical Star Wars movie has either been about the Skywalker family and related characters or tangentially connected to the core “Empire versus Rebellion” narrative that made up Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. That goes for the cartoons as well. The Clone Wars takes place between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars: Rebels takes place just before A New Hope and Rise of the Resistance takes place before/during the events of the most recent Rey/Kylo trilogy. We have no idea how audiences will respond to Star Wars movies that aren’t at least somewhat related to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Leia Organa.
It is possible that this next Star Wars movie, due on December 16, 2022, will be about as well-received as Jupiter Ascending or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Even Alita: Battle Angel earned more ($405 million) than Solo. That’s partially why the mixed reception to Rise of Skywalker “matters.” More realistically speaking, this post-Skywalker Star Wars saga may have to settle for runner-up status against, at least in 2022, James Wan’s Aquaman 2 which opens on the same day. That’s especially true overseas where the Star Wars brand isn’t nearly as strong as it is in North America. If Walt Disney can acclimate to a Star Wars movie grossing closer to Jumanji: The Next Level ($715 million-and-counting) money as opposed to over/under $1 billion, then they can afford to regain trust even if a proverbial Batman Begins doesn’t lead to a proverbial Dark Knight.
Marvel is in an even better place, with $17 billion worldwide after 22 movies. Avengers: Endgame became last year’s only truly satisfying mega-finale (sorry, Game of Thrones and Crisis on Infinite Earths) with a $2.8 billion global gross. They too must figure out how much the Marvel brand is worth without Iron Man and Captain America, the two linchpins of the franchise. They must maintain interest even without the lure of an overriding mega-arc, at least until Marvel spills the beans about any grand narratives. The fans/audience knew as recently as October of 2014, before Avengers: Age of Ultron opened, that it would all be building up to a two-part mega-movie featuring the Avengers facing off against Thanos for the fate of the universe. As much as the Phase Two/Phase Three films were allowed to be their own thing, the overall excitement over the promised endgame did drive at least some increased excitement.
Up until Black Panther ($1.346 billion in 2018) and Captain Marvel ($1.12 billion in 2019), no Marvel movie without Robert Downey Jr. (living or dead) had earned $900 million, let alone $1 billion global. No non-sequel MCU movie sans Tony Stark had even topped $800 million as recently as two years ago next month. That upswing in popularity for Captain Marvel and Black Panther (including an overall upswing in China for solo superhero flicks) is a promising sign in terms of potential for new MCU characters. After all, the next batch of heroes (Eternals, Shang-Chi, etc.) are going to be comparatively cult properties. I’m optimistic that the next wave of “new” MCU movies can still bring in audiences even sans Robert Downey Jr. or any (thus far) broad overreaching narrative. That’s not yet a guarantee, especially not until we figure out how the X-Men and the Fantastic Four fit into the puzzle.
That’s the conundrum at play. Without getting overly pessimistic, Walt Disney hasn’t had a “new” live-action franchise outside of Marvel, Star Wars and those live-action remakes since Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003 and National Treasure in 2004. So it does matter that both Marvel and Star Wars will have to both find success without the marquee characters (Iron Man, Captain America, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo) and the marquee stories (the Infinity Saga, the Skywalker Saga) that made them kings of the pop culture hill. Star Wars and Marvel will have to hope that the brands themselves are popular enough to negate the loss of the specific elements of the respective IPs. After all, take away the Jedi, the Force and the Skywalker Saga, what do you got? Take away Iron Man, the Avengers and the Infinity Saga, and what do you got? For better or worse, we’re about to find out.