Watching Avengers: Endgame again last night reminded me of the lofty goals ahead for Marvel as its lauded cinematic universe (the MCU) enters Phase Four. That endeavor begins with May 2020’s cinematic release, Black Widow. But next year’s projects will also include “The Falcon and the Winter Solider,” a Disney+ show that directly ties to the stories already presented in the MCU films — and likely sets up elements of future MCU films as well.
From a business perspective, it’s obvious why Disney would go this route. Disney+ will not be ad-supported, so all revenues come from subscription fees ($5.99 per month). And despite the company’s lengthy catalog of beloved films across Disney, Marvel and Star Wars properties (plus all of the new inventory coming over from the Fox acquisition), it’s tough to bank a streaming service on archival inventory alone. This is where exclusive shows like “The Falcon and the Winter Solider” come in, along with other titles for 2021 like “WandaVision,” “What If…,” “Loki” and “Hawkeye.”
But while it’s typically easy enough to prompt subscriptions based on a few core, exclusive shows, there’s an additional level of investment here that requires viewers to not only have watched most or all of the previous MCU movies to understand characters and references; they also need to care enough about these characters — not of whom were truly the focus of a previous film — enough to watch.
Further still, there’s the question around whether it’s simply too much of a time/energy investment to ask of fans as well. For the diehards, certainly a six-episode mini-series like “The Falcon and the Winter Solider” won’t be much of an ask, and perhaps it’s an enjoyable new way to see a further expansion of the MCU without making too many movies. Still, with ties between the MCU and TV shows projected to be much stronger than those with previous Marvel shows on Netflix and ABC (courtesy of Marvel Studio’s president Kevin Feige’s greater involvement on the TV side now), there becomes a real risk that no new fans will be able to just pop into the successful Marvel film franchise and understand much of what’s happening without watching/reading up in advance.
That sort of barrier to entry is unique to Marvel, which was already unique in its film interconnectivity and scale. Science fiction, fantasy and superhero films have created expansive franchises and larger universes before. Look at Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and others for successful long-term executions of the concept. However, none of those franchises asked you to watch 23 movies and counting, plus TV shows to have a grasp of what’s on the screen.
Disney, perhaps typically, is serving as a pioneer in this regard. Movies have been made about TV shows before, but what Marvel’s doing is far different. The multi-platform marketing effort that started with comic books has grown to toys, merchandise, video games, theme park tie-ins, movies and TV shows is now a brand behemoth nearly on par with its own parent company. Part of that is due to Disney’s steering of the ship. But even Disney’s core branding around Mickey Mouse and other characters hasn’t really endeavored toward something like this.
Whether MCU films drive Disney+ viewership or the other way around, it’ll be tough to tell outside of Disney’s walls. Most films in the franchise top $1 billion at the box office now, so as long as something similar to that continues, they’re likely to stay the course. But if we start to see some hard evidence that there is tangible pull-through from one medium to the other here, it’s likely other franchises — Disney’s or those of other multimedia giants — may try similar arrangements with their own properties down the road. We’ll see to what extent those others could generate the same sort of success, though.