On Disney’s Mastery of the Crowd-Pleaser

I cannot help but feel a mixture of admiration and dread whenever I look at Disney’s spate of upcoming blockbusters. There is something amazing about how the company has seemingly perfected the science of creating a corporate production line of crowd pleasing tentpole films that not only make significant amounts of money, but also succeed in winning over the majority of critics. At the same time however, there is something almost horrifying in how efficient they are in polishing their products.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Disney has in recent years succeeded in producing a bunch of big-budget flicks that make make money on command while also getting fresh Rotten Tomatoes scores. The movies are spectacles in many senses of the word, if often forgettable; good but not great, but rarely bad due to being well executed on a technical level. They’re also safe and polished in their mediocrity so that while they won’t find themselves on lists of the greatest films of all time due to their lack of ambition, their aforementioned polish should at least ensure that few critics give negative reviews. They provide audiences their money’s worth, so viewers are unlikely to think poorly of the product even if they won’t remember it within a few years, if not a few months. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a family-friendly restaurant franchise.

These movies, while not original properties, do succeed in part because of their nature as continuations of franchises. They can take the form of live-action remakes (although the upcoming Lion King is taking a step further by presumably being an animated remake of the original film), entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the newly restored Star Wars Cinematic Universe.

The live-action remakes appeal to adults who wish to engage in nostalgia alongside their children and recapture their lost youths, rolling out in a format that is more appropriate for grown-ups too embarrassed to admit they enjoy animated movies for children (as they likely never emotionally developed past the adolescent phase wherein a teenager shuns the childish things they enjoy lest they be seen as anything other than ‘adult.’ Not to say that all adults who watch these movies are like this. Others might just be overgrown children who seek nostalgia and escapism to forget just how much they hate their lives).

The MCU is as assembly line as it gets. We get the standard three acts of most Hollywood screenplays for almost every introductory film: protagonist failing to meet their full potential comes across a (likely expendable) mentor or some other supportive figure who helps them achieve their potential (becoming a superhero). Hero battles and defeats forgettable villain, while somehow winning the love of a forgettable love interest. Cue sequel hook and tie-ins to the rest of the MCU.

This isn’t to say that I hate the MCU’s content. I rather liked Iron Man and even appreciated the pulpy period war movie that was the first Captain America. The first Avengers was a lot of fun, and the second CA movie was pretty good too. But even then, once you notice the formula (and don’t throw any bullshit about “different genres” with a superhero skin my way), it starts to get old fast.

Not only that, but there is often a lack of heart or a distinctive voice to the products. Compare that to one of the earlier superhero film series: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. The series was often corny, quirky, and melodramatic, yet was capable of genuine moments of heart and actual drama. The ending shot to the second film is more meaningful in leaving an impression about the true darkness lying underneath an otherwise happy ending than the ending of Civil War, which alleges darkness, but just can’t resist plugging future movies and showing viewers that the adventure will continue in its final shot. To stick to comparisons with SM2, I recall reading somewhere that the MCU wanted to create a more ‘realistic’ home for the Parkers by having them live in an apartment. Now sure, this is more realistic in the sense that they probably couldn’t afford a house with their meager income, but a similar thing was done with much more impact on both the characters and the audience in SM2. In that movie, focus is given to the reality of trying to be a superhero while trying to live a normal life outside the costume, something that has never come up in the lighthearted MCU. Furthermore, the Parkers’ living situation actually comes up in that movie, which has Aunt May losing the house. And let’s not get into the part when Aunt May gives money to a reluctant Peter. That right there is actual human drama of the sort that the MCU only pretends to engage in. Even the third SM film, while a weak point in the series, at least was bold enough to end things ambiguously in regards to the state of Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship. The closest thing to that sort of darkness in the endings of any MCU films happens in the first Captain America movie (which might help explain why I’m so fond of it).

This isn’t to say that it’s wrong for the MCU to strike a light tone. It’s not a bad thing to be fun, even if the movies do get rather samey after a certain point, and the character arcs of the heroes often suffer. Remember how Tony Stark finally seemed to be moving forward with his life at the end of Iron Man 3? Unfortunately, because the studio likes money, and because the nature of comic book story arcs means that the adventure can never end, this happy ending was short-lived.

And then there’s Star Wars. The two movies released thus far can be summed up as fanservice and pandering. Fanservice and pandering. The scene with Darth Vader at the end of Rogue One was not enough to save a mediocre movie and you know it. The Force Awakens succeeded in spite of its script, and even then, there were little things that made it sometimes come off as less a SW film than a pastiche. I’m personally not hoping for too much from The Last Jedi (cripes that sounds more like a title for the final part of a trilogy than the middle section), and fully expecting the Han Solo film to be crammed with fanservice (and maybe show us the whole “12 parsecs” thing that should have just remained a cock-and-bull story that he was trying to pull on what he thought were a couple of yokels) and a story that undermines his character arc in A New Hope because the studio is afraid of having a proper anti-hero as its protagonist (which means we’ll be getting a jerk with a heart of gold who does the right thing at the end).

Hopefully, I’m wrong about at least one of these two movies in the best way possible.

Not that such descriptors apply to only those three products rolling out of the Disney factory. One can see this in their animated movies as well. Moana, which I actually liked, was as perfunctorily executed as it gets. The plot was standard, the heroine followed a basic outline, and the story beats could be seen from a nautical mile away. One can see the laziness of Disney’s factory-like efficiency in how they treat the predictable moment when a supporting character leaves only to come back near the end to aid the protagonist a la Han Solo. The moment is poorly built up, with the reasons for it being hinted as it occurs, but not before (unlike in the case of Han, where we get a brief scene that foreshadows his return at the heroes’ darkest hour). Zootopia (a movie so predictable that I correctly predicted exactly what lines would be said and how they would be delivered at several points) somehow won an Oscar despite the story and the characters being far less interesting than the themes and the world presented in it.

Still, for all my criticism, I would like to make it clear once again that there’s nothing wrong with what Disney is doing. They’ve figured out a formula that works for their business. Their movies please crowds and make money. Not only that, but since they can reliably pull of the former, the latter is more likely to happen. Even someone as cynical of their process as me has to admit to having liked some of their recent movies. The fact is, you don’t always need great art. Sometimes, people just want to escape the dreariness of daily life and the latest neorealist art film isn’t an ideal means for doing so. Fluff might be fluff, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable. The subject matter of much of this blog is proof of that.

It’s just that sometimes I wish Disney would take a real chance rather than putting on the appearance of doing so. Aim for the stars even if it means increasing the likelihood of falling into the mud. But then again, that’s not good business, and who am I to tell the people swimming in cash what they should be doing?