Disney’s Franchise War | the Avengers return to cinemas

You may or may not have noticed but Disney have taken over the world. In terms of mainstream culture and fanatical film blogs, that is.

With Star Wars and Marvel’s Avengers under their belt, the company, once known simply for making paintings move, own Hollywood’s biggest franchises. Their upcoming acquisition of 20th Century Fox will see another studio, meanwhile, sit nicely next to Pixar in the House of Mouse trophy cabinet. Take note Marvel baddies: no cities have been destroyed in this conquest.

This week sees the release of Avengers: Infinity War, nineteenth ‘episode’ in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and blockbuster to end all blockbusters. The film is the culmination of ten years of set up and has seen a preposterously starry cast unite in front of a green screen to defend the world in spandex and CGI rendering. Allegedly, as much as $400m has been spent on the production, meaning that, to break even alone, the film needs to top $1bn.

Many canny critics have already noted the mirroring of Infinity War’s fictional bad-egg, Thanos, and Disney itself. For those not in the know: Thanos is a giant purple alien intent on collecting all six of the MCU’s so-called Infinity Stones. The Stones are powerful McGuffins that, when brought together in the Infinity Gauntlet, give the holder power to bend reality at their will and free entry to National Trust properties. Like Thanos, Disney have been collecting assets and, like Disney, Thanos is massive.

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It only requires a little imagination to see the link between Thanos’ relationship to Infinity Stones and Disney’s to film franchises/studios. Whereas the former seeks the Mind, Soul, Space, Power, Time and the Reality Stones, the latter have the Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars Stones and seek the X-Men, Avatar and Ice Age Stones from 20th Century Fox. What divides the two is that heroes fight Thanos, and cynics diss Disney.

With their background in nostalgia, and their consistently feel-good output, Disney have managed to take over the big screen with the support of general audiences. Of all the major studios in Hollywood, none attract the warmth and recognition that Disney do. When, for instance, the company bought LucasFilm, they were quite happy to inspire the wrath of Star Wars die-hards by publicising the take-over with images of Mickey Mouse dressed up as a Jedi because, for most, a glimpse of the Disney figurehead conjurers only positivity. It is all too easy to forget that Pinocchio had strings and lightsabers are £24.99 at the Disney Store.

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Even if Avengers: Infinity War flops – it won’t – Disney and Marvel have already had a terrific year. Released in February, Black Panther has been a global success story. With a still-rising box office total of $1.3bn worldwide, the Ryan Coogler film is currently the tenth highest grossing film of all time. In the MCU, only the two Avengers films top its takings. Particularly significant in the case of Black Panther is, of course, the race discourse that has surrounded the film. Terrific that it is to see a diverse superhero film at the forefront of Hollywood’s attention, note how – once again – we celebrate a commercial victory for Disney.

The Black Panther springboard for Infinity War could not be stronger. Indeed, a promised return to Wakanda in the new Avengers film has only done to raise anticipation and excitement. Box office success for Black Panther has been accompanied by critical acclaim and a demand for more. Is it any wonder that some are already predicting that Infinity War’s opening weekend will break records?

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It does not do to be too cynical when it comes to discussion of the films and franchises themselves, of course. Unlike its rivals – like the DCEU or Dark Universe, for example – the MCU has captured the essential spirit of popcorn cinema. Though each film follows an age-old formula, they do so with a lightness of heart and infectious joviality. Cast ensembles have been assembled with precision-perfect balance and stories told with just enough humanism to allow audience to emotionally engage. If the concept of forty-five superheroes in one film – or whatever the total is – sounds daunting, there remains a sense that its makers know what they’re doing.

Disney’s on-screen message of universal hope, collaboration and unity has been hard earned and carefully manufactured, with little margin for error. It is a studio with a vision and one that demands adherence from its participants, who must conform or step aside – as Edgar Wright did during the production of 2014’s Ant-Man. For those who do follow the rules, a lucrative future awaits.

Let it never be said that Disney do not know how to handle a franchise. As much as Infinity War is being billed as the end of an era, it is certainly not the end for the MCU; a new era dawns for audiences who still have not tired for superhero cinema. Thanos will, one presumes, eventually meet his match in the Avengers. If he’d really wanted to win, he should have invested in plush toys and theme parks.

T.S.

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