After a sluggish start, the 2023 summer movie season is about to close out with plenty of good news to report for Hollywood. Thanks to the Barbenheimer effect, audiences headed back to theaters in a major way, bringing in an estimated $3.7 billion in ticket sales so far. That’s already $4 million more than last summer’s cumulative total, and we’re still two weeks out from Labor Day. But there’s one big name missing from that conversation: Disney. With beloved IP like Star Wars and Marvel under its umbrella, not to mention two animated divisions that used to churn out guaranteed hits year after year, you’d think Disney would be sitting pretty among the winners this summer. But after lackluster results for The Little Mermaid, Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny, Elemental, and The Haunted Mansion, all pricey productions, 2023 just hasn’t been Disney’s year.
What went wrong? And what can the studio do to get back on track? We have some ideas. We’ll leave the speculating about potential mergers, acquisitions and such to the business media. We’re experts in pop-culture here, after all, not finance. As such, our advice is more along the lines of the studio’s creative direction and how it can make the most of its iconic brands rather than what it can do to boost shareholder value. In an ideal world, those things would go hand in hand, but unfortunately that’s not always the case.
Walt Disney Animation Studios has long been seen as the jewel in the studio’s crown, but the last few years have been a story of diminishing returns. Raya And The Last Dragon, which was completed during the pandemic lockdown and released in March of 2021, opened with a paltry $8.5 million, and its final box-office total barely broke $130 million theatrically worldwide. It was followed by Encanto in 2022, a musical family adventure featuring songs from Lin-Mañuel Miranda that performed better than its predecessor, but with $256 million in sales it still fell well short of expectations. Sure, the pandemic was a big hurdle to overcome, but that doesn’t account for the dismal performance of Disney’s most recent animated release, Strange World, which earned just $70 million during its initial theatrical run last year.
And then there’s former hit factory Pixar, which has also seen its fortunes fall as of late. None of Pixar’s last five theatrical releases—Onward, Soul, Luca, Lightyear, and this summer’s Elemental—surpassed $500 million at the box office, a target most earlier Pixar films achieved with as much ease as Buzz Lightyear falling with style.
We’ve already covered what went wrong with Elemental, and what Disney could have learned from the recent Netflix released Nimona, which was resurrected by an independent studio after Disney shut down the Fox division Blue Sky Studios. In both cases, our advice boils down to making bolder creative choices, taking risks, and breaking away from the familiar formula. Find a way to make moviegoing special again, or people will just wait for a movie to come out on streaming in a few months. Fans turned out to see Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse in theaters this summer because of its innovative and artistic visuals, but also because their friends told them (correctly) they absolutely had to experience it on the big screen. When is the last time someone said that about a Disney or Pixar movie?
Speaking of Spider-Man, although superhero fatigue is real and fans are quickly tiring of multiverses (see: The Flash, or maybe in this case, don’t), those factors didn’t seem to have a negative effect on Across The Spider-Verse. It just goes to show that there’s a way to make superheroes interesting without relying on connections outside of the film. The big team-up trick Marvel Studios was able to pull off for a decade—first with The Avengers and finally in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame—is getting old, as is the talent. Maybe it’s time to scrap the universe altogether and start over from scratch.
When Disney acquired Fox it also got the rights to most popular Marvel Comics characters that had been off limits to the MCU. Yes, The X-Men and The Fantastic Four have been featured in multiple films before, but we’d love to see them get rebooted along the lines of Spider-Man, with the kind of energy and care that went into the first Iron-Man and Captain America films. They don’t even have to be part of the current MCU. In fact, it could be to their benefit if they weren’t.
Disney head honcho Bob Iger has already suggested that it’s time to slow the pace of Marvel films and shows, which is the right call. Take a breath, find the ideal filmmaker, and let them take their time with the material. This rush to put out so many films in such a short period of time is not only a hindrance to the creative process, it puts unnecessary strain on below-the-line talent, like VFX teams. The push for quick and cheap content was especially apparent this year, with the muddy mess of Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania and the dull jumble of wasted potential of Secret Invasion on Disney+.
Disney’s one bright spot this summer, both creatively and financially, is Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3. It’s a decent template for how to approach Marvel content in the future. The film represents the singular vision of director James Gunn, who was allowed to complete his trilogy with minimal interference and without having to connect it to the greater MCU or whatever phase of it we’re in right now. The studio let Gunn be Gunn (before he was gone) and the film was all the better for it. The lesson here? Hire interesting filmmakers and let them realize their vision as they see fit. And don’t make the audience feel like they have to do homework before walking into the theater.
If these problems were limited to Marvel, that would be one thing, but the same issues keep coming up elsewhere. In the Star Wars galaxy, for instance, fans are experiencing a different kind of fatigue. With no new films in the immediate future (there are a few in the works, but they’re a long way off) the franchise lives mostly on Disney+ for the time being, and it hasn’t exactly been firing on all thrusters there. While The Mandalorian found popularity in its first two seasons, there was a noticeable drop in quality and viewers in season three. And although the creators of The Book Of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi set out to give the fans what they thought they wanted, both shows missed the mark badly.
What fans actually want is something that feels the same, but different. If that’s hard to quantify, just look at what Tony Gilroy did with Andor, possibly the best thing to happen to Star Wars since the film it’s spun off from, Rogue One. Unquestionably a win with fans, it gave us a more mature universe with room for complicated ideas (fighting creeping fascism will never go out of style, it seems). Andor didn’t rely on fan service or Jedi or legacy characters, just solid writing and sharp dialogue—“no way out” and “I’ve made my mind a sunless space” are now forever part of the quotable Star Wars canon—set against a lush and lived-in sci-fi backdrop. We wouldn’t expect future Star Wars series to copy this template exactly—that would be boring—but we love the idea of getting to explore new corners of the galaxy in ways we’ve never imagined.
Next up for Star Wars is the new live-action series Ahsoka, which just premiered on Disney+. We don’t yet know how it will be received, but it’s clearly aimed at a smaller audience of dedicated fans rather than a broader assortment of casual viewers. We’ll be following closely to see if that’s another key to success.
Disney still has a few films and series lined up to finish out 2023, but none of them feel like game changers that could turn around the company’s fortunes by year’s end. The only title scheduled under the Disney banner is Wish, an animated musical about a girl who makes a wish to save her kingdom. Despite a stellar voice cast, including Ariana DeBose and Chris Pine, nothing that we’ve seen so far seems to indicate a departure from the familiar Disney formula. The character designs have the same aesthetic as every Disney animated film since Tangled.
On the Marvel Studios side, we’ll finally be getting The Marvels, a team-up featuring Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), and Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris). It lands on November 10 after several schedule shuffles, not usually a good sign. There’s also the upcoming second season of Loki heading to Disney+, which could be interesting if it keeps up the momentum of its well-received first season, and Echo, based on a character seen for the first time in live action in the series Hawkeye. If you don’t remember anything that happened in Hawkeye, we wouldn’t blame you. Let’s just say the best part of it was what amounted to an extended cameo by Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova. After wasting our time with Secret Invasion Marvel is going to have to work extra hard to convince us that these new series will be worth it.
But Marvel has an even bigger problem on the horizon. After building the next major, multifilm arc around the villain Kang the Conqueror (effectively the franchise’s new Thanos), the studio is going to have to consider a recast, something executives don’t seem inclined to do. We strongly urge the studio to reconsider (LaKeith Stanfield is right there, and he’s already been in a Disney movie this year). A slower pace would give the studio more opportunity to thoroughly vet talent before tying them to the future of the franchise.
We understand that a company like Disney doesn’t exactly turn on a dime. It can take years for changes to become apparent (just look at how long the transition is taking at DC Studios). Even Walt Disney himself, famous dreamer that he was, couldn’t have envisioned the behemoth that his little animation studio would become. From films and TV shows to music, publishing, video games, theme parks, consumer products, cruise ships, and more, there isn’t any sector involved in the production and delivery of content that the multimedia conglomerate doesn’t have its four-fingered, white-gloved hand in somehow. Maybe it’s time to break things up, shift them around, and reconsider the current strategy. Because whatever Disney is doing now doesn’t seem to be working; the castle is starting to crumble under its own weight. There are ways to reinforce it, but not by simply doing more of the same.