Disney's Fox acquisition creates some superhero-sized issues

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Dec 14, 2017

Disney has purchased 21st Century Fox. It's huge news sure to send ripples through Hollywood and change the business on many different levels. And there are many implications for fans, both financially and creatively. Are Marvel, Star Wars, and Avatar tickets about to get more expensive? Will the superhero slate slowly shrink? And what in the name of hard-R is Disney supposed to do with Deadpool?

As the formerly four studios with skin in the superhero game – Disney, Warner Bros., Fox, and Sony – collapse into dueling DC and Marvel monoliths, the internet has been positively drunk on dreams of seeing the X-Men and Fantastic Four in the MCU. These team-ups and hero-vs.-hero battles are deeply rooted in comic books, which are still the fountainhead of ideas and titles for our onscreen super-capers.

But this newly connected Hollywood movieverse creates its own paradoxes and elaborate traps, too – continuity ripples, power imbalances, total creative homogenization – the effects of which will be felt for many Marvel Phases™ to come. A price must be paid.

Ah, what the hell – go ahead and shout out an “Excelsior!” anyway: For the first time in movie history, Marvel is (mostly) united. May the homecomings of Reed Richards and Wolverine be as sweet as Spider-Man’s was.

But here, true believer, is what it will cost you.

DISNEY WILL SEEK REDUNDANCIES – AND THAT MEANS FEWER MOVIES
The $52.4 billion deal gives Disney assets far beyond Fox’s movies and cinematic characters – most of those billions are for key TV and sports properties – in a headache-y international merger that will take 1-2 years to approve and several more of painful integration. But one of its more immediate and visible impacts: fewer superhero movies overall.

Since Fox essentially kicked off the modern superhero movie era with X-Men in 2000, the studio has made 10 X-Men movies (including Deadpool) and three Fantastic Four films – that’s 13 superhero movies in 18 years. That pace has been quickening; five of those films came in the last three years. And in 2017, Fox will become the first studio to put out three superhero films in a single year: The New Mutants, a Deadpool sequel, and X-Men: Dark Phoenix.

The most Marvel-based superhero films in a calendar year is four,  which has happened four times: in 2017, 2016, 2014, and 2011.

Next year there will be seven.

Maybe seven Marvel films makes sense in the midst of an arms race between proud studios with separate creative visions, storylines, and corporate parents. But brought together under one roof, it’s not likely Disney/Marvel will want that much market saturation or production scale. Inevitably, redundancies will be found in the machinery. Jobs will be cut, facilities shuttered. No matter how hard evil capitalists try, you just can’t make the same amount of product with less manpower.

What’s more, as Avengers and X-Men and Spidey-verse characters begin to meet on the same battlefields, their appearances in said team-up movies will, in at least some cases, take the place of what would otherwise have been standalone feature films by separate studios. And that’s too bad, because clearly Fox was finally finding its footing with Deadpool and the First Class gang, feeling confident enough to flood Disney/Marvel’s zone – even without the Fantastic Four.

The upshot is, love ‘em or hate ‘em, superhero movies could be finally peaking, at least in terms of quantity, as soon as next year — at eight, including the DCEU’s Aquaman.

THIS COULD GET EXPENSIVE – FOR YOU

Credit: Getty Images

Disney/Lucasfilm is trying something this month that’s worked for Darth Vader before: They are altering the deal.

The studio is “asking” movie theaters for a 60 percent cut of domestic ticket sales, a significantly thicker slice than the traditional 50/50 split. They’re also asking for a four-week guarantee on the premium (Imax, etc.) screens, also a precedent-setting demand.

Uhhhm, what are the theaters supposed to do, not run Star Wars?

With compliance all but assured, Disney will have no problem getting similar concessions for Avengers: Infinity War and beyond, future Star Wars installments, and oh yes, all 29 sequels to Avatar. Where do you suppose those missing dollars might be made up? It’s not a stretch to suppose you may soon be asked to pay a few extra bucks for Disney’s biggest budget-busters.

So far “tiered” pricing is nonexistent in theatrical exhibition – you get upcharged for IMAX screens and 3D, yes, but for similar formats at the same city/day/time, you pay the same for Star Wars: The Last Jedi as you would for Lady Bird. Maybe not much longer.

With Disney scooping up essentially a full quarter of the blockbuster market, their leverage to demand these new splits grows stronger. It also takes a major rival off the board in Fox – a company that might otherwise have stood with its exhibition partner on the good ol’ 50/50.

Disney also helped put itself in this power position by taking its own stand – in favor of the theaters’ exclusive 90-day theatrical window. None of the other major studios has been as steadfastly against shrinking the traditional time between cinemas and home video; in fact, all the others have explored workarounds behind the exhibitors’ backs.

See? It really does pay to play nice with others.

NO MORE DISTINCT X-MEN

There’s something about those Marvel movies — not a flop among them — that’s just doggone appealing. Under Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios has created a world with vast tonal diversity, but just enough unity to bring them all to the same party.

Over at Fox, the X-Men universe wears a slightly different grain of cloth; slightly moodier, more melodramatic, and theatrical are its characters, a vaguely European-stage vibe that’s hard to put your finger on – but definitely isn’t the MCU.

Feige’s fiefdom will undoubtedly find perfect ways to integrate these styles, reconcile the timelines, retcon the whole damn thing in ways that awe us. But for a while there, wasn’t it nice to go to an X-Men movie knowing you were getting a different flavor from a different house?

THE FANTASTIC [COUGH-COUGH] FOUR

What if not even Disney/Marvel can make a Fantastic Four movie work?

LOLJK, of course they can. They have to.

Gulp.

THE DEADPOOL DILEMMA

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Yes, there were those titles on the Touchstone banner – Ruthless People, Pretty Woman, Con Air and more – but never has a Disney-produced film been hit with an R. The Disney flag flies over all its Marvel outings, and Mouse House chair Bob Iger flatly told investors last year, after the success of Deadpool, that “We don’t have any plans to make R-rated Marvel movies.”

But now the Merc With the Mouth (and the drug jokes, foul language, and graphic sex scenes) is in the stable, and something must be done.

Disney could ostensibly release future Deadpool films — we’ll be on No. 3 by the time this deal goes through, with more all but assured — under a different banner, even 20th Century Fox, if it wanted to. But that would seem odd, since Marvel and Disney are otherwise so closely intertwined.

Could Deadpool be the first to break Disney’s fourth wall of decency and family-friendliness? That’s trading a lot of brand equity for a little bit of box-office money.

For fans, it’s certainly better than the alternative: A PG-13 Deadpool is no Deadpool at all.

THE COMING COMICS CATACLYSM

All comic book readers know that Marvel’s biggest films – Age of Ultron, Civil War, and soon Infinity War – are all loosely adapted from comic arcs that feature X-Men and Fantastic Four characters, often in prominent roles. One such classic clash that hasn’t been adapted yet: Avengers vs X-Men. That 12-issue run from 2012 set in motion events that reverberated through Ultron and Infinity War all the way to Secret Wars, and is any fan’s dream project for the unified MCU to tackle.

Make no mistake: The comics heavily inform the cinematic stories, no matter how many liberties the filmmakers take. And the comics are at crossroads.

Marvel’s publishing arm recently installed a new editor in C.B. Cebluski, just as it’s finishing a pivot to all-new versions of several core Avengers characters: Jane Foster as Thor, Sam Wilson as Captain America, Je-Yong Ha as the Incredible Hulk, and Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, for starters. The animation division is working on versions of these characters for TV, which could be read as Disney seeding them for future cinematic use.

But the publication side has been struggling of late. A successful Avengers/X-Men on-screen showdown could spark a snap-back to legacy characters, throwing all kinds of plans into upheaval and confusion. Whatever they intend to do suddenly needs a lot more ironing out.

All that could lead to delays, distraction, and diffusion. A bigger kitchen, yes, but it’s still more cooks.

And that’s just how it’s going to be for a while, across the board.