It wasn’t until 2009 that the Disney Corp. bought most of the characters in the Marvel canon, taking charge of a motion picture franchise that is obscenely profitable to this very day. The Marvel Cinematic Universe just saw the release of its 15th installment (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2), and the 16th and 17th installments (Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok) are due out later this year. By the time the 17th film is released, the entire series will have likely made over $3 billion worldwide (still shy of the $4 billion Disney paid for the characters). Installments 18 through 23 have already been given release dates. This machine will continue steamrolling ad infinitum, it seems.
But Disney has actually had a pretty dismal track record when it comes to superhero films, the MCU notwithstanding. Indeed, many of Disney-produced films that dared to take a more masculine, aimed-at-young-boys tack in their marketing and tone have been greeted with minor success, indifference, or even scorn. The few exceptions, like Aladdin and Hercules, only call attention to how unusual they are. Disney has a lock on an audience of young girls and, apart from their purchased IPs (Marvel, Lucasfilm), their own Disney Princess imprint is their most successful.
Looking over Disney’s output throughout the late 1990s, one can see them attempting to reach out to a broader audience that included both boys and girls. And they thought they knew the pattern: Make an animated film with a male lead character, perhaps include a lot of tech and sci-fi/superhero elements, and, perhaps most importantly, make the film a broad slapstick comedy.
As such, audiences were treated to a long series of not-very-good, not-well-remembered comedy sci-fi films from the most powerful animation studio in the world. How many of you truly love Atlantis: The Lost Empire? Who even bothered to see Treasure Planet? And then there was the one-two-three punch of CGI misfires in Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and the superhero dog film Bolt. Oh yes, and I forgot Brother Bear. Just like everyone.
Then, when they finally did have a pattern in place – pulp heroes like pirates, interplanetary warriors, and cowboys, they whizzed them down their legs. I mean, did you see The Lone Ranger? Or John Carter? No? Neither did most people.
Why couldn’t Disney crack the little boy market? They knew what little boys liked, but they clearly didn’t really have a clear eye as to how to go about constructing something they would actually consume.
Disney’s dim history with superheroes, one might find, goes all the way back to 1981 with the release of Condorman, one of Disney’s most embarrassing films. In it, a comic book author, to test the verisimilitude of his creations, makes a condor suit that can actually fly him around. He eventually becomes his own creation, the eponymous Condorman, to stop rogue Russian agents. Condorman was openly panned at the time, and only has a cult audience of ironic appreciators to this day.
In 1985, Disney tried to make a heroic magical fantasy epic based on Lloyd Alexander’s famous Chronicles of Prydian. The film was called The Black Cauldron, and it features some of the weirdest and most ambitious imagery of any Disney animated feature. It’s also clunky, badly written, not very well acted, and features a character named Gurgi, a dog-faced creature that is one of the most obnoxious animated characters ever conceived. The Black Cauldron was such an enormous flop that there was talk of shuttering Disney animation altogether. Indeed, it would take the studio four years to get back on their feet.
More successful was The Rocketeer, released by the Disney in 1991. The Rocketeer is a wholly enjoyable and incredibly charismatic film that holds up remarkably well to this day. In it, a farmboy from the sticks finds an experimental rocket pack that he uses to fight off rogue Nazis who would use the pack to take over America. The Rocketeer was made by Joe Johnston ,who would go on to make Captain America: The First Avenger, a film that feels like a pale imitation of The Rocketeer in many ways. Many love The Rocketeer but it failed to ignite the box office in 1991, in part – at least arguably – because the Disney imprint meant so little to audiences seeking action.
Disney would again attempt to create their own animated superhero with Bolt, which was released in 2008. Bolt is about a performing TV star dog that has been duped into thinking he has superpowers. When he goes out into the world, having to perform actual acts of heroism, comedy ensues. In the interim, they coasted on the properties of other studios. Disney did not acquire Pixar until 2006, so the success of 2004’s The Incredibles was hardly their doing. Ditto any success they had from films by Studio Ghibli.
In the early 2000s, though, Disney had an unexpectedly large hit with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, based on one of their rides at Disneyland. Having thought to have discovered a new secret, Disney put several new films into production that seemed to tap into the same vein as pirates: Were pulp novel heroes and historical heroes the “Next Big Thing”? That’s what the successful Pirates sequels seemed to imply.
But as it turns out, the answer was no. Both 2012’s John Carter (based on the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs) and 2013’s The Lone Ranger (based on radio serials from the 1930s) were enormous misfires for the studio, each losing hundreds of millions of dollars. Indeed, I think John Carter may count as one of the studio’s biggest bombs, costing almost as much money as The Avengers made that same year.
Even though Marvel was already succeeding, Disney was bleeding. They finally thought they could capture the crash-bang of their own comics industry parallels, but simply didn’t know what to do. They seemed to have learned the wrong lessons from Pirates: make the special effects ugly, and make the story too complicated, and supposedly people would come. But people, as the saying goes, stayed away in droves.
In 2009, Disney threw their hands up and simply bought Marvel characters wholesale, and started essentially printing money with big-budget renditions of established characters like The Hulk and Captain America.
Why were the Marvel films successful, and the Disney superhero films unsuccessful? The answer is simple, and it’s been repeated by nerd pundits repeatedly and often. When making the Marvel films, the Disney-hired filmmakers were instructed to “take the characters seriously.” Disney was always more comfortable making family-friendly comedies than they were action spectaculars, so they weren’t really well-prepared when it came to something as action-oriented as a superhero. With the Marvel characters, they essentially bought a template to follow, and constructed a universe. It changed the way studios make blockbusters.
Previously, Disney tried to riff on the superhero. Give a new cinematic interpretation. Interpret. And there was always a slight air of satire lurking underneath, hence the air of comedy in films like Condorman. Even something like The Rocketeer is undercut by a sense of nostalgia; as though this character couldn’t exist in the modern, real world. Disney didn’t just scoop up hundreds of characters when they bought Marvel. They also bought an ethos. And it was an ethos they seemingly weren’t capable of achieving on their own. Then they bought Star Wars, and now they’re doing better than okay with a little boy audience.
But notice that the Disney-produced animated output of late has been increasingly girly. There have few attempts at superheroics and slapstick (I love the gag-a-minute Wreck-It Ralph), but for the most part it’s been films like Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia, Moana… films to feature female protagonists, and which aren’t quite as action-oriented as your average Marvel flick. They have fallen back on what they know they can do, and left the explodey stuff to others.
In so doing, Disney has learned a lesson that they are likely going to continue: Poach property. Jump claims. Buy up what you can’t do yourself, then pour money into it. The success of Marvel and Star Wars is proof enough.
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Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, Nerdist, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.