Netflix’s subscriber base is shrinking. HBO Max is silently and not-so-silently removing titles from its platform. Apple TV+ has an Emmy-winning comedy that’s reportedly a mess behind the scenes. And yet, none of them are in a rut quite like Disney+.
Launched in late 2019 on the back of The Mandalorian and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, properties based on popular intellectual property owned by the Walt Disney Company, the streaming service had it easier than most. With the exception of perhaps HBO Max, which at the time of its launch was the streaming arm of Warner Media (now Warner Bros. Discovery) and benefited from the recognition of the HBO brand, most platforms have had to work diligently to first build and then maintain loyal audiences. But Disney+ came out of the gate swinging, primed for maximum viewer interest thanks to its considerable library of existing titles from the Disney vault as well as exciting new content from two of the biggest cinematic franchises in history: Marvel and Star Wars. But nearly three years removed from launch, Disney+’s identity is still intrinsically linked to these mega universes and the numerous shows they’ve spawned. One has to wonder: How long can this continue? How long can the company, which is experiencing slowed subscriber growth, rely predominantly on Marvel and Star Wars content to feed the hungry maw of its current subscribers, let alone bring in new ones?
Of the 19 original live-action series that have been released to date, seven are an extension of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. WandaVision, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Loki, and Hawkeye all debuted in 2021 and followed supporting characters from the uber-popular feature film series in adventures that saw them finally step into the spotlight. It was brilliant from a business standpoint because fans were already emotionally invested in the characters and would no doubt follow them to the small screen, regardless of story quality. So it allowed MCU mastermind Kevin Feige to further explore fan-favorite, multi-layered characters like Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in an extended format while simultaneously introducing the next generation of heroes and moving pieces around the proverbial chessboard so that characters were where they needed to be for the next big film (see: Wanda as Scarlet Witch in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness).
The three series to debut in 2022—Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law—have introduced us to additional members of the next generation while also branching out into new and different genres. The exceptionally fun Ms. Marvel features only the second coming-of-age story in the MCU after Tom Holland’s stint as Peter Parker, while She-Hulk is an out-there comedy masquerading as a legal procedural as it revels in poking fun at the extended Marvel universe.
Not every show has lived up to expectations or been successful creatively though—it’s basically WandaVision and then everyone else (though they all have their moments)—but the same can be said about the service’s four new entries into the Star Wars lexicon too. After The Mandalorian, which has two seasons under its belt with a third set for early 2023, Disney+ released the dreadfully boring The Book of Boba Fett. It followed that up with two more legacy shows: Obi-Wan Kenobi, which saw Ewan McGregor reprise the eponymous role opposite Hayden Christensen’s Darth Vader, and Andor, which stars Diego Luna as Cassian Andor and serves as a prequel to the impressive stand-alone film Rogue One. Of all the Star Wars series, only the latter has truly lived up to the immense hype surrounding it. Like The Mandalorian, it features a (relatively) new character in Star Wars lore who is just mysterious and intriguing enough to warrant his own series and stoke our collective interest. Set five years before the deadly events of Rogue One, it doesn’t feel like much else in the Star Wars universe, which means it is exactly the type of storytelling that might just reenergize the Star Wars universe.
But when you take a look at what’s confirmed to be coming down the pike, it’s more of the same. There are five additional Marvel series on deck, including the Samuel L. Jackson-led Secret Invasion, the Hawkeye spinoff Echo, and the latest chapter in the Matt Murdock story, titled Daredevil: Born Again. There is also Ironheart and Agatha: Coven of Chaos, the latter of which is a spinoff of WandaVision starring Kathryn Hahn’s breakout character, Agatha Harkness. (Previously announced TV series Armor Wars, starring Don Cheadle, is being redeveloped as a film.) Three more Star Wars shows are also in the works: Ahsoka, which follows the fan-favorite character of the series’ title who was first introduced in The Clone Wars, as well as Skeleton Crew and The Acolyte. This does not include the shows that are predominantly aimed at younger audiences, like Spider-Man: Freshman Year, X-Men ‘97, and Star Wars: Young Jedi Adventures.
Leaning on existing intellectual property with passionate (sometimes to a fault) fan bases to launch Disney+ in 2019 was a shrewd business decision that has no doubt paid dividends the last three years. From where Disney CEO Bob Chapek sits, it likely makes little sense to rock the boat. But is this all Disney+ is destined to be, just a never-ending content factory for two aging franchises that, while obviously still able to draw plenty of interest, tend to lean more toward disappointment than fulfillment when looked at critically? For every series that feels fresh and new and creatively rewarding like WandaVision or Andor, there are a handful that feel like little more than money grabs meant to temporarily appease rabid fans desperate for new content, while ultimately doing little to advance characters or tell engaging, worthwhile stories. And I say this as someone who mostly enjoyed Loki and was genuinely charmed by Hawkeye.
Every time Disney’s suits tout the company’s upcoming streaming titles, be it during shareholder meetings or fan-centric events like San Diego Comic-Con or the company’s in-house celebration D23 Expo, the Disney+ lineup is always dominated by the next Marvel and Star Wars-adjacent properties, with adaptations or spinoffs of other existing IP filling in most of the gaps. Even without publicly released ratings data, box office returns make it clear that both franchises still have eager fans. But even so, it’s OK to want more. In fact, we should want more. We should demand more creativity and originality from the major media conglomerate to whom we hand our hard-earned cash every month, especially with an impending price hike for an ad-free experience.
It’s not as if this is a novel problem in Hollywood or one that is unique to Disney+—Paramount+ has packed its own original library with several new Star Trek series in an attempt to build its subscriber base and rebrand from its lackluster beginnings as CBS All Access—but every time another series from one of these franchises is released, I have to wonder what original idea was likely passed over to make it happen. Are we being cheated out of the next great family comedy or addictive drama because Disney would rather take the easy road and go for the series that will no doubt pull in viewers but not satisfy their cravings for quality content? After three years of knowing exactly what to expect from Disney+, of retreading the same worn paths, it’s time to branch out and explore the unknown. It’s time to choose the path that takes us on the next great adventure.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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