What happened to Disney? My former college professor Victor Davis Hanson often refers to the Left’s “un-Midas touch,” a magical curse by which everything it touches turns to dross.
Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, I didn’t realize how good I had it until Disney decided to ruin my childhood.
I grew up watching three amazing mega-franchises: the Disney Renaissance films of “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), “Aladdin” (1992), and “The Lion King” (1994); the original “Star Wars” trilogy and the (admittedly inferior) prequels; and “Iron Man” (2008) and the other films leading up to “The Avengers” (2012).
Little did I know that these three massive franchises would come crashing down in the years to follow. (Warning: Light spoilers throughout for fans of “Star Wars” and Marvel.)
1. Star Wars
Tragedy first struck on Oct. 30, 2012, when Disney acquired a little company called Lucasfilm. For all the failings of the “Star Wars” prequels, they presented a clear story driving toward the original trilogy, with themes and character development that naturally flowed to the story I had known and loved.
“Star Wars” seems a perfect encapsulation of the old mantra that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”
The original trilogy hadn’t just captured the imaginations of millions—it told a coherent story of heroism, self-sacrifice, hope, and redemption. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was the central hero, but he didn’t defeat the ultimate villain; his redeemed father did. Darth Vader (voiced by the tremendous James Earl Jones) went from the iconic big bad to a noble father, rejecting his powerful position to save his son. There were space ships, laser swords, flashy battles, spiritual forces, and an epic cinematic score for the ages—but the story succeeded because the characters came alive.
The prequel trilogy built on those successes and told a compelling backstory for Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd, Hayden Christensen). Sure, the story beats (the twists and turns of the narrative) could be a bit trite, and whatever malevolent force conceived of Jar-Jar Binks can return to the bantha poo-doo from whence it came, yet for all their flaws, the prequels built on the themes and characters of the main story, fleshing out the world and delivering the escapism audiences love.
Then came the sequels. I like to joke “What sequels?”—acting as though they don’t even exist. “It would be nice if Disney ever finishes the Skywalker Saga, but it would be better they never finish it than if they ruin everything that came before.”
Alas, that is exactly what Disney did. Beat by beat, the new trilogy rejected and cast aside what I loved about the original films. I hated how the sequel trilogy dismissed the romance between Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) as irrevelant or hopeless, and how it presented Luke Skywalker as a disillusioned old man. I hated how it threw salt on the wound by having Luke die to achieve a temporary victory. I hated the trite way the trilogy undermined Anakin Skywalker’s sacrifice—and his final victory over the Sith—at the end of “Return of the Jedi.” The trilogy firmly rejected the happy ending the characters we loved had received, without giving a good reason for it.
Audiences can like female heroines—Ahsoka (Ashley Eckstein) in the animated “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” series proves as much—but they have to be compelling characters. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has little to no character arc. She begins the story totally morally good, beloved by everyone she meets, and extremely powerful, and she ends the story the same way. Audiences dislike Rey not because she is a woman, but because she is not a compelling character, unlike fan favorites such as Ahsoka and Leia.
Ultimately, the sequels fell apart because they were ill-conceived. Disney switched directors and scrapped George Lucas’ vision for a plot. “Episode VII: The Force Awakens” slavishly copied the plot of “Star Wars: Episode IV” without the careful storytelling that made the original film work. “Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” introduced new themes, but also flatly rejected the mythos of the original trilogy—a bold move that could have worked with three films to flesh it out, but could not work in one movie that seemed to throw out the major mysteries of “The Force Awakens.”
Finally, the course correction in “Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” went too far. Filmmakers tried to slavishly appeal to die-hard fans, but they only offered a shallow story that did not make sense, given the two previous films.
At first, “The Mandalorian” gave me hope that “Star Wars” could return to a fresh style of storytelling. Despite a few bright spots, such as “Andor,” however, the new Disney+ shows seem focused on paving the way to “The Force Awakens,” rather than dwelling in the world and giving audiences an original story. Disney should seriously consider scrapping the entire sequel trilogy because its convoluted plot poisons the entire franchise. This leaves fans like me with an extremely sour taste in our mouths.
Marvel’s golden age hung on a bit longer than “Star Wars.” Fourth-dimensional rats aside, I thought “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) and “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) delivered a satisfying conclusion to the 21 films that preceded them. Marvel hit a high point when Captain America (Chris Evans) held up Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer) and finally delivered the line, “Avengers, assemble!”
Ever since then, the cinematic universe has started collapsing in on itself.
Sure, the first three “phases” of the cinematic universe had their failings—“Thor: The Dark World” (2013) and “Iron Man 2” (2010) most notorious among them—but the most recent films and Disney+ shows have been a near-constant train wreck.
“Loki” (2021) mostly held together, and “WandaVision” (2021) almost works if you don’t think too hard about it. Yet, the painstaking character development “WandaVision” gives to Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) gets thrown out the window in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (2022).
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” (2021) fails on its own terms—where Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) finally solves the world’s problems by tritely telling the equivalent of the United Nations to just listen to one another. While “Ms. Marvel” (2022) and “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” (2022) had fun moments, both proved largely forgettable and occasionally infuriating. In “Eternals” (2021) and “Secret Invasion” (2023), Disney served up convoluted messes that left the Marvel Cinematic Universe worse than they found it.
While the first three phases built characters that audiences loved, the latest phase has told disjointed stories with new characters who aren’t well-defined. Audiences loved Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers/Captain America because they had clear, defining motives and compelling backstories. These characters built the backbone of the Avengers and kept audiences coming back. Phase Four has no unifying characters like that, except for the one character whose motivations and backstory Disney completely wiped—Maximoff.
Marvel has a few standouts: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021), “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021), and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2022), but even these films feel disjointed at times.
The ultimate villain of the multiverse saga, Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) proved far more compelling in “Loki” than he was in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (2023), and the ultimate film of the saga ended up a let-down.
Disney seems more intent on churning out content than on telling a good story, and it shows.
3. Disney Itself
Disney seems intent on discarding the secret sauce that inspired its greatest successes.
The company gave a modern spin to classic tales, delivering films that entertained both children and adults in a way that conservatives and liberals loved. “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” and “The Little Mermaid” struck the perfect balance between childhood aspiration, the hard lessons of life, and romance.
Some more recent films—notably, “Frozen” (2013), “Moana” (2016), and “Encanto” (2021)—have likewise struck similar beats.
However, Disney as a company seems intent on appealing to only one side of the political divide. Its public opposition to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ parental rights in education law leaves a sour taste in the mouths of millions of parents. Its decision to foist LGBT themes into children’s movies like “Lightyear” (2022) and “Strange World” (2022) alienated fans like myself, and make us start to wonder whether we will have to screen everything on Disney+ to make sure it’s not pushing sexual messages unfit for children.
Disney has tarnished its brand and alienated a large part of its core audience—parents with young children—in the name of a divisive sexual movement that seems ever more radical.
The House of Mouse should invest less in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more in crafting a good story that honors the legacies of the franchises it seems so desperate to ruin. If it doesn’t correct course, perhaps Elon Musk should consider another hostile takeover.
Tyler O’Neil is managing editor of The Daily Signal and the author of “Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center.” This first appeared in The Daily Signal.