It might be melodramatic to suggest that Marvel Studios has something to prove this weekend at Disney’s D23 Expo in Anaheim, but there’s no denying that Hollywood’s most bankable brand has reached a crossroads as it moves forward without some of its signature stars and characters.
This week, Deadline scored the biggest industry scoop of the year with the exclusive news that the Spider-Man character is been deported from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and returned to his native Sony. A money squabble between studios nixed the wall-crawler’s cinematic dual citizenship. Popular young actor Tom Holland leaves the MCU with the character and both losses are bitter disappointments for Feige.
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Feige loses more than a world-class movie property with the Sony repossession of Spider-Man, he loses a personal sentimental favorite. Feige’s admiration, appreciation, and affection for the late Stan Lee has always been genuine one and Spider-Man was Lee’s signature creation and most beloved character. Reeling Spider-Man into the MCU was a point of pride for Feige and seeing him go now so soon after the November 2018 death of Lee likely makes both those losses hurt even more.
The mega-successes of Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home capped Marvel Studios’ amazing first decade in Hollywood, but each also marks the end of an era. Robert Downey Jr. (who has appeared in 10 Marvel films) and Chris Evans (11 Marvel films) have exited the superhero ensemble, and Scarlett Johansson (seven films) is not far behind them (after the solo Black Widow feature film slotted for May 1, 2020).
Adding to the shuffle, two other Avengers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), will each surrender their superhero spot to female replacements — Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Kate Bishop, respectively — in their next screen iteration.
Feige will lay out his plans for Disney+ (which include shows for Loki, Vision & Scarlet Witch, Falcon and Winter Solider) on Friday and run through his big-screen plans (they likely include The Eternals, Black Panther 2, Shang Chi, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) on Saturday. Fans are eagerly watching both days to see how Fox properties (including the Fantastic Four and the X-Men) fit into either Marvel front.
Marvel’s approach to the Fox characters is where Feige could unleash the biggest surprise (as well as a headline that could compete with the Spider-Man story). Don’t be surprised if Marvel eases into the Fox universe by blending known MCU characters with prominent Fox properties. One authentic way to do that, for example, would be to adapt a Marvel Comics property like The Defenders. Created in 1971, the super-group’s most famous members include three native MCU heroes (Doctor Strange, the Hulk, and Valkyrie), two notable Fox properties (the Silver Surfer and the Angel from the X-Men franchise) as well as Luke Cage (just cut loose from Netflix and available to be called up to the majors).
There are plenty of non-Marvel headlines expected out of D23, too, with the full slate of Disney+ and the release this December of the finale Star Wars installment of the Skywalker saga. The return of Frozen and High School Musical, for instance, are topics of high intrigue for many D23 fans.
In light of Disney’s recent box-office domination (with five films crossing the billion-dollar mark already this year), calling the D23 convention a “Mickey Mouse version of Comic-Con” may no longer technically qualify as a putdown.
The big focus on Day 1 will be Disney CEO and chairman Bob Iger’s afternoon preview of Disney+, the subscription streaming service that he’s been framing as a historic initiative for the company. On Day 2, the spotlight shifts to big-screen content with Walt Disney Studios chief creative officer and co-chairman Alan Horn hosting a preview of the upcoming feature-film slate. Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm will be major components of both presentations of both the Iger and Horn previews, which are staged in the Anaheim Convention Center’s largest hall (with seating for 6,800 fans, slightly larger than Hall H at Comic-Con International).
The biennial D23 Expo (it is staged in odd-numbered years) started in 2009 as a big-tent promotional event for all-things-Disney (theme parks, cruise line, video games, publishing, etc.) and as a premium to be offered by Disney’s namesake D23 Fan Club (the name is a nod to 1923, the company’s launch year).
The tent gets more crowded with each return. This year, for instance, there’s a notable newcomer among the sleek and elaborate exhibition installations: Inside the World of Avatar, a nod to Fox’s landmark 2009 film which has already yielded a Disney theme-park attraction in Orlando. Disney’s Fox acquisition set the stage for much more than that: Disney is set to announce four Avatar sequels between 2021 and 2027.
The emphasis on Disney+ this weekend includes a big sign-up push for the subscription streaming service. Fans will be able to try out the interface on site and a significant discount is being offered. Disney+ was already making a bid for marketplace ubiquity with the streaming service’s relatively modest price-point ($7 a month or $70 a year) but D23 fans will be enticed to seal the deal with a discount of $23 off per year with a three-year commitment, averaging out to be 33% off the standard annual price.
The D23 kicks off this morning with the Disney Legends ceremony, which has become one of the more impressive tributes in show business. Two Marvel cornerstones, Iron Man tandem of star Downey and filmmaker Jon Favreau, are among the honorees. This year’s crop of honorees from across Disney’s entertainment empire are an especially eclectic group: Downey, Favreau, Christina Aguilera, Wing Chao, James Earl Jones, Bette Midler, Kenny Ortega, Barnette Ricci, Robin Roberts, Diane Sawyer, Ming-Na Wen, and Hans Zimmer.