The MCU, Disney, and the Gentrification of Hollywood

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In my hometown, there used to be a really good restaurant called “Baja Fish Tacos” I frequented quite often not too long ago.

It was a local joint that specialized in Mexican style seafood and they made by far my favorite fried fish burrito I’ve had anywhere. It was perfectly breaded, served with refried beans, avocado, and a unique Spanish white rice mix and along with their freshly made in-house salsa it was a killer combo for lunch and/or dinner any day of the week.

Unfortunately a few years back, Baja Fish Tacos went under without warning and along with it my favorite fish burrito. You know what replaced it? A fucking Waba Grill. 

For those of you not from SoCal who are reading this, Waba Grill is a chain restaurant that makes Americanized Japanese/Asian food. I’m fairly picky when it comes to Asian food, as a half AAPI myself, and there really isn’t anything remarkable about a Waba Grill. It is a restaurant that fulfills a need for a hungry customer but hardly a place that can be considered the best at anything when it comes to fast food.

And why did it replace my favorite fish burrito joint? Because it’s one of many things that are slowly gentrifying my neighborhood to fulfill a sterile aesthetic of a supposedly “better” more wealthy town. The more authentic/ethnic places and people are slowly being pushed further and further out as the costs of living gets higher. In fact we’re getting a brand new water front that shut down a number of small businesses to cater to “foodie” culture that we see more of these days.

Soon places native only to my hometown will be completely gone, replaced by more corporately approved places and people that can afford its rising costs and that inevitably favors the wealthy. 

You may be wondering why I started this blog entry by talking about fish burritos and foodies here but it’s a microcosm of a larger societal problem. With the way things get more expensive, more control is ceded to the haves and less to the have-nots. People who have their own little corner in the world, providing something true and authentic to their community, imperfections and all, have less and less of a place in the increasingly more unfair world we live in because capitalism hardly ever favors these types of folk.

The system caters ultimately to those who have the most resources and those that do tend not offer anything truly unique to the table.

They are focused solely on profit before creation.

This is also happening in Hollywood. While we may still get a few outstanding individually led artistic films each year, their prevalence and influence gets smaller and smaller, as big movies led by big studios hog up all the airspace. None have done this more so than the juggernaut of all these studios, Disney, particularly its most popular franchise; The MCU.

I can hear some of you groaning already. “Oh another article about how the MCU is destroying Hollywood, blah, blah, blah.” Frankly you’re right to groan; I’m hardly the first nerd or pundit to dump criticism on this series, nor is it the first time in this particular space, but I don’t think people truly understand the ways these movies are hurting creativity in Hollywood and pop culture. I know more than a few of you reading this probably hold these films in some type of high regard, whether you have one or many films of that series that you love. In fairness to those of you who do, I’m going to try my best to illustrate exactly why the MCU is gentrifying art without attacking the content of the movies themselves. Not too much at least.

I don’t think I need to explain much about what the MCU itself is; whether you’ve been following along since “Iron Man” in 2008 or not, it’s hard to escape any mention of this franchise in our culture with its now 30-plus movie and TV series franchise. I’ve talked at length about how middling their aesthetics are to me, but for what it’s worth, without getting into my harsher feelings about their scripts, the films tend to be fun, crowd-pleasers, that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike and are ultimately, competently put together films for the most part. They check boxes and do what they are designed to do for audiences, which is provide catharsis and escapism.

There is nothing too wrong at least with that, without getting into again how I feel about them politically, but the problem is these films dominate airspace quite literally in movie theaters and it leaves less and less room for more independently, artistically-driven films to breathe. It might feel strange to think about now but there used to be a time when the MCU put out at most one or two of these pictures a year. Phase 1 of the MCU for example, which started originally under Paramount (yikes), “only” had six movies released between 2008 and 2012. Phase 3, the most recently completed one, by comparison released 11 films between 2016 and 2019.

Phase 4, as of this date in June 2022, has released five films, and six TV shows, in just little over a year since 2021 and this is not even counting films and TV shows that have still yet to be released this year…

I cannot stress this enough that the sheer amount of content coming out from one studio is bad actually…

You may think perhaps this is harmless. You enjoy MCU movies, so what does it matter that so many have been released in such a short period of time. The problem is the increasing prevalence of these films are literally creating less room for other movies to flourish. It is creating a market that is primarily only serving these kinds of movies now for the most part. 

A lot of cape-flick fans like to write a lot of snarky comments about a studio like A24 because it’s the artsier alternative competition on the perceived opposite end of the spectrum and has somewhat of its own dedicated fanbase but it’s really not comparable at all. A24 just released arguably the most critically acclaimed and universally well-liked movie of the year in “Everything. Everywhere. All at Once” and in the span of a single Thursday the MCU’s own multiverse film made virtually its entire box office and it’s not because it’s a better movie; it’s because it has better access to the movie theaters. Disney quite literally buys all the screens for its major Marvel releases, making it basically the only movie one can see during its debut weekends. On that particular Thursday for “Multiverse of Madness” the film played 60 times in just Manhattan Square’s theater alone. Despite this behemoth of a film screening schedule, the new Dr. Strange’s “modest” box office of $690 million so far only places it 16th overall out of its 28 films released thus far.

Fans can’t act like A24 and other more independent “artsy” film studios are competing on an equal playing field when these are the types of numbers and money it’s squaring up against. The supposed “free marketplace of ideas” so to speak here, doesn’t actually reward the best made films. It rewards the ones with the most access to revenue generation and with Disney, a company that owns Marvel, Lucasfilm, Fox and practically Sony’s most profitable IP, Spider-man, that is decidedly them by a wide margin to put it mildly.

An accurate representation of Disney acquiring Fox not super long ago…

I can hear a few of you still saying “So what? MCU films are fun and enjoyable,” something I have said and written, “so, what does it matter that they make a lot of money?” Well much like my fish burrito story above, yea is Waba Grill a popular place that makes decent food? Yea sure it does but its financial influence directly affected the existence of a far more unique place to eat, all because it had the money and power to do so. It’s the same with Disney; as long as the system in place caters to those with stockpiles of money who do you think will keep going on no matter how rough the market gets?

People aren’t going to know one of these more independently led films are even out if those films don’t have the money to promote it or put it on more theater screens as Disney takes them for themselves.

I can hear a few of you now going “well duh. You need money in order to have access to things. Disney earned that money. Why should it not spend it?” Well it’s not’s so much a question of whether or not they earned their box office money so much if the way the theater industry is constructed allows only people/industries who are super wealthy to show their movies , and prices keep going up, those who do not have money will be less and less seen.

Ie: those alternative movies are going to be pushed further and further out onto the margins. This is what a monopoly does.

An example of what I mean by this is look at sports stadiums. A long time ago it was a fairly affordable commodity for even working class individuals to attend. Many decades prior a ticket to the Super Bowl was just a few hundred dollars which even adjusted for inflation is peanuts compared to what it is now. Now, despite the fact that going to a professional sporting events is less and less a consistent viable option for poorer folk, stadiums still go on despite their absence. You know why? Because stadiums now make all their money off luxury seating and catering to “fans” who are wealthy. There is zero incentive for these stadiums to lower their prices for poorer folks to have more access to the games because the wealthy are validating its high prices.

This image of Mike Brown presented without comment

Back in 2019, I really wanted to see “The Farewell” and “The Lighthouse” in theaters but in each case doing so required that I drive 20 plus miles to see them during that time. A large reason for why is that year MCU films and the latest Star Wars film were playing in virtually all theaters respectively and effectively made access to these films harder. Now for me as a salary-earning individual, driving 20 something miles to West Hollywood to see an A24 film isn’t the hardest thing in the world but think about folks who are less well off. People who have less access to money, less access to transportation are going to more likely choose what is easier to get, be it food, goods, or in this case movies. 

An example of what I’m getting at here is think about how conservatives talk about voter ID laws for voting, stressing how easy it is to get a state ID to be able to vote, when a certain demographic of people have lack of means to afford the cost to get an ID or in many cases don’t have a reliable DMV in their immediate area to receive that ID. The deck is stacked against them, just as these more independently driven movies are working against the market.

And that market is quite literally owned, largely, by Disney.

This image of Mitch McConnell also presented without comment...

I’ve talked already at length about how Disney’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is shallow and fraudulent at best but I want to reiterate it here that the studio effectively silences and pushes out films made more directly by ethnic and BIPOC writers and directors when they do things like this. “The Farewell,” a film about a Chinese American dealing with loss in her family, barely released to half the theaters available at the time of its release. I’ve seen some people talk about how its critical acclaim led to big budget AAPI led films like Disney and Marvel’s own “Shang-Chi” but I think people have their “progressive,” social justice movie-going objectives backwards on this. 

The goal of a release like “The Farewell” shouldn’t be to lead to a studio like Disney doing their “own” AAPI led blockbuster. The goal should be for a movie like “The Farewell” to lead to more movies like it for abundantly more people to see. A Disney Blockbuster shouldn’t be the standard that marginalized groups measure how well they are seen on.

As I have harped on in the past, as an AAPI myself I do not pretend to be THE voice of my community when I speak in these blog entries but Disney certainly does when they buy up theaters that effectively shut down films like “The Farewell” so that they can show their limited vision of our experiences to audiences.

What do I mean by this? Well when you show only one type of AAPI led film on the most theater screens possible you only get one type of vision of what we are like to mass audiences.

One of the most refreshing things about “The Farewell” and “Everything. Everywhere. All at Once” is that I really appreciated that at no point in either movie does the script point fingers at the culture of the parents in either story as the source of the younger characters’ drama. In “The Farewell” it’s less about East vs West and more about East AND West. In “Everything. Everywhere. All at Once” intergenerational trauma is centered only on the family and at no point do we have Michelle Yeoh’s character saying something along the lines of “this is how I was raised in China” or “The Chinese do it this way.”

Meanwhile, think about every major AAPI led blockbuster, not just Disney, and I’m willing to bet most of them have the “I’m proud of you” moment meant to neg the audience about how robotic and cold Asian parents typically are because that’s supposedly what the reality is. Newsflash; cold and distance parenting is hardly centered to one culture on this planet, and though of course being raised Asian American is a unique experience, parenting is not uniquely worse in this way compared to other cultures.

Disney isn’t creating nuanced depictions of the AAPI experience when they hog up theater screens with their films. They are creating stereotypes and generalizations of an entire race and culture of people…

This is the problem with these Marvel flicks and more generally Disney. It’s a gentrification of film, genres, and pop culture. It shows you one type of movie and story through a limited lens and whether intentionally or not tells audiences this is the standard as opposed to A standard. 

The existence of A24 and other studio films does not change the fact that Disney is in fact a monopoly in the industry.

There has been a lot of talk about how Phase 4 is the one where this franchise gets weirder and more independent but we already have weird and independent films being made, even within this genre, that people striving for that kind of storytelling and catharsis should be watching/reading more of. I used to get pretty aggravated waiting for that kind of content back when I did hold this franchise in high regard but I’ve come to realize finally how futile it is to expect a corporately driven product to be revolutionary in any way.

It’s very weird for me to see fans demanding stranger, more “inclusive”/”diverse” Marvel and Disney films when independent, BIPOC/Queer creators keep making them and they openly ignore it. But I also know that is by design because when a company as large as Disney has the marketing power it has, the chances you even know these other films, books, or comics exist are going to be pretty small.

In fact, the success of “Everything. Everywhere. All at Once” is largely thanks to word of mouth. That’s great but to say that can compete consistently with Disney’s marketing department is like saying a Glock has as much firepower as a Tomahawk Missile.

This is what guys like Scorsese are really getting at when he says something like “The MCU isn’t cinema.” I still may disagree on them not being movies (to an extent) but what I do agree with him on is that they are much closer to amusement park rides than they are cinema. More accurately what the MCU is is content; it’s a product sold to customers first before it is art. The type of product meant to be continued to be consumed until finally the market stops hungering for it (whenever that is).

Maybe the definition of what IS cinema is not entirely definable but we should at least consider what might NOT be cinema at the very least in a given film.

There is just a world of difference between filmmaking influenced by a creator’s desire to tell a story and one where creative decisions are influenced by whether or not it’ll make them money. It’s actually why Phase 3 and 4 are considered the “weird” ones because during these phases Disney crunched the numbers and found that it was financially a good decision to finally make black and female-led superhero movies. Notably not because they believed in anything regarding “starting a conversation” on the subject.

Going to take this minute again to say that if you are angry about what Martin Scorsese said but didn’t actually read the article I am automatically disregarding your opinion. You owe it to yourself to hear him out at least…

Again, I may disagree with the idea that the MCU isn’t cinema but to go back to fast food again, I disagree with it in the same sense that I agree that Taco Bell is still food. I can still eat Taco Bell, it’ll satisfy my hunger and a craving on a given day, but it’s not exactly good for me, it’s a farcical interpretation of authentic Mexican cuisine, and we don’t really need more of them.

To use another food metaphor here, the MCU and Disney is a lot like candy. Candy is good sometimes, it might even make you feel good after a bad day. People deserve treats with empty nutritional value once in a while. But having it all the time and never eating anything else will rot your brain…

What I hope those of you who have stuck through this rant get out of this at the very least is that your enjoyment of these films as they are is inconsequential to the question of whether or not they are bad for Hollywood. They are unquestionably bad for our media landscape if you feel that BIPOC writers and creators need better representation and should have more of their stories seen because Disney is pushing them further and further out. They are unquestionably bad if you feel that we should have more access to films made by these kinds of creators for the same reasons. And they are unquestionably bad for Hollywood if you feel that the movie theater landscape has become homogenized and barely showcases films outside the mainstream spectrum because again we are getting closer and closer to an era of film that is more entirely about content than art.

Know the difference.

I say this as someone who actually did have fun watching the most recent MCU flick; the franchise and by extension Disney are killing alternative voices in Hollywood and limiting creativity.

But hey, again, you might feel the free market is just and simply its survival of the fittest out there for these movies, that box office numbers indicate some type of level of worthiness for these movies to continue being as prevalent as they are. But take a minute to imagine an actual level playing field out there for Hollywood. What would it look like without the monopoly of Disney? What types of films do you think would come out if the almighty dollar did not command such power? If given true equal footing what multiverse film would actually be majorly popular with everyone right now?

Perhaps it still doesn’t matter to you. Perhaps you think these movies are ultimately harmless (to which I would strongly disagree). Perhaps you might even argue that Disney is keeping theaters alive because they’re popularity does command tremendous revenue but in the end, however you feel, their popularity does come at a cost. While it may keep theaters alive, it is killing creativity through the increasing gentrification of Hollywood.

Whether you still like watching Disney/Marvel films and TV shows or not, that should give you pause at the very least because at this rate we will have less and less alternatives to watch at the theaters.

To go back to my original metaphor again here, all our fish burritos are going to be gone soon and I really rather not eat at only Waba Grills the rest of my life…

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