In just two years, Disney+ has become one of the most important streaming services
New streaming services are a dime a dozen. By now, their debuts are met with an eye roll. Viewers might wonder what beloved shows or movies are now leaving Netflix to be siloed off in some walled garden of a service. But the hype around Disney+ was a bit different when it launched two years ago today, mostly because it started off with a sizable library of well-loved content, much of which had never been available on streaming before. Add in some buzzworthy new shows from big-name franchises and 116 million subscribers, and it’s safe to say that Disney+ has become a must-have channel for your streaming lineup.
Disney has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to finding new ways to distribute its content. In 1983 it launched The Disney Channel, a premium network that showcased Disney-owned and other family-friendly content. (The channel would later make the shift to basic cable starting in 1990.) Other corporate-content-specific cable networks like Turner Classic Movies and Cartoon Network wouldn’t debut until a decade later. Disney was also well-known for how it would re-release classic animated films in theaters every seven years or so and, once home video was a thing, would consign those same movies to the “Disney Vault” until that period of time had passed. With the advent of DVD and later Blu-ray, Disney would loosen its grip on content, making movies available through subscription services like the Disney Movie Club, and adding free digital copies with every physical media purchase.
The launch of Disney+ promised an end to the Disney Vault, with every Disney animated film available to stream. Well, almost — Song of the South is still not available on Disney+ due to its racist content, and other shows and films have been held due to licensing restrictions. But it’s still an impressive lineup. If you wanted to give yourself a crash course in animation history Disney+ is a good service to have, home to some of the earliest Walt Disney Animation Studio films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Fantasia, all the way to recent releases like Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen II. Plenty of shorts are available on the service, too, allowing kids and adults to check out all-time classics like Steamboat Willie and The Brave Little Tailor.
But while parents were happy to have a streaming service they didn’t need to put on parental lock with their kids, Disney was making a play for older folks with two franchises it had acquired over the previous decade: Marvel and Star Wars. Right out of the gate the company promised fresh content from both, with The Mandalorian debuting only weeks after the service’s launch. Alongside later Marvel Cinematic Universe shows like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki, Disney could lay claim to having “water cooler” shows, ones that would light up social media and hopefully win a few awards in the process. Though the company hasn’t been entirely successful in the latter category and subscriber numbers have stalled, it at least has programs that generate as much excitement as Netflix’s Stranger Things or Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
So what’s next for Disney+? The service continues to add more programming from its big franchises, with shows like The Book of Boba Fett and Hawkeye not far over the horizon. I’ve talked before about how Disney+ can facilitate franchise world-building thanks to the ability to have all its content in one place, though both Star Wars and Marvel risk growing to the point where audiences may not be able to keep up with it all. The new shows and service definitely benefited from people having a lot of free time in 2020 and 2021 — it’ll be interesting to see if Disney+ can maintain its cachet as more businesses open back up. After getting mixed results with offering new movies on “Premier Access” streaming for $30 a pop, Disney has switched to offering films “only in theaters” again, with even a divisive film like Eternals pulling in over $70 million on its opening weekend.
Disney+’s biggest strength today is its back catalog of content, namely the shows and movies that are still missing from the service. Some programs were held back to promote future releases. One easy example I can think of is how the Marvel One-Shot All Hail the King showed up a week or two shy of the release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The short film was the last appearance of the character Trevor Slattery, who would go on to play a part in Shang-Chi. One can hope this means the other One-Shots will make their way to Disney+ as their characters reappear in the Marvel films.
The same, however, cannot be said for the Hulk, whose film rights are still tangled up with Universal, making 2008’s The Incredible Hulk the only MCU movie still missing from Disney+ — even with a She-Hulk series on deck for 2022. But if Marvel could patch things up with Sony over the rights to Spider-Man to the point where the new film seems to be bringing back previous actors and introducing the older films as part of a multiverse, there’s certainly room to be surprised over on Planet Hulk.
Other odd omissions: Disney+ has the original animated Aladdin film and its two direct-to-VHS sequels, but not the TV show that the two latter films bookended. At this point we don’t know if it’s a rights issue, an indication of future plans or someone just forgot the show existed. And you can only watch five episodes of the Mickey Mouse Club right now, from its classic black-and-white ‘50s period and nothing from the ‘90s reboot that launched the careers of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. The service may just be holding those in reserve for a potential relaunch, or just something to promote if and when the content dries up.
But right now, things are strong for Disney+. It’s got five new MCU shows on the horizon, while also planning a second season for Loki. Star Wars has a whopping seven live-action shows on deck, along with more of the animated The Bad Batch for the kids. It’s plenty to keep subscribers on the hook week after week and, alongside its massive back catalog, those things have catapulted Disney+ into the top tier of streaming services only two years after launch.
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