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The Avengers are the heroes of ‘Endgame,’ but Disney was the villain all along

The company has been collecting entertainment properties as if they were infinity stones — and it’s reshaping the media world in its own image.

Characters from Disney and Fox movies are displayed behind Cathleen Taff, president of distribution, franchise management, business and audience insight for Walt Disney Studios, during the Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures presentation at CinemaCon 2019 in Las Vegas. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

“I am … inevitable,” declares the mad titan Thanos in “Avengers: Endgame,” the 22nd feature film in Marvel’s ongoing Cinematic Universe. As the story plays out, our purple people-killer strives to cement his legacy. Having reduced half the living universe to dust with a snap of his fingers at the end of the previous film, his one remaining desire is to ensure that his actions are irreversible: He intends, he claims, to reorganize the universe itself, wholly recasting it in his own image.

It should spoil nothing to say that the film’s heroes — a crew assembled over the course of 21 earlier films — defeat him just before all is lost. What goes unspoken, though, is the degree to which Marvel’s corporate parent, Walt Disney Co., has practically accomplished the very thing Thanos set out to do — not in the fictional world, but in our own very real one. With this film, the company demonstrates how totally and irreversibly it has rewritten the global media landscape in its own image. Indeed, Disney has far more in common with Thanos than it ever did with any of the Avengers who have become our pop culture’s most beloved icons.

More than just another superhero movie, “Endgame” shattered box office records in its debut, with a global haul of $1.2 billion in its opening weekend alone. But that hardly comes as a surprise: Where Thanos arrogantly declares himself inevitable, this film’s success was never a question for Disney. The Mouse House, once the successful purveyor of a particular kind of children’s entertainment, has transformed itself into the 21st century’s autocratic titan of entertainment franchises, thanks in part to its ongoing acquisition of companies such as Lucasfilm, Fox and, of course, Marvel.

In the process, Disney has assembled a vast array of intellectual properties, that encompasses the Star Wars franchise, Pixar, the Muppets, the Disney princesses and more. With its recent purchase of Fox, that stable now also includes global franchises like “Alien,” “Predator,” “The Simpsons” and “The X-Files,” along with the National Geographic library of shows — all of which will provide exclusive content for its recently announced streaming channel and “Netflix killer,” Disney Plus, as of next year.

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Disney’s brutal ascent maps improbably well onto the cinematic franchise that has helped fuel its rise. In the first three Soviet-like “Phases” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a colorful variety of superheroes assemble to fight off “devourer of worlds” Thanos. His master plan, which, in hindsight, connects the many MacGuffins from the plots of individual films, has been to collect all six Infinity Stones, the combined power of which will give him omnipotence over the entire universe.

Disney’s swelling assemblage of franchises and brands is the only Infinity Gauntlet that matters in the current entertainment landscape, offering it power enough to determine how many of us spend the vast majority of our free time. In 2018, Disney-owned productions already made up over a quarter of the domestic box office, and that market share now seems all but certain to grow even higher after the Fox merger. But it’s not just the staggering amount of IP Disney now owns and operates: it’s how media industries have shifted from making movies and TV series to the production of serialized content that keeps us going, from one production to the next. Film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz describes this phenomenon as “the content endgame.” As digital media have converged, film franchises have become more like TV shows, while TV shows have become more like Hollywood blockbusters.

The two most obvious (and conveniently synchronized) examples are “Endgame” and “Game of Thrones,” each of which offers a grand finale to a decade-spanning cultural phenomenon. But as with Thanos’s master plot, these supposed “endings” only prime us for our next fix. For a brief period, the cultural conversation will be focused on the increasingly rare experience of a massively shared moment of narrative closure — before we move on to the next set of industrially produced episodes. While the majority of the individual MCU installments range from the mediocre to the barely okay, the massive success of “Endgame” demonstrates with crystal clarity that the franchise’s whole is substantially greater than the sum of its parts.

Disney isn’t the only player in town, of course. Just as Thanos leaves some of his antagonists alive at the end of “Infinity War,” there are other media companies still in the game, some of whom may even benefit from the corporate titan’s power, if only through deliberate counterprogramming. After all, if “Endgame” is already sold out on all of its 11 screens, people will surely buy tickets for one of the three other movies that might also be playing in that theater! But it is increasingly clear that a single company is defining the rules of the game. It’s a transformation of the media industries that gives truly unprecedented power to a small handful of horizontally and vertically integrated companies, with Disney incrementally fortifying and consolidating its position of unquestioned market leadership.

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The cartoon heroes who’ve resisted Thanos and the other authoritarian villains who served his interests, from trickster god Loki to Ronan the Accuser, supposedly did so to safeguard values like freedom, diversity and a semi-libertarian distaste for authority of any kind. There’s a grand irony, then, to the fact that these stories have contributed to Disney’s own endgame, one that doesn’t end with the little guys winning.

The mad titans of digital media — Disney, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Google — are all playing out their own versions of Thanos’s strategy. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) These behemoths gain power by hunting down and incorporating other companies, working only to consolidate their own positions of power. For Disney, Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios were two of the jewels in its own gilded glove, while Fox may turn out to be the one that truly puts the company over the edge.

Thus, even as we consume serialized franchises about individuals banding together to defeat autocratic monopolists, we willingly surrender ourselves to the media corporations that seek to own the entirety of our media landscape. As the success of “Endgame” demonstrates, Disney can now snap its fingers, and an entire global entertainment culture reshapes itself to the company’s every whim. The tragedy is that it really does feel inevitable now. All of it does.

For those fans upset by this most recent faux-finale’s farewell to some of its key actors: The endless rebirth of branded figures like Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Thor and Hawkeye is inevitable. The next cycle of complexly interwoven franchise tiers is inevitable. The next game-changing and record-breaking crossover event is inevitable. And yes, Disney’s Thanos-like, iron-fisted rule over the global entertainment industry is by now, alas, inevitable.