Rejoice, Aqua Teen Hunger Force fans: That caustic early-’00s Adult Swim sensibility you loved is on its way to Hulu. This time, though, it’ll have feathers.
Yesterday Marvel revealed it will be bringing four new shows to the streaming service—all animated, all aimed at adults, all from well-known creators, and all starring comic-book characters who fall squarely on the Spider-Ham end of the spectrum. There’ll be Howard the Duck, written by Kevin Smith and Adult Swim mainstay Dave Willis; Tigra & Dazzler, co-written by Chelsea Handler; Hit-Monkey, about, yes, a macaque assassin; and M.O.D.O.K., a show co-written by Patton Oswalt and starring a villain who’s essentially a living Madball.
This, to be frank, is a little weird. Sure, Marvel has managed to turn tertiary characters into household names, but this is like Hot Pie and the Shame Nun getting Game of Thrones spinoffs. But the real concern has little to do with whether people are hankering for M.O.D.O.K. Horseman. It’s that Disney, which owns Marvel, is continuing its shattershot approach to television adaptations of its comic-book characters.
In previous years that made sense—when you own a catalog as vast as Marvel’s, why not crop-dust every streaming service and network to reach the maximum audience? However, with the Mouse House’s own streaming network, Disney+, launching later this year, the tactic becomes dangerous. Netflix is already losing its Marvel shows; Disney’s other streaming competitors are acting much more territorial about their own intellectual property. When Disney’s walled garden bears fruit, will everything outside those walls just wither on the vine?
After the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a commercial juggernaut, branching out to TV seemed inevitable, both narratively and synergistically. First Marvel characters landed on ABC (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), an obvious choice as a Disney-owned network. Then Netflix, whose only-game-in-townness made it the best destination for gritty “street-level” shows like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. When X-Men-related shows like Legion and The Gifted popped up on FX and Fox, it was because Fox owns the screen rights to that chunk of Marvel’s kingdom. But then, more puzzlingly, the teen hero drama Runaways landed on Hulu.
At the time, the math checked out: Disney had a 30 percent stake in Hulu, and none in Netflix, and no (public) plans for its own platform. Since then, Disney’s relationship with Hulu has gotten cozier. Disney’s acquisition of fellow Hulu investor 21st Century Fox means its ownership stake in the streaming platform is about to double. But Disney also lost more than $500 million on Hulu last fiscal year, making the choice to create content for that platform rather than Disney+ a head-scratcher.
WarnerMedia, Disney’s chief rival in the megalopoly wars, is playing no such games. (Comprising Warner Bros., Turner Networks, and HBO, WarnerMedia is the hydra-like result of AT&T acquiring Time Warner in 2018.) Kevin Reilly, content chief of Warner’s own forthcoming streaming service, made as much clear while speaking at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in Los Angeles yesterday. “Sharing destination assets is not a good model,” Reilly said, alluding to his desire to wrestle the Warner-produced Friends away from Netflix and stream it exclusively on the platform. “My belief is they should be exclusive to the service.”
Disney owns a handful of titanically successful IP universes—Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars, not to mention Mickey and the gang—and soon a distribution channel to pump them into people’s homes. Why would it continue to develop shows for networks and platforms it doesn’t own outright?
To be fair, Howard the Duck has a long way to go before becoming a “destination asset,” no matter how many Guardians of the Galaxy end-credit scenes he pops up in. But the idea holds true. Disney owns a handful of titanically successful IP universes—Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars, not to mention Mickey and the gang—and soon a distribution channel to pump them into people’s homes. Why would it continue to develop shows for networks and platforms it doesn’t own outright?
The leading theory seems to be about positioning. “Disney’s trying to silo their content into categories,” says Rich Greenfield, a research analyst at brokerage firm BTIG (and a noted Disney pessimist), “Family, sports, more adult themed.” That makes Disney+ the family silo and these new Hulu shows the “adult” silo—but, as Greenfield points out, it’s a superfluous distinction. Netflix and Amazon already carve out their own kids/family areas inside the same platforms that the rest of their content lives on. (Even stranger, Hulu already has a wealth of family material, from explicitly kid-friendly fare like Sesame Street to four-quadrant sitcoms like Modern Family.)
Writing for investment site Motley Fool in December, Stephen Lovely downplayed this very outcome. “Disney seems unlikely to split its content between two services in the way some observers have suggested,” he wrote. “(The idea that Hulu could be for Disney’s ‘edgier’ content suggests a kid-stuff vibe that Disney+’s massive scale belies; Disney+ is virtually certain to be for everyone in the same way that Netflix and Hulu are.)” But that’s clearly not how Disney sees it. Add to that recent news that Craig Erwich, Hulu’s senior vice president of originals, has professed interest in reviving Netflix’s canceled street-level Marvel shows, and you’ve got a crisis of identity brewing that not even Doctor Strange could fix.
In fact, that might just be the worst sin in Greenfield’s view: creating new Marvel shows for Hulu adds to an already confusing patchwork of availability. “You already have this fragmentation of Marvel’s rights,” he says, citing Netflix’s continuing license for the first 20 MCU movies, as well as Sony-owned Marvel characters like Spider-Man and Venom. “Why add on to it by creating your own confusion?”
In April, Disney will hold an “Investor’s Day” to reveal more of its plans around Disney+. Until then, its motivations are likely to remain a matter of speculation. But the longer the company continues to create ad hoc mini-universes, the harder it will be to entice new subscribers—and when Netflix already has more than 128 million subscribers around the world, and Hulu has 25 million of its own, it’s going to take a lot of money and effort to win those customers over. “I think it’s going to be challenging to get an adult couple to come home on Friday night and say ‘I want to watch Disney+,'” says Greenfield.
Especially when they’ve got so many options everywhere else.