Disney+ is compelling, but the Marvel Comics vault could make it unstoppable

Disney will bundle its upcoming streaming service with ESPN+ and Hulu, but even before that offer, Disney+ made a strong case for being the most intriguing new option in the subscription-based streaming video market. The ability to offer subscribers the combined movie and television libraries of Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, Pixar, and Disney on-demand is a big deal, after all — and that’s before the company adds its newly acquired 21st Century Fox properties to the mix.

And yet, there’s one particular element the streaming service is missing that could put it over the top and differentiate it from nearly every other service out there: Comics.

Disney+ has plenty of superheroes to offer subscribers in its live-action and animated projects, as well as the cornucopia of popular sci-fi and fantasy characters that comes with owning Star Wars, Pixar, and the company’s various other assets. What it doesn’t provide, however, is the massive library of spinoff, tie-in, and original stories set in those same universes published by Marvel Comics (at least, not yet, anyway).

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It might seem like an unlikely pairing to bundle digital comics with on-demand movie and TV, but Disney wouldn’t be the first to go that route. In fact, Marvel’s primary competitor in the superhero market, DC Entertainment, has been doing exactly that for a while now with its subscription-based DC Universe service.

First launched in August 2018, DC Universe offers subscribers a decent (but not too large) collection of new and classic TV and film projects based on Superman, Batman, and the rest of the DC Comics pantheon. (Highlights include Tim Burton’s Batman films, the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, and the entirety of the Emmy-winning Batman: The Animated Series, among other projects.) Along with the classic content and some popular original projects — including the quirky, live-action Doom Patrol series — the service also gives subscribers access to a much more massive (relative to the movie and TV offerings) library of DC’s comics.

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Although the interface for reading the digital comics can be a bit wonky, the sheer volume of stories that DC Universe has made available is impressive.

Along with offering nearly every major story arc from DC’s comics over the years, the service provides curated categories inspired by the DCEU films and popular DC-related TV series (like those on The CW, for example) that let subscribers take a deeper dive into the characters and stories they’ve seen on the screen. For example, if you watch Aquaman and want to read more about the film’s villain, Black Manta, there’s a set of comics already curated for you that you can read within the DC Universe app. The same goes for Shazam, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and the rest of DC’s heroes, villains, and story arcs.

The digital comics and the movie and TV content complement each other so well within DC Universe, in fact, that it’s a little surprising Disney isn’t planning to do the same with the Marvel Comics library and Disney+.

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The absence of Marvel’s comics from Disney+ is even more conspicuous when you consider the synergy between comics and the movies and TV shows based on them.

Comics readership has been on the rise in recent years, growing from $805 million in North American comics sales in 2012 to $1.095 billion in 2018. Industry pundits point to the growth of digital comics and expansion of comics sales into Walmart and other mainstream locations as the biggest factors in that growth — with all of that growth driven by the popularity of superhero movies and TV shows.

That’s not a one-way relationship, either.

As much as superhero movies and TV shows push people to comics, the frequency with which studios are turning to comics for source material has made comics a proving ground of sorts for concepts and characters that eventually make their way to the screen.

Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury? That casting originated in the pages of Marvel’s The Ultimates series long before the actor took the role. The Umbrella Academy (see below) and The Boys? Hit shows based on lesser-known comics like these found a loyal audience in print before they ever found their way to streaming TV.

Even after a film or TV series is a hit, comics have expanded or extended the franchise’s viability with spinoff stories and print “sequels” that keep the characters in circulation.

Marvel famously published a series of Star Wars comics early in the sci-fi saga’s history that established some of the characters that eventually made their way to the screen and offered deeper backstories to popular heroes, villains, and supporting characters. These comics kept the saga active during the lean years when Star Wars films weren’t in production, and introduced some of the characters and concepts that would inform recent installments of the movie franchise. Similarly, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series continued for five additional seasons after its TV run had ended, thanks to an ongoing comic produced by show creator Joss Whedon and published by Dark Horse Comics.

It’s that relationship between comics, movies, and TV shows that makes a Marvel Comics component to Disney+ make so much sense.

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Disney+ already has the makings for an industry leader in direct-to-consumer video content, but it has the opportunity to go beyond video with a comprehensive experience that blends Marvel’s comics with the projects that inspired or were inspired by them.

Imagine a service that not only gave you Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian TV series, but also gave you several volumes of comics that took a deeper dive into the supporting characters and concepts introduced in the show. On the superhero side, Disney could stoke anticipation for its Loki and WandaVision shows by curating a collection of comics featuring the Asgardian trickster’s solo adventures, as well as a collection of stories showcasing the relationship between Scarlet Witch and Vision over the years.

Given that Marvel Comics already has its own subscription-based digital comics service, Marvel Unlimited, the fundamental architecture is already there to bring Marvel’s comics into the Disney+ environment.

If Disney truly wants to immerse fans in the fantastic universes it’s nurturing, giving Disney+ subscribers a way to explore the entirety of those worlds — from the screen to the page — doesn’t just make creative sense, but also seems like a smart way to ensure those worlds live on long after the credits roll.

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