Monday, August 31, 2009

Disney Buys Marvel

So, it sounds like this Disney purchase of Marvel is going to happen.

The New York Times says so and Stan Lee likes it! (and owns Marvel stock, so...)

I was thinking a bit today about what Jack "King" Kirby would think. Jack worked mostly for hire, I believe, and so the Marvel Empire he created with Ditko, Lee and others, is now worth a lot more than the company that was so broke they figured "well, we might as well let Stan try this superhero thing".

My comic history is an undergraduate level, but I don't really know enough about Kirby to make a solid call. But if Siegel's family is still grumbling about the loss of the Superman rights, the Kirby, Ditko and the rest of the families have to be feeling a bit screwed, too. $4 Billion.

What comic nerds all know is that DC Comics has been owned by Warner Bros. for decades. They were a successful publisher, risen up from soft-core and other pulp imprints prior to comics, and it was a good deal when Warner Bros. integrated them.

Marvel, when I first noticed anything about the business, was owned at the time by New World Pictures. It was supposed to do what WB had done, bring recognizable properties to the big screen. Unfortunately, that didn't pan out when New World went under.

Since then, Marvel went through another owner or two before going it alone, with a stock offering that culminated in what I found to be a stunning bit of arrogance when Marvel dipped out of the red and actually published their annual report as a collector's item for the fanboys. No. Really. They did.

This was shortly after the release of Spider-Man 1, and the launch of the Ultimate line. So, yeah, Marvel had some reason to gloat.

Unfortunately, Marvel also spent that time making fun of DC for being owned by a corporation, and, regularly, in print, referred to DC as "AOL Comics" in reference to the AOL/ Time-Warner merger. It wasn't so much that it had any effect on DC, but it was the sort of juvenile posturing going on at Marvel at the time marked the years when Jemas took the reins, with current Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada right next to him.

I do, in fact, wonder if Quesada is wondering if DC will be referring to Marvel as "Mickey Marvel".

I don't doubt there's any "why" to Disney's purchase of Marvel. Disney has usually created brands within the company to reach certain demographics, or purchased them if that seemed more convenient. Touchstone Pictures was Disney's Rated-R arm for a while, and they bought Miramax from the Weinsteins when having something vaguely independent in appearance seemed profitable.

Marvel has a certain street cred of cool that DC hasn't had in 40 years, and their stable of super-heroes have become as well known as the Super Friends once were. Their characters appeal to the ever-profitable audience of young adult males. Disney hasn't been able to maintain the continuum with Mickey and Co., losing that audience after childhood, and waiting for people to become parents themselves to fully tap into the licensed property market. In fact, I'd say the closing of a good portion of the Disney Stores at malls was a sign that the licensing was missing a few key demographics.


Let's be clear: Disney is not buying Marvel so they can put out comics. In fact, this is a fairly messy area for Disney.

In recent years, Disney has tried to crack the comic-sphere. I believe they currently have a deal with SLG comics, where they tried to exploit the medium with comics based on The Haunted Mansion and other properties. I don't think I've seen any of the Disney comics that were supposed to come from that deal in four or five years, so that's some indicator of the success of that deal.

Within the last two months, upstart comic publisher Boom! Studios has made huge waves with their Disney/ Pixar licensed comics, and an announcement of the old Scrooge McDuck an other comics making their way from Gemstone over to Boom! And, honestly, I feel pretty badly for Boom! at the moment as this move means that their deal will most likely not last beyond the term of their current contract. And, in fact, Disney seems to have acted in a bit of odd, if not bad, faith.

Further, Marvel's publishing arm hasn't actually been doing super-duper the past year or so. However, in this game, its not about the comics, its about the licensing and film opportunities.

Part of the implied insult in Marvel's bad-natured teasing of DC about its Time-Warner ownership was the idea that DC's characters, beholden to their corporate overlords, couldn't be as "edgy" as Marvel's characters. To some degree, while I would guess all sorts of assurances are being made today, Marvel does now have a corporate structure within which it will fall. No matter the guarantees, at some point a Disney accountant is going to point out that "We are Disney. Our best known superhero does not make marriage-ending deals with Satan himself."

While I sincerely believe the Disney corporate overlords have better things to do than worry about Spidey's thrice-monthly adventures, this is also the same company that subducts its waste into an elaborate system of tunnels at Disney World so that one never sees someone handling a trashcan at The Magic Kingdom.

The Licensing

Marvel has never been shy about slapping Spidey's face on everything from a Universal Studios Theme Park Island to the pair of plastic binoculars I had in first grade.

With Disney owning the most important theme parks in the western Hemisphere, Marvel has an entire "Marvel Island" located at Universal Studios in Orlando. Its hard to believe that when the contracts expire, that Disney will simply renew the contracts without exacting a hefty fee from their neighbors a cab-ride away from the Magic Kingdom. (I met Captain America when I was there. It was neat.)

Marvel's licensing has accounted for a goodly chunk of the profits, to toy manufacturers, popsicle makers, etc... I don't pick up many Marvel comics, but they must also have some print-ad deal when they sign a contract, because half the comic looks like a catalog for hastily-crafted Marvel gear (there was Marvel cologne a few years ago).

Jason often makes fun of me for "buying any crap with an 'S' on it", but the truth is that were I an avid Spidey collector, Jamie and I would have to move out of the house to make room for all the junk with Spidey's two pale white eyes staring back at you. Seriously, walk around Target sometime with Spidey on the brain. It's a mind-boggling experience.

I don't believe Disney has anything to actually learn here. After Eisner was shown the door (and a bit before), they've had no trouble putting the face of their princesses, Pooh and the Mickey gang on all sorts of junk. But, again, there's that demographic where princesses and Mickey don't really work, but Iron Man most certainly does work.


When it comes to feature films, my assumption is that Disney is looking to buy tentpole summer movies that it can't seem to cook up on their own, what with the relative failure of the Narnia Chronicles. Not only do the movies tend to rake in dough, but the sale of the movie-related toys seems to be quite good.

Prior to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, Marvel's history with movies was rocky, at best. Several 70's-era TV movies and a post-Burton-Batman Captain America film that never saw the silver screen... and, the much discussed but rarely seen Roger Corman Fantastic Four.

Here's the odd part to me about focusing a lot on the films...

Spider-Man is pretty well locked up at Sony. The FF isn't really ready for a reboot quite yet (although that's the next logical step). The last Hulk outing did less-well than the criticized Ang Lee Hulk. Ghost Rider and several other Marvel flicks (Elektra, Daredevil, two separate Punisher movies) were either critical or commercial bombs, or both. And the Wolverine film has a strong opening weekend and then fizzled.

In the past three or four years, only Iron Man has been a stand-out hit, and that may have been beginners luck. But iron Man, Hulk and several of Marvel's latest films that actually lent heavily from the comics (unlike the egregious FF movies) were actually produced in-house by Marvel Entertainment.

Will Disney buy the Marvel style of movie-producing, or will they do what WB insisted on doing withe the pre-Nolan Batman franchise, Catwoman, etc...?

That said, you never know. Iron Man is supposed to lead us to an Avengers movie, and there's just a blanket assumption that an Avengers movie will be The Next Big Thing. I can see it.

Animation and Television

Here's an area where DC has been kicking the crud out of Marvel for years.

DCU Animated has been doing pretty well with its slate of animated feature films, at least critically and from fan response. Marvel... has a long way to go. DC could easily still be spinning stories out from Bruce Timm and Co.'s vision which started when I was in high school, but that era has sort of wrapped.

I have no idea why Marvel's animation projects always wind up as a bit of a mess, but its not for lack of a quantity of attempts. Movies. MTV-3D-animated Spidey. 3D animated Iron Man. Baby Avengers. What-have-you. None of it seems to make much of a dent.

One is led to believe Disney may know a thing or two about how to do this better.

With Smallville, DC has also had a show about the boyhood of Clark Kent on TV going into its 9th Season this fall. That's nothing short of incredible. Especially when one considers that the show was preceeded by Lois and Clark and Superboy in the past 25 years or so.

Marvel hasn't had a regular television staple since Spidey joined the cast of The Electric Company.

In Conclusion:

On paper, the Marvel/ Disney deal looks good. I will be curious to see how it all pans out over the next two years. To see who stays and goes. And if Stan Lee gets richer and kookier (I hope so).

It's impossible to know exactly what will happen, who will stay and who will go.

I'm insanely tired or there would be something to talk about the buying and selling of characters and their likeness, in a Marvel vs. DC world, but... I haven't got it in me tonight.

Anyway, it'll be fun to watch.

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