Disney buys Marvel. Why?
Early this week, the business sector and the fanboy sector were shocked to learn that entertainment empire Walt Disney Co. was purchasing Marvel Entertainment to the tune of $4 billion. Almost immediately speculation swirled. Would Disney water-down Marvel?
There’s a lot at stake here, maybe more than Disney realizes. While Marvel is a powerhouse brand, it still retains hardcore followers that remember its leaner, underdog days. In recent years, Disney’s pattern has been to purchase content rather than creating its own as part of a horizontal integration model. (This is how they nabbed ABC, ESPN, Pixar and the Muppets).
The digital cable channel Disney XD was already running a lot of Marvel’s new cartoon lines; these loosely told stories update classic mythologies that young viewers can relate to. It’s easy to make a character once (The “Sleeping Beauty” princess never ages.) It’s harder to mess with fans by “re-booting” a character or franchise.
I’m a recovering fanboy. By this, I mean that I collected comic books from ages 10 to 30. It’s hard to pick a favorite title that I read back then, but I collected Marvel titles, which were available at Zimmer’s drugstore and had easy-to-follow storylines rooted in the real world.
But I had to quit – the habit became too expensive. I ended up with a trunk full of Spider-Man, Captain America, Avengers and so … many… X-Men comics. That particular title broke my back. They started cross-titles and complicated storylines that required you to pick up more issues just to finish the story. What used to cost $1 would then cost $4.
Marvel launched in 1939 as Timely Comics, a comics division of a pulp magazine publisher. It is a hard sell to say that Marvel and comic books have evolved very far from humble, rather low-culture origins. For five decades, their pages remained devoted to fantasy and adventure — complete with advertisements for x-ray specs and Hostess fruit pies.
As the market evolved, so did the artwork and storylines. Things got graphic, so to speak, in the late 1980s. Certain artists and writers who remembered its glorious past asked company heads to let them tweak the format a bit. During that era, Art Spiegelman created Maus; Dark Horse Comics was founded; Alan Moore made the Watchmen; Neil Gaiman started the Sandman storyline and Frank Miller created Batman: the Dark Knight Returns.
DC experimented with the latter title by packaging it as a “prestige format” with better paper stock and binding in order to drive up sales.
These things had a cumulative effect and led us to Monday’s sale. Even though comic books were elevated in the mid-1990s from something found on a treehouse floor to something found on a coffee table, it was still considered low-grade content. Comic-Con was not the place to be. Figurines were not valuable collectibles, and Spider-Man remained a cartoon (not counting the Electric Company’s version, or the short-lived television series).
But eventually, DC and Marvel started to beef-up their storylines and characters, either with extended and epic plots or by excessive violence and brutality. So, it was interesting that the first movie attempt for 20th Century Fox was 2000’s X-Men (Fox still has long-term movie rights to that title, plus Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer and Daredevil. Sony still has a long deal with the Spider-Man title. Paramount has Iron Man).
The entertainment world came to the comic book well in droves. Just about every major studio now has a graphic novel or superhero live-action movie adaptation in the works. (Marvel has four.)
This trend started in earnest about five years ago. Suddenly, every industry head goes to Comic Con. Figurines are sculpted into small statues and retail for $150 or more. Spider-Man is a sought-after franchise with three movies completed and another three in the works. So, it’s natural that Disney wanted a piece of the action.
The question remains: What will this do to the Marvel line?
To me, that point is moot. Marvel as a company and its offerings became something else many years ago. The titles are either strictly for adults or strictly for kiddies. It’s the opportunity for Disney to market the latter and turn action figures into rides (wait, didn’t Universal Studios already do that?) It’s a little too late to saturate the market with new lunchboxes, and having the Hulk appear alongside Goofy seems to be a little too much to bear.
The right question is why now?