Disney Buys Marvel: So What Does It All Mean?

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The first thing to remember is that it's not about the comics.

We'd all like to think the Disney buyout of Marvel Comics has something to do with the comic books that Marvel publishes, but it does not.

Oh, it has everything to do with the characters in Marvel Comics. But it has nothing to do with the comics themselves. It's not exactly a bombshell from above that the Marvel super-heroes are incredibly popular these days. The Marvel stable of characters are most popular characters in the world aside from the Disney Princesses. How many boys have you seen running around wearing Spider-Man shirts or Hulk jackets or Iron Man shoes? The Marvel characters have become ubiquitous over the last ten years. This deal is all about Disney getting their hands on the Marvel characters.

Disney is buying Marvel because it's almost a bottomless pit of characters to mine for popular movies. Let's look just at the performance of Marvel's movies since 2006.
  • X-Men: the Last Stand grossed $234 million in 2006

  • Spider-Man 3 grossed $336 million in 2007.

  • Iron Man grossed $318 million in 2008.

  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine grossed $179 million this year.
That's over a billion dollars of cumulative ticket sales right there. And there's every reason in the world to think that the Marvel movies will continue to go forward, selling scads of tickets to eager fans. Just look around the web and look for the buzz for Iron Man 2, Avengers, Thor and Captain America. What company would not want to be part of that?

After all, Disney's movies aren't exactly selling tickets the way they used to. Their movies are not exactly grossing a cumulative billion dollars these days. That was a giant part of the reason for Disney to buy Pixar, whose movies themselves have made over a billion dollars in theaters over the last 5 years.

It's true that Marvel's movies are mostly wrapped up in development deals with other studios, but Disney is a company with very deep pockets that can afford to wait for the characters to break free once again. There's no reason to expect Marvel's movie success to fade, after all.

And besides that, Marvel's deep roster of heroes now including the fabled Marvelman will allow Disney to have an absurdly large range of characters and potential storylines. It's a total win for everyone. The fans can dream of a diverse set of Marvel movies as far as they can imagine, while Disney can find a nearly infinite number of movie ideas right at their fingertips.

The acquisition of Marvel also allows Disney to play a different sort of hardball in their theme park business. It has to have been galling to Disney that Universal Studios in Orlando has a Marvel Comics Islands of Adventure. What kid wouldn't want to go on an adventure with the Amazing Spider-Man? (My kids and I couldn't skip ol' webhead's adventure; we went on that ride three times.) I'm sure many people chose to visit Universal precisely to allow the kids a chance to hang out with the Marvel heroes.

I'm also sure that this new deal won't force Universal and Marvel to divorce immediately, but it will put a wedge between the two companies. Universal will have to face the idea of a park without some of its premier rides, while Disney will have the chance to create yet more of their own unique rides to fit the Marvel characters. Disney still has tons of space in their Walt Disney World complex in Orlando; wouldn't a new Marvel Universe park fit comfortably next to Epcot Center and the Magic Kingdom?

This also allows Disney to have a new set of characters to wander the theme parks that boys will found exciting. Last time we were at the parks, we met Buzz and Woody, but the vast majority of characters were either princesses or animals. Many of the girls who are excited to meet Ariel and Belle have brothers who would love to meet Spider-Man and Wolverine; now Disney has that chance as well.

Here's a thought: will this move help move the idea of comics on iTunes ahead in a dramatic way? Apple and Disney have a very strong partnership on iTunes, and Disney will want to maximize their investment in Marvel by pushing their product in digital form. Disney also has a strong software house that delivers fun and innovative products. Isn't a nice synergy to have Disney develop interesting software to read comics on the iPhone or computer? And if so, is that a way to drive more readers to comics and graphic novels?

It's an interesting paradox. Disney comics have been pretty moribund in America over the last ten years. But this relationship with Marvel may allow Disney to drive an alternative distribution channel and get new people reading comics. Why wouldn't someone downloading Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs want to also grab a copy of an issue of World War Hulk that they could read while listening to their music? If I were Diamond, I would be nervous about this move.

One thing Disney has been well known for is keeping the cost of their talent low. They're famous in Hollywood for paying the lowest rates for screenwriters and actors, for increasing their bottom line at the cost of individual creators. It will be interesting to see how this affects some of the freelancers at Marvel.

The days of creators making millions working for Marvel are long past, but I wonder if this move will put downward pressure on creators' pay. Will this move cost people like Romita Jr. or Ellis right where it hurts?

Will this move affect the status of Marvelman? If Todd McFarlane is still trying to push his ownership interest in the character, will he consider backing off when confronted by the exquisite pain of having to battle Disney's legendary legal staff? And does this mean that the extremely professional business staff will be able to untangle all the crazy legal strands in this story?

If you're a fan of the Marvel cartoons, you're probably familiar with the fact that Marvel cartoons are becoming more and more ubiquitous on their Disney XD channel. We're getting Iron Man: Armored Adventures, Wolverine and the X-Men, Spectacular Spider-Man, and, soon, Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes. All have been reasonably interesting cartoons that are loyal to the original stories. Will this move mean that still more of Marvel's characters will be mined for toons? How long will it be till Thor and Captain America join their Marvel brethren?

Finally, I keep coming back to wondering how much the new Marvel will be like ESPN rather than like Disney. Disney, of course, owns the Worldwide Leader in Sports, and has been brilliant about leveraging the ESPN name and resources to maximize their return on investment. Under Disney, ESPN has become even more ubiquitous than it has been before, and the company has turned into a virtual money making machine for the company due to intelligent management that focuses relentlessly on brand building.

It's intriguing to contemplate how a parallel situation might affect Marvel. Will we see Marvel's name and assets leveraged in intelligent ways as well?

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