01 January 2010

Off the Market: Marvel Entertainment Officially 'The House of Mouse'

The comics industry's biggest headline of the year - if not the decade -- was also the biggest news of the day today. Following a very early meeting this morning, Marvel posted on its corporate website that its shareholders approved an agreement between themselves and The Walt Disney Company, the terms of which provide for Marvel Entertainment to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Disney Company. Based on the closing price of Disney’s common stock on December 30, 2009, Marvel predicts that their merger with Disney, which became final after the close of the stock market late this afternoon, has an estimated value of $4.3 billion.

While the news of today's Marvel-Disney merger is, on one hand, a finalization of the process set in motion  August 31st, when Disney first announced its plan to buy Marvel Entertainment, the parent company of Marvel Animation, Marvel Studios, and the Marvel Comics Group. But on the other hand, today also marks the end of the 'Marvel Age'.  Marvel Comics earned its reputation as being the non-corporate, stand-alone and stand-tall comics publisher, the one not afraid to take risks, push the creative envelope, and, ultimately, be answerable to no one other than themselves. The company, much like many of their comic book superheroes, narrowly escaped disaster after entering bankruptcy in 1996.  Down but not defeated - and much to the surprise of even their staunchest supporters -- Marvel went on to not only diversify and grow their publishing line, but to bring their characters to the silver screen and become a Hollywood powerhouse.  After a full and supremely successful decade in motion pictures, the company celebrated it's 75th Anniversary in 2009. 

Ironically, Marvel's 75th Anniversary was also it's final anniversary -- at least as the company that it was. Just as Marvel's 75 years include the company's earlier Atlas and Timely Comics incarnations as well as Marvel - a name which wasn't adopted until 1961 -- in their count, I've got no doubt that the 100th Anniversary of Marvel Comics in  2034 will be some celebration. More than likely, they'll rent out Disneyland. 

Cheap shot? Sorta-kinda? That's the fanboy inside your dauntless Dabbler talking. Seriously, although the Disney deal was announced four months ago, I'll confess that I've yet to come to a conclusion about what this change, this transition, this end of an era, truly signifies -- for the industry at large, and also for me, personally. Checking emotional baggage and taking an objective look can't be this difficult...or is it?

Objectively, the Marvel-Disney merger means a great many things, of course. A strict business stance would reveal that first and foremost, the main stake in the game is the Marvel 5,000-- years of creativity in superhero form, characters sporting names both ubiquitous and iconic like the Fantastic Four, to far-more obscure monikers like Iron Fist, Doctor Strange, or Black Panther.   

For Disney, the top-tier heroes responsible for Marvel's success at the box office are also responsible for  putting Marvel on Disney's shopping list. However, Marvel's top franchises were contracted elsewhere long before the merger, and Disney is constrained from reaping most of the financial rewards that properties like Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-Men, and Avengers are sure to bring for years to come. In fact, to further secure their hold on these characters, the studios holding Marvel contracts -- Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount Pictures -- reacted quite defensively after the August 31st merger announcement, and were quick to initiate new development plans for the future of their respective properties. Nonetheless, Marvel's collective film slate all-but-guarantees handsome royalties for The Walt Disney Company. And much like Marvel did with their successful development of B-list hero Iron Man, Disney's gambling that they'll turn the many lesser-known heroes still waiting in the wings into similar cinematic sensations. 

As for Marvel, Disney's marketing and retail relationships will ensure that Marvel's products and characters reach a much broader international market. Moreover, as Disney grooms characters like Iron Fist, Doctor Strange, and the Black Panther along with other B-List heroes from the 'Marvel 5,000',  they'll test their mettle first in less risky waters.  It's almost a given: over the next 2-5 years, we'll see Marvel heroes on Direct DVD, cable, and network television like never before.

Those certainties, along with many of the other changes brought about by the Disney-Marvel merger, almost assure that the popularity of comic book superheroes will continue to increase well into the future.  And for the Comics Community, a subculture proud of its expanding ranks and greater validation from sources outside the subculture, we have to ask: isn't that a good thing?

And we will....next year! Stay with us, as we continue our rant and report in Disney - Marvel, Part II. 

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