The Spider and the Mouse

My own feelings about Disney buying Marvel Comics is that it’s generating a lot of hoopla, but without much reason to believe it’s going to be a big change in comics publishing.

My indifference is based on the fact that I don’t really care about anything Marvel-related other than their comic book publishing arm, and publishing is clearly not why Disney bought them. Most of the value in comic books these days is in the merchandising of the intellectual property, that is, turning the characters into movies, toys, collectibles, and theme park fodder. And while those can be fun, my days of hoping for the perfect X-Men movie adaptation have faded into distant memory. I didn’t bother seeing the second or third Spider-Man films, or the second Fantastic Four film, and I’m still kicking myself for wasting two hours watching the third X-Men film. I might buy a particularly novel toy of collectible once every few years (I gave my dad a Doctor Fate action figure a few years ago). And at theme parks I’m more interested in the rides than in the characters.

I care about the comic books. Which is, I realize, a niche industry and not where the money is. But it’s what I care about.

So what does Disney’s purchase mean for the comic book arm? Well, we don’t really know, and won’t until the deal is concluded and we know where in the Disney empire Marvel lands. And even then we don’t know until we find out whether Disney leaves it more or less alone, or takes a hands-on approach to publishing.

It’s not like Marvel hasn’t been corporate-owned before. And heck, DC has been corporate-owned for decades (they’re owned by Time-Warner). So I don’t think that means anything one way or the other. The difference is that it’s unlikely that Marvel will ever be owned by anyone other than Disney – unless Disney so mismanages the properties that it spins Marvel out again – and that Disney is its own unique corporation. But mere corporate ownership doesn’t really mean anything.

One could argue that there’s reason for optimism that Disney could pump money into Marvel publishing and encourage them to develop new properties, character and stories. On the other hand, I understand Disney has a reputation of being rather parsimonious, so it doesn’t seem like that’s a good bet. Rumor has it that DC is already starting to suggest that Disney’s ownership could change Marvel for the worse, as far as comics creators are concerned. But if Marvel, for example, started lowering salaries, that would be bad news for the industry as a whole, since that would lower pressure on other companies to offer good wages, and make it harder for talent to make a living (or even a part-time living) in the business. And that’s bad for us fans.

Then again, some people point to the Pixar acquisition as Disney having respect for top talent, as several Pixar folks are in charge of major arms of the Disney empire. But will Disney see Marvel’s comics arm as containing “top talent”? How has Disney ownership affected the rank-and-file at Pixar?

So really we just don’t know yet how things will shake out. Disney could be a huge boon to Marvel publishing, or it could be a curse of varying proportions, or it could just leave well enough alone. But even then, Marvel hasn’t been “The House of Ideas” for a couple of decades now; with a few individual exceptions (largely during the “Heroes Return” period of the late 90s), it’s been cranking out increasingly tired reduxes of old stories, with ever-more-ridiculous event crossovers; a far cry from the days of Stan and Jack, or even the days of Jim Shooter.

Until the deal is concluded, Marvel will continue on its current trajectory, for better or for worse. Then we’ll see how Disney really wants to run the publishing arm. My best guess is that they’ll let it continue on as it has, while exploring how it can grow its markets, or move into new markets such as supermarket check-out stands. But overall it’s going to be a small cog in the Disney empire, as comic books are only a small piece of publishing in the United States.

Incidentally, there have been several amusing mash-ups of Disney and Marvel characters over the last week. You can see some here, here, and here.

7 thoughts on “The Spider and the Mouse”

  1. I’m afraid layoffs have already begun. Also, it appears that the singing teapot played by Angela Lansbury will be joining Ultimate X-Men.

    Seriously, though, I’m guessing you’re right, with the added point (as has been pointed out elsewhere) that a lot of Marvel’s IP is already tied up, with Fox, Sony and others having secured the movie rights for a number of the characters for the foreseeable future.

  2. Disney is – probably wisely – playing for the long term, not necessarily whatever profits those properties will make over the next 10 years. In the short term I assume Disney investigated Marvel’s existing deals and is willing to live off of whatever profits Marvel makes directly from those deals (I think the movies have been pretty profitable for Marvel), plus whatever other ways Disney figures out to exploit Marvel’s properties. Really, no one’s better at turning IP into revenue than Disney.

  3. Some things I’ve read suggest that the Marvel acquisition is part of a strategy to target more teenage/20 something males, suggesting that properties like Hannah Montana have pretty much sewed up the young female demographic. That could make some sense. However, I suspect that boys/men will be more interested in movies, TV, video games, and possibly toys using franchise characters than the comic books.

    I’d recommend Spider-Man 2, by the way, although I’ve yet to watch SM3. Am I the only one who liked the Fantastic Four movie (OK, I admit that I didn’t see the second one, but I did enjoy the first…)

  4. Michael, I am generally not a fan of comic book films. The X-Men films had a few nice moments, but that’s it. That said, Spider-Man 2 is the best comic book film I have seen to date. I highly recommend it. (Unlike the rest of the internet, I thought The Dark Knight was just okay, and not as good as the first film.) Iron Man was decent, too. Spider-Man 3 was terrible terrible terrible stuff.

  5. Mark: I thought the first FF film was okay. Not great. Jessica Alba was disastrously miscast, of course. I have a hard time working up enthusiasm for Marvel films, more than DC films; the appeal of Marvel to me are more in specific characterizations and stories, which never get faithfully translated to the big screen.

    J.D.: I’m with you on Dark Knight, believe it or not: Decent film, but the first one was better. Although Heath Ledger’s performance was certainly excellent.

  6. I thought Spider-Man 2 was decent, but I really liked X-Men 2 – the opening sequence with Nightcrawler looks almost exactly like I would have pictured it in my head.

    My guess is that Disney looked at Pixar’s potential for turning movie scripts into dollars via toys (perhaps George Lucas’ biggest impact on the industry was the spinoff revenue streams from Star Wars) – and online games/properties/webisodes more importantly, as that could be seen as a harbinger of the future. They looked at Marvel and decided that they not only had a large stable of suitable properties, they had already started to monetize them. This would be their best chance to jump-start their portfolio towards that wave.

    I’m not particularly worried about the comic books themselves, but it’s entirely possible that Disney will attempt to find top-flight talent to cast new stories for the new media that it will ultimately monetize, which would tend to harm the comics themselves – as Scott McCloud points out, some stories are best told as comics to take advantage of the medium, but retelling stories conceived as moving pictures is not likely to lead to great comics. Of course, not buying Marvel wasn’t going to stop that trend.

  7. I think X-Men 2 is the best Marvel movie I’ve seen. The biggest problem with the X-Men films is they try too hard to be serious and weighty, rather than fun and exciting.

    I’d say it’s a toss-up whether Lucas’ biggest impact was in marketing or in special effects. He was well ahead of everyone else in both areas when Star Wars came out. It turned out to be easier for everyone else to catch up to him in marketing, but I don’t know whether that indicates he was more or less influential there than in SFX.

    I think my biggest worry about Misney is that Disney will cut back operating expenses at Marvel publishing (which I don’t think are very large to begin with), which will hurt the industry as a whole, as I noted in my article. The interesting wild card would be if they decide to make a big push to develop new properties through Marvel publishing, which has been difficult for DC and Marvel to do over the last 20 years as creators have realized it’s better for them to make money on work-for-hire projects at the big two on existing characters, and save their own creations for independent publishing where they retain the rights, even if they’re never big money-makers.

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