Archive for August, 2009

Two Houses, Both Alike in Dignity

Monday, August 31st, 2009

The House of Mouse is buying the House of Ideas. If you don’t speak cutesy corporate nicknames, that means Disney is buying Marvel - but you knew that already. You’re on Twitter. You’re on the internet. This is not the first blog you’ve been to today. Nerds are flopping all over the place about this one. This is big news!

There have been three main responses that I’ve seen. The first is a dropped jaw, because this has come completely out of the blue - even people working at Marvel have been taken by surprise. The second response has been to identify humorous synergies between superheroes and cartoon characters and chortle about them, because Disney produces neutered entertainment for unsophisicated audiences, and Marvel… hey now wait a minute…

The third has been to ask in shocked tones, ‘but what does this all mean?’ And because the gag reel is best left to Twitter these days, I’m going to dwell on that third option, although this is all rootless speculation on my part, and responsible people will tell you not to listen. With that caveat in place; what does this all mean?

It might mean nothing at all. At least, that was the official line this morning from Marvel editor CB Cebulski on Twitter; “We’re told it’s like when Disney bought Pixar… everything Marvel stays as is.” So, don’t worry, everybody! Disney spent four billion dollars on Marvel (four billion dollars) because they plan to leave everything exactly as it is! And, in other news, when you wish upon a star your dreams come true!

The Disney/Marvel deal is not going to be the same as the Disney/Pixar deal, wherein Pixar’s Steve Jobs became a major shareholder in Disney, and Disney’s animation arm was eaten by Pixar. (If Disney’s comics get eaten by Marvel, that won’t be quite the same shiny plum.) Disney brought Pixar in because they wanted Pixar to provide creative vision for Disney.

Marvel is not going to exercise that degree of leverage. The best Marvel can hope for is that it retains creative control over Marvel. Walt Disney President Bob Iger says that this is indeed the plan; the philosophy is, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But who gets to say what does or doesn’t constitute ‘broke’ in the world of comics publishing today? It’s quite a broken industry.

A lot of the online speculation says that this is about movies - a field where Marvel characters have enjoyed unprecedented success in the past decade. Yet the X-Men franchise remains at Fox, the Spider-Man franchise remains at Sony, and the Avengers franchise (including Iron Man, Thor and Captain America) remains at Paramount. If Disney wants a big Marvel movie franchise, it’ll have to build one from scratch, and without any of Marvel’s biggest brands. All existing third-party licensing deals are being honoured, including video game deals.

(There is talk - from John Lasseter himself - of Marvel and Pixar doing something together, which is sort of exciting, except that it would be Pixar’s first foray into licensed properties, and that sort of isn’t exciting, that’s sort of compromising.)

The official press release says that the plan is to “significantly build” both Marvel and Disney through this acquisition. The investor call went further, stating that Disney wants to develop Marvel’s catalogue of lesser-known characters “across multiple medias and territories”. (Yes, they said “medias”, at least they did according to my datas.)

If Disney doesn’t get the hit movies and isn’t going to touch the comics, where does that growth come from? Well, it’ll come from theme park rides and consumer products, according to the PR storm. All I know about theme park rides is that I like them; I don’t know how much of a role character branding plays in convincing people to go on a rollercoaster. Do spider-webs on the car maketh the ride? Given that there are already Marvel-themed rides at Universal Studios, how much demand is there for Aunt May’s Amazing Stairlift-O-Tron?

As for consumer products; a search for ‘disney consumer products’ took me to disneyconsumerproducts.com, where you can read about Disney pyjamas, Disney dolls, Disney bedding, Disney laptops, Disney Eggo waffles, Disney Princess dress-up sets, Disney furniture sets, and even Disney wedding dresses. Now imagine all of that with X-Men logos all over them, or flocks of Silver Surfers. Maybe you too will soon be able to buy the fishtail fluted wedding dress that Mary Jane Watson wore when she married… on second thought, maybe that’s not the best omen.

Even if Disney can now put Spider-Man on a hot water bottle, it presumably can’t put the movie Spider-Man on a hot water bottle, and isn’t that the one boys want? If Disney’s stategy really is to develop second-stringers into merchandisable brands, I’m fascinated to know how they’ll manage it, and to what extent it will rely on Marvel’s pool of creative talent over Disney’s. One wonders if Disney got roped in on the line about Marvel’s impressive stable of 5,000+ characters, when what that really amounts to is a lot of obscure Spider-Man villains that can’t be used because they’re Spider-Man villains.

And of course, if Disney does want to make the characters marketable, how can it not touch the comics? How can they not bring in content guidelines? The obvious parallel to the Disney/Marvel deal is Warner Brothers’ ownership of DC, and it’s no secret that Warner has been nanny-like in its protection of DC trademarks. Can we expect a lighter whip from the company that didn’t want Aladdin to have nipples because nipples are too racy? Is Emma Frost going to have to put on a coat?

Honestly, I think we might be surprised. After all, I was being unfair (for hilarious comic effect!) when I implied that Marvel and Disney only put out neutered entertainment for unsophisicated audiences. Even on Disney’s family entertainment channel, ABC Family, you can currently watch an interracial teenage male-male relationship unfolding on Greek, and that’s consdierably more progressive than anything Marvel has ever put in front of a family audience. And this was a TV channel that Disney liberated from the grisly talons of Pat Robertson! So long as Sleeping Beauty’s castle isn’t on the packaging, Disney can be quite a broad church. Dogma and Kill Bill were both produced under the Walt Disney umbrella. Disney really might leave Marvel alone to do its own thing.

Corporate ownership might even free Marvel up to be bolder than it has been in the past. The notion that you need to be indie to innovate is passé in a Pixar world, and Disney is not Warner Brothers, and Spider-Man is not Superman. The security of having a major company at its back - and the reach that such a company can provide - could actually push Marvel to flex its creative muscles more liberally than before.

CB Cebulski followed up his earlier twittering by adding, “From all I’ve heard up here these past three hours, Disney merging with Marvel is a VERY GOOD thing for us”. I hope so, and I can believe it, and not just because the editors have probably just had their health insurance upgraded, or because freelancers might finally be getting a comp box.

What Disney brings to Marvel is a media machine that vastly outstrips what they’ve been used to, and if that means the talents of folks like Skottie Young or Stuart Immonen might now be exposed to a wider audience, or that Marvel will have more money and resources to scout and develop talent, that’s terrific news.

And maybe that’s the real benefit that Disney gets out of this deal. We already know that comics have become a form of R&D for other media, but that need not only apply to stories and characters; it could apply to creators as well.

(For the record, my favourite joke from a long, grinding morning of Disney/Marvel mash-ups on Twitter, came courtesy of Andy Khouri: “No more muppets”.)