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Disney to buy comic book powerhouse Marvel

Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor and the Fantastic Four are among the 5,000 characters it hopes will inspire countless movies, TV shows and video games.

September 01, 2009|Dawn C. Chmielewski and Ben Fritz

Mickey Mouse is bringing in some muscle.

Significantly beefing up its stable of characters, Walt Disney Co. announced Monday that it had reached a deal to acquire Marvel Entertainment Inc., the comic book company whose superheroes have become Hollywood blockbusters, for $4 billion in cash and stock.

The acquisition hands Disney a treasure trove of pop culture figures, including Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor and the Fantastic Four, among a roster of 5,000 that it hopes will inspire countless movies, television shows and video games.

In recent years a risk-averse Hollywood has become increasingly reliant upon comic book-based stories that appeal to an established -- and heavily male -- fan base. With Marvel, Disney gets one of the heaviest-hitting creators of superheroes.

Marvel, despite its rich library of characters, has limited experience making its own movies. Until it produced last year's "Iron Man," the company licensed its characters to other studios. But Disney is betting that with Marvel it acquires the kind of brand-name recognition it gained when it bought Pixar Animation Studios in 2006, especially among teens and young adults, who are the core drivers of the box office. That's an audience segment Disney has struggled to attract, as it has been more successful with families.

"They've shown a tremendous skill at increasing the commercial appeal of characters like Iron Man that traditionally weren't well known outside of Marvel's core fan community," said Disney President and Chief Executive Robert A. Iger. "And we believe there's further opportunity to mine Marvel's rich intellectual property portfolio."

To be sure, Disney isn't the first studio to discover the power of Marvel comics.

Many of the best-known members of the publisher's muscle-bound lineup are locked up in deals with other movie studios. Sony Pictures owns the big-screen rights to Spider-Man in perpetuity, as does 20th Century Fox for the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Daredevil. Paramount Pictures will distribute five upcoming films set to be financed by Marvel, including "Iron Man 2," "Thor" and "The First Avenger: Captain America."

Even though Disney will not control those movies, it will reap some of the proceeds. Disney also will control much of the related merchandising, often a major profit source for motion pictures. And it will be able to create movies, TV shows and video games based on Marvel's other characters.

Gareb Shamus, chief executive of Wizard Entertainment, which publishes a leading magazine following the comic book industry, thinks Hollywood has barely scratched the surface of Marvel's roster. Lesser-known characters that could make the leap off the comic book page include the crime-fighting duo Cloak and Dagger, underwater hero Namor the Sub-Mariner, incredibly strong She-Hulk and teenage super group the New Mutants.

Heroes can be many places at once

"There are so many characters and sub-characters that have not been exploited in any way, shape or form," Shamus said. "So if Disney decides it wants to do a horror line or a supernatural line -- or anything else, for that matter -- there are characters for virtually all those themes in the Marvel library. Disney can say, 'We don't have to reinvent it. Let's take something we already own.' "

Disney has several outlets suited for superheroes, including a boy-focused cable network, Disney XD, which already carries 20 hours of programming based on Marvel's characters. The Burbank media giant operates theme parks on three continents, where it can create rides or attractions based on Marvel's mythology; a consumer products group with ties to the world's largest retailers; and an interactive unit that creates games and online communities.

"Now you have one of the most fantastic distribution systems on Earth that's going to take [Marvel's] universe and roll it out in such a way that we're going to have a cosmic soap opera across every conceivable media platform," said Jeff Gomez, chief executive of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a New York consulting firm that has done work for Disney.

But with so many of Marvel's characters already committed to other studios -- and theme park competitor Universal Studios, which operates the Marvel Super Hero Island attraction in Orlando, Fla. -- it's unclear which superheroes Disney will be able to use. Moreover, some devotees of comics' violent and often dark world are already expressing trepidation about Marvel's impending takeover by a company so closely associated with princesses and fairies.

"Would Disney start overseeing the comic book production too? Would a Disney representative be in charge of 'editorial policy'?" wrote one poster to an online forum for the Comics Buyers Guide, a popular fan magazine. "Just picture a writers' meeting: 'You can't go around having the Punisher kill all these people!' "

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