Mouse, Meet Spider

It took a Jimmy Fallon monologue for me to find out about it. According to recent reports, The Walt Disney Corporation is acquiring Marvel Entertainment for 4 billion dollars (US). This offers new possibilities—and complications—for both media companies. This author's first reaction was one of shock, then denial, then, acceptance.

The buying-out of Marvel makes the latest in a series of entertainment-property acquisitions for the Disney Corporation, spanning the last 20 years or so. In 1990, Disney acquired the Jim Henson Company, home to the Muppets characters and TV shows. Skeptical Muppet fans quickly were turned off, pointing out Disney’s very mainstream (read: boring) output and the satirical edginess (Sesame Street notwithstanding) of the Muppet Show-derived characters. Jim Henson died before the deal was finalized however, and the new corporate relationship soon became contentious as Henson stakeholders fought in court for a separation, which finally happened a few years later. By the early 2000’s, things apparently warmed between the stewards of the Henson empire and Disney, as Disney once again merged with Henson and now controls DVDs and new film projects starring Kermit the Frog and friends.

Also around the year 2000, Disney acquired Saban Entertianment. Beginning in the early 1990s the latter company created a dubbed-dialogue goldmine in the Power Rangers franchise of TV shows and DVDs. Marked by segments of live action featuring Western actors spliced in with battle footage of Japanese action-hero shows, the Power Rangers updated import shows of the 60s, 70s and 80s like Ultraman, Battle of the Planets and Voltron.

Marvel Publishing was sold to Cadence Industries in the early 1970s; by the late 80s Marvel was acquired by New World Entertainment. New World announced a slew of new projects, including an Iron Man live-action film that never happened (the 2008 film is unrelated). Beginning in the early 1990s, Marvel was acquired by Ron Perelman who initiated an unprecedented move to acquire media properties on Marvel’s behalf, including Fleer trading cards, indie publisher Malibu Comics and even Diamond Distributors, a comics distributor. documented in the book "Comic Wars"

For several years now Disney (via its Buena Vista Video arm) has owned Marvel’s catalog of cartoon shows produced before the year 2000. Online fan chatter has been critical, accusing Disney of basically sitting on the properties. Circa 2002, a DVD release of Spider-Man cartoons was met with a lawsuit by Marvel, who at the time alleged it used unauthorized artwork and interfered with the then-new first Spider-Man live-action film (a subsequent release of the entire 1960s Spider-Man cartoon series on DVD soon went out of print, and has become a collector’s item of sorts). In 2009, Disney has been quietly releasing DVD collections of the 1990s X-Men cartoon series.

Starting in 2007, then-Marvel executive Avi Arad gathered private investors to create Marvel Films, an independent studio to produce a new series of live-action films based on Marvel characters: The first to arrive in theaters in 2008 was Iron Man, followed by Incredible Hulk. Iron Man 2, Captain America, Thor, and The Avengers are in varying stages of development.

Possible Developments include:

Comics- It remains to be seen what the long term developments will be. Comics sales as a publishing form are way down from an early 90s peak. Industry insiders regularly debate ways to get beyond a now-largely adult male comics buying public. Other issues include pricing and new retail outreach. Paid-digital downloads (including a ‘motion comic’ based on Spider-Woman) are a development too new to gauge but likely worth continuing.

Disney’s financial resources may allow more of a window for Marvel to expand their line of series (again), after a late-90s trend of contraction. Both Disney and Marvel have extensive archives of back issues, most of which are out of print. An aggressive collections initiative could find much of it reprinted—possibly farming out Disney titles under the Marvel Publishing brand. New comics series based on Disney’s characters (including live-action films and TV) could also be published soon under the Marvel masthead. New Disney films may see comics adaptations from Marvel. The ‘Disney Adventures’ magazine may feature material based on Marvel characters.

Some comics fans may be concerned with Marvel’s MAX imprint—where R-rated dialogue and action occur. The Punisher has a long-lived series under the imprint, and Marvel also publishes other mini-series and specials under the brand. The Icon imprint allows creator-owned properties to be published by Marvel, including titles originally published in Europe. Disney is famous for its family-friendly branded entertainment products—and while Disney owns and operates Touchstone Studios for PG-13 and R-rated features, some fans may fear Disney execs may order MAX titles deemphasized or eliminated altogether.

Live action- Starting from the 1980s forward, several Marvel comics franchises have been licensed to other film studios for development. Initially it was to little avail, as most projects announced languished in ‘development hell’ until the first Blade film hit theaters in 1998. 20th Century Fox became the most prolific film partner for Marvel, so far releasing four X-Men films (including 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Daredevil, Elektra, and two Fantastic Four films. Paramount Films currently has first-refusal for distributing Marvel Films movies (Universal was tapped for releasing 2008’s The Incredible Hulk). Sony/Columbia has released a trilogy of Spider-Man films since 2002; a 4th, 5th 6th film are in varying stages of development.

Marvel’s film properties are lucrative endeavors. So—does Disney now own the Marvel Films company by default? If so, what does this mean for live-action films in development? What, if anything, does this mean for Marvel’s plans to open their own brick-and-mortar studio to film various segments for their movies? Will Paramount be out of the picture as a distributor? What will this mean for currently licensed properties at other studios? Will Disney look for those options to be ended as soon as possible? Motions to end these licenses prematurely may be met with lawsuits. A contentious lawsuit over release rights to DC Comics' Watchmen film involved Warner Bros. and Fox and was finally settled shortly before the film came out. Marvel’s flagship character Spider-Man is currently locked into a production deal with Sony for both live-action and animation projects.

Hopefully parties at Disney will treat the Marvel properties with their due respect, and genuinely push for new developments with them in live-action, including television shows. Fans have long clamored online for a Marvel analog to the Smallville series which is based on DC’s Superman comics.

Animation development- Since 2006, Marvel Films has had a partnership with Lions Gate Entertainment for direct-to-video animated films based on their characters. Releases so far have included Ultimate Avengers 1 & 2, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Avengers Next, and Hulk Versus. Marvel has had several animated TV series released to varying episode-counts since 2000, including X-Men Evolution, Spider-Man: The New Adventures, Fantastic Four, Iron Man: Armored Adventures, Wolverine and the X-Men, and Spectacular Spider-Man. Series currently in the works include Marvel Super-Hero Squad, Mighty Avengers and Thor.

Hopefully Disney will assist in the development of forthcoming animated TV and film projects, including the future direct-to-video films as well as cartoon TV series. Disney has several broadcast outlets on which to air shows and films, including major network ABC. Some of the ‘kiddie’ characters developed by Marvel from the 1980s included Spider-Ham, the X-Babies, Royal Roy, Top Dog and Planet Terry. During the 1940s and 50s, Marvel—then called Timely, later Atlas—published a series of ‘funny animal’ titles as analogs to the Warner Bros. and Disney stables of characters, many of whom had their own comics series for rival publishers at the time. Time will tell whether any of those characters will see attempted revivals in some form.

Several superhero properties exist at Marvel that—as yet—have yet to be featured (beyond the cameo level) in animated form in a series or special: Some of them include Power Man & Iron Fist, Cloak & Dagger, Daredevil, the Defenders, New Mutants, Power Pack, and more. The high-end animation allowed by the Disney-owned Pixar Corporation (Toy Story, Cars, Wall-E) will likely have some fans in high anticipation. There are also Japanese-anime' adaptations already forthcoming based on Wolverine, Iron Man, the X-Men, and Blade, promising to re-interpret the characters with a cultural lean towards the sci-fi settings of Japan's animated shows.

Other licensing: Amusement Park rides (and an assortment of merchandise) based on Marvel characters are currently featured at Universal Studios Theme Park in Orlando, Florida—a rival to Disney World. Circa 2007, Marvel announced a deal with Middle-Eastern entertainment developers for a Marvel-based theme park in Dubai. Will the Disney seek to scuttle the Middle-Eastern theme park deal? Will the Marvel-based attractions at Universal Studios soon end, with Marvel-based attractions developed for the Disney parks? Will Marvel characters now be walking the concourse at the Disney parks?

Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is a Broadway musical starring the Spider-Man characters. The play, featuring original music by members of rock band U2, is scheduled to premiere in 2010 but has been marred by allegations of an out-of-control budget. Disney has backed Broadway adaptations of The Lion King and Beauty & the Beast; Theoretically, Disney could be convinced to offset costs for a trial run.


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