Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Disney buys Marvel: great for Disney, bad for Marvel Fans

Okay I’m studying for exams at the moment but the big news has drawn me out of my temporary sabbatical. I have a lot of thoughts about the whole thing but Ill start off with my first impressions: I think it is great for Disney, but bad for Marvel fans in the long run.

I understand that some are claiming that Disney overpaid but I don’t see it, these superhero movies can make a half billion each when they are successful and much more when they are massive hits, which is not uncommon. The merchandising potential is massive and has already been growing consistently for over 20 years – the appeal of superheroes is much more than a fad. Over time the investment will pay off in spades for Disney.

Whatever way you look at it, practically speaking, Marvel Comics just got a whole new tier of management. As a fan, I worry that this means the company will take less risks and become slower, more bureaucratic and less innovative. As I see it Marvel’s main competitor DC Comics’ problems can ultimately be traced to its corporate culture – as a small part of a massive media conglomerate they are tightly structured and too fractured creatively. Marvel’s biggest strength, especially in recent years, has been its dynamism – its fresh approach to its characters, looseness of its editorial culture and willingness to take storytelling risks.

I’m aware that Marvel and Disney are claiming that the company’s independence will be maintained – but that is clearly a vague intention, not a strong guarantee. Does anyone really believe that Marvel will make a potentially controversial move with a character – like for instance the recent death of Captain America - without making senior executives at Disney aware of it first? of course not.

However I can say that I see at least one obvious example where this new oversight may have been a positive thing had it been around a few years back. I’m pretty sure someone at Disney would have realised the madness of having a pact with the devil be the central plot point in a major Spider-Man story, and would have objected to it. Nevertheless I still think that most of the time Disney’s natural instincts to avoid controversy will be a negative influence.

Hovering over this is a threat to the comic business as a whole. Disney has actually abandoned successful comic book operations in the past because the business and the margins are too small. In the past Marvel has seemed to justify its comic business as a sort of research and development division for other media, but who is to say that should the business become less profitable or more controversial Disney would not just abandon it? Marvel already has a wealth of material built up after all (though the 7,000 character thing is nonsense – less than 6,000 have received Official Handbook entries and those books have been if anything overly comprehensive).

Disney has shown little sentimentality about this sort of thing in the past. Their most synonymous properties - Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck etc - have had only minimal new development for decades. Disney seems to prefer to rely on library material to spur licensing rather than risk their appeal by trying anything new. Let’s hope that this attitude doesn’t seep into their new acquisition.

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