Thursday, September 03, 2009

Culture Shock 09.03.09: Meet Spider-Man's new boss: Mickey Mouse

I awakened Monday morning to a great disturbance, as if millions of fanboys cried out in terror and were suddenly making their displeasure known on a thousand Internet message boards.

That's when I went online and saw the news: Disney had purchased Marvel Entertainment, the parent company of Marvel Comics, for $4 billion.

No, it's not a dream, and it's not an imaginary story. The company that gave the world Spider-Man, Iron Man and the X-Men is, pending the obligatory paperwork, now a part of Uncle Walt's multimedia empire. Doomsday has arrived, but Doctor Doom isn't responsible. Mickey Mouse is.

The nightmare scenarios are endless. Tony Stark retires and gives his armor to Mickey, who becomes the invincible Iron Mouse. Goofy turns out to be a mutant (I knew it!) and joins the X-Men. Donald Duck and Howard the Duck are revealed to be long-lost brothers. Hannah Montana develops super powers and becomes an Avenger. And Wolverine takes singing lessons and joins the cast of "X-Men Origins: High School Musical."

Sure, you laugh, but remember that Hugh Jackman got his start singing in a stage production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." That's synergy, and no corporation on Earth can resist synergy.

Actually, the Disney/Marvel merger probably won't be as bad as all that. But it's too soon to tell how it will actually play out. Disney's other acquisitions, however, have had somewhat mixed results.

When The Walt Disney Co. purchased Pixar Animation Studios in 2006, Disney gave Pixar Chief Executive Officer John Lasseter the keys to the Magic Kingdom. Now Lasseter doesn't just run Pixar, he runs Disney's in-house animation unit, too, and helps design Disney's theme park attractions.

Pixar had the advantage of having produced, at the time, four of Disney's most successful animated films, including "Toy Story." That gave Pixar the upper hand in negotiations.

Disney has also had a good run with its prestige film unit, Miramax. But the road here has, at times, been a little bumpy. After several high-profile disputes with former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein left to form The Weinstein Co., taking with them Miramax's Dimension Films label. Dimension primarily produces horror and action films.

Quentin Tarantino, whose previous films were all Miramax releases, followed the Weinsteins, and The Weinstein Co. released his latest hit, "Inglourious Basterds."

Still, even without Bob and Harvey, Miramax has continued to produce award-winning films, including "There Will Be Blood" and "Doubt."

Disney's experience with the Muppets, however, has been far less successful. Disney purchased the Muppets from The Jim Henson Co. in 2004, but so far Disney hasn't figured out what to do with Kermit the Frog and friends. But to be fair, no one has really known what to do with the Muppets since Jim Henson died in 1990.

The upsides for both Disney and Marvel are obvious. As Marvel's existing licensing agreements expire, Disney will gain access to Marvel's characters for everything from movies and video games to toys and theme-park attractions. Marvel, meanwhile, gets greater exposure and easier access to funding for its in-house movie productions.

Another bonus for Marvel is that Disney's current CEO, Bob Iger, is not the micromanager Eisner was.

And that increases the likelihood that Marvel will enjoy something more akin to Pixar's semi-autonomy than Miramax's public feuds. Hopefully, Iger knows that with great power comes great responsibility.

But for better or worse, Marvel Comics has come a long way from its anarchic early days, when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the rest toiled in the publisher's famous bullpen.

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