Reel Critic: Disney takes a chance on Marvel superheroes

HB Independent

Comic books have always been somewhat of an underground culture primarily appreciated by boys and a few self-proclaimed "geeks." Other than some early success in serial shorts such as "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers," movies based on comic books have mostly featured characters that have transcended the genre, such as Batman and Superman.

In recent years, this has changed, thanks in no small part to Marvel Studios. The production company as it is currently known was founded in 1993 by Israeli businessman Avi Arad. Marvel Studios was established to develop and produce projects featuring the characters co-created by comic book legend Stan Lee mostly in the 1960s. These characters include Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Iron Man, among many others.

Originally co-producing its projects with larger studios, the company first offered "Blade" in 1998 and "X-Men" in 2000. Both these films were very successful and proved the marketability of characters not well known to the general public. Marvel co-produced its first true blockbuster in 2002 with the release of "Spider-Man."

Now a full-fledged major studio, Marvel has been producing films without partners since the release of "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk," both in 2008. "Iron Man" turned out to be a box office monster, grossing nearly $600 million worldwide. Now "Iron Man 2" is in theaters and re-teams star Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man with director Jon Favreau.

In December, Marvel Studios was sold to the Walt Disney Company for $4 billion. Both firms will be allowed to honor any deals already in place. This seems to devalue the deal for Disney, as Marvel is committed to several prior agreements. For instance, Disney can't feature Marvel superheroes at their amusement parks because of a prior agreement for the characters' likenesses to be used by Universal Studios. Additionally, the next three "Iron Man" films are contracted to be distributed by Paramount Pictures, which will receive 8% of the revenue.

Like Pixar, which Disney obtained in 2006, Marvel is being allowed to keep its own corporate identity with offices in Manhattan Beach. This arrangement gives Marvel enough autonomy to create and develop projects as it has in the past.

It is hard to believe now, with their immense popularity, but Spider-Man and Iron Man were both largely unknown to the general public prior to their recent film success. While "X-Men," "Spider-Man" and "Iron Man" have been hugely successful, "The Incredible Hulk" was only marginally profitable, and "Elektra" and "Ghost Rider" were outright flops.

So it appears Disney is banking on the huge cast of lesser-known Marvel characters to justify its investment. It has been cross-pollinating its characters in current films, with references to Captain America, Thor and the Avengers appearing in "Iron Man 2." These three franchises will be making their theatrical debut in 2011 and 2012 and will hopefully become as popular as the more successful Marvel characters.

Will this gamble pay off for Disney? What are the chances of mining more gold from the Marvel vaults? Disney created an entirely new revenue stream with Pixar. Whether Marvel becomes another autonomous profit center for Disney is going to one of the most interesting stories in entertainment over the next few years.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World