AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, file
Back in the long-ago days of my youth, when I walked through clouds of tear gas on the streets of Berkeley, Calif., to get my weekly comic-book fix, the Walt Disney Co. and Marvel Comics seemed to belong to impossibly different worlds. Their products were even sold in different sections of the Shattuck Avenue variety store I frequented (one that transmuted, a few years later, into a gourmet sausage-maker's shop).
"Walt Disney's Comics & Stories," with its nominally wholesome yarns -- albeit loaded with sub-rosa Freudian imagery -- about tightwad millionaire Scrooge McDuck, his ne'er-do-well nephew and his impish, apparently parentless nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, was right there at the front counter, along with Topps baseball cards and Bazooka bubble gum. Marvel comics, with their pantheon of hypermasculine gods and heroes virtually oozing early-onset testosterone, were squirreled away in the back of the store, a more than faintly disreputable realm where shaggy-haired older kids played the Eight Ball Deluxe pinball machine ("Stop talkin' and start chalkin'!"), spat gobs of imitation-grape-flavored goo on the dirty tile floor and occasionally smoked cigarette ends in their cupped hands while the aged Middle Eastern gentleman behind the counter pointedly ignored them.
Amid all the waggish and frequently overheated Internet chatter over Disney's $4 billion acquisition of Marvel, announced on Monday, the central lesson -- how far both companies, and our culture, have come since my days as a patron at McHaffie's Variety -- has been little noticed. On one hand, we have industry observers disputing whether Disney paid a fair price, and who the deal's winners and losers may be: In The Wrap, founder and editor Sharon Waxman praises Disney chief Bob Iger for his "stealth move," quoting a rival exec who says he is "jealous beyond belief"; while Kim Masters of the Daily Beast suggests that Marvel's secretive CEO, Ike Perlmutter, made out like a bandit, sticking Iger with a roster of comic-book characters who've "gotten long in the tooth" and been drained of their commercial potential.
It's more entertaining, on the whole, to consider the fantastical fulminations of comic-into-movie buffs, including numerous imaginative Photoshop experiments. (There's a nice roundup of all such things available from SpoutBlog's Christopher Campbell.) Quite a few bloggers have humorously suggested (e.g.) that one or more Jonas Brother will soon replace Hugh Jackman and Robert Downey Jr. as Wolverine and Iron Man, or that a hypothetical (but entirely possible) Marvel-infused film made by Pixar, another Disney subsidiary, might pit the Incredibles against the Incredible Hulk. I'm fond of S.T. VanAirsdale's suggestion on Movieline that Disney start selling Mickey gloves with Wolverine claws, but you have to worry about the real-world orientation of a blogger like First Showing's Alex Billington, who is so deeply immersed in the arcana and epiphenomena of this deal that he earnestly speculates about Marvel's Ant-Man becoming a Pixar character. Hello? Ant-Man? He could become a gay porn character and no one would notice or care.
For what it's worth, I'm going to endorse two apparently contradictory views of the deal. New York Times reporters Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply nicely sum up the industry consensus by noting that the Marvel acquisition helps Disney with teen and tween boys, a market segment where the Mouse's princessy, Hannah Montana-flavored products have had little appeal of late. As a corollary to that, all the wild fanboy maundering about Disney draining the alleged edge and darkness out of Marvel's universe is laughably misplaced on various levels. First of all, what the hell are such people talking about? Anybody who feels satisfied with the rapidly diminishing returns of the "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" franchises hasn't been reading any decent comic books, still less watching decent movies, and badly needs to attend Andrew O'Hehir's Clockwork Orange-style cinematic reeducation camp.
Furthermore, at least since the Michael Eisner era, Disney has been a diversified global infotainment empire, with much less of a governing identity or ideology than many people think. Disney management didn't meddle much with Miramax during the Weinstein years and hasn't meddled much with Pixar, and after the $500 million-plus worldwide returns of "Iron Man," company honchos aren't likely to bland down the franchise in an effort to pitch it at 8-year-olds. I'm about to argue that they made a dumb decision, but they aren't dumb in that particular way.
OK, so all of that is argument No. 1. Argument No. 2 is the fact that Marvel sold itself at a premium, hey-what-recession price point, and did so at a moment when most of its prime properties and characters are licensed out to other studios for the medium or long term. (Fox, for instance, can keep making Fantastic Four and X-Men movies as long as it wants to.) While I don't doubt that Disney can mine some of Marvel's lesser-known characters with some success, the comic-into-movie marketplace is beginning to display some fatigue, and Iger basically just bought an oil well that's been pumped at least halfway dry. Marvel's stock went way up after the deal was announced, but Disney shares declined, and the financial-rating firm Standard & Poor's views the transaction as negative overall.
Lastly -- this is either Argument 2B or a schismatic third stream -- it totally doesn't matter who owns Marvel Comics. And we will all very soon forget that we ever pretended to care. The cigarette-smoking, Jimmy Page-listening veneer of preteen badness that Marvel possessed in my variety-store days is dust in the wind, along with the jarhead-Republican, get-off-my-lawn, so-called innocence that Disney once embodied. To quote Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere, my favorite Internet source for uncensored spleen-venting, "Transferring ownership of a major brand from corporate entity A to corporate entity B is a meaningless thing. All 21st-century entertainment corporations are invested in selling the same basic heroin."
Jeff's right, but I won't claim to be immune to the lure of that heroin. If the Disney-Marvel mega-Borg can bring my boyhood favorite back to the big screen -- that would be the pompous, foppish, mustachioed Marvel magician, Doctor Strange -- in a non-terrible incarnation, perhaps directed by Terry Gilliam (as suggested by Campbell of SpoutBlog)? Then, you know, screw all the nuance and skepticism. Bring on Ant-Man!