Let’s quickly recap… If I had to put a finger on it, I’d say that the superhero movie boom that we are currently experiencing began with Sony and their first iteration of Spider-Man way back in 2002. Yes, Fox released the first X-Men film in 2000 but, as successful as it was, it didn’t make crazy numbers like Spider-Man, which raked in over $400M domestically and over $800M worldwide. Massive numbers indeed. Spider-Man was the highest grossing domestic film of 2002, and the 3rd highest grossing film worldwide. Even today, it remains in the top twenty. Some may prefer to point to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film as the beginning but if you recall, the 1989 Batman started off strong but subsequent follow up films quickly declined and fell short. By 1997, many people felt that the string of terrible Batman films put the “ki-bosh” on other superhero movies.
As we all know, Marvel has a sordid history when it comes to their finances. They’ve been in and out of bankruptcy several times. However, by becoming a licensing company, they were praised by the financial sector for turning their company around. By allowing other companies to take on the risk of merchandising their characters, they quickly became the most profitable company in America! Marvel could sit back, collect royalties while the toy companies and movie studios did all the grunt work. Their movie deals with Fox and Sony in particular were considered smart decisions at the time. However, once they saw how much money could be made from the movie biz, they decided to switch gears and become a movie studio. In a controversial move, they struck up a 10 picture deal with Merill Lynch using their top characters as collateral. Knowing how dicey the movie business can be, many critics disapproved of this decision. “Stick to what you know”, they said… Marvel had a good thing going so why risk it? Their first movie, Iron Man in 2008, proved to be a massive hit, and even the disappointing Hulk movie was still considered a win financially. Their success got the attention of Disney who purchased Marvel in 2009 for a whopping $4.3B. It may have seemed lofty at the time but considering that the first Avengers film alone brought in about $1.5B worldwide… what a deal Disney got!
Fast forward to 2015 and Marvel continues to dazzle us with their movies. It would seem that Marvel can do no wrong, and Bob Iger is sitting pretty having snatched up Marvel on the heels of Pixar, then followed up by Lucasfilm… all under his watch as the new CEO of Disney. What a résumé he’ll have! We’ve all seen Marvel’s movie road map and we all know it does not include mutants. This of course is because mutants on screen was sold off to Fox. Some fan boys are saying that Marvel was stupid to sell off the mutant rights to Fox but these people have a short memory and they forget how Marvel arrived here. In an interesting turn of events, Marvel’s business partner has now become a competitor.
So what does this all mean? Well, Marvel is in a tricky position. On one hand, they want to out perform Fox at the box office. They also need to replace the mutant concept in order to move their stories forward. As well, they certainly don’t want to help Fox… or should they? After all, the X-Men are still a popular comic title. But, comics simply don’t bring in the kind of money that movies do, thus comics have in essence become promotional material for the movies and not the other way around.
Late last year, Marvel killed off Wolverine, one of their most popular characters. Earlier this year, Marvel cancelled the “world’s greatest comic magazine”, the Fantastic Four. And more recently, the Scarlet Witch and the Quicksilver’s origin got rewritten so that they are no longer mutants. As you can imagine, these latest developments do not sit well with some fans, especially those who grew up with these characters. Without the mutant concept, Marvel needs another explanation to justify all the super powered beings and it would seem that the Inhumans are their answer. A quick scan of the “blog-o-sphere” and you can read comments from fan boys calling Marvel a “spoiled brat”, “money-grubbing scumbags” and a “two year-old having a tantrum”. Some are vowing never to read Marvel comics again. Aside from the over reaction, I think the more interesting question here is… are these developments an attack on Fox? We know that Marvel hasn’t been happy with how their characters have been handled by other studios, especially the Fantastic Four, so could their actions be a deliberate attempt to undermine non-Marvel movies? Even at the cost of print sales? Caught in-between all this are the fans and based on the outrage, some people certainly views it as such. Aside from being a pop culture sensation, Marvel is foremost a business. As part of the Disney conglomerate, they are looking to maximize profits and protect their interests. At one point, Fox was a part of this equation but this is no longer the case. So why should Marvel help Fox profit from their property? As comic fans, we may not agree with corporate decisions but from a business perspective, not helping the competition is logical. Ideally for Marvel, if the Fantastic Four and X-Men under perform perhaps Fox will surrender the movie rights as they have with Daredevil. Movies are only part of what is at stake of course. Disney is in it for the long haul and the long term perspective include follow up views, toys and merchandising, all of which add up to huge numbers for decades to come.
I consider the fan response to be an over reaction because comics have always been notorious for their convoluted story lines. Try as we might to forget the “Clone Saga” (1994), “Heroes Reborn” (1996) or “Ultimatum” (2008)… they did happen. Don’t get me started on “One More Day” (2007) where Spidey makes a deal with Mephisto to save Aunt May (thank you Joe Quesada). This in addition to all the deaths and rebirths of our favourite characters. While we may not like what is currently happening, we’ve been through worse, so I suspect that the comics world will survive the current evolution as Marvel tries to coordinate their print universe with their film universe. Rewriting the Scarlet Witch and the Quicksilver as being genetically enhanced by the High Evolutionary is just another twist to the already tangled Marvel universe.
We can certainly continue the debate whether the single minded corporate mandate to make money is morally ethical or not, but for now Marvels recent decisions are simply business as usual. If you really are deeply bothered by it, you can always vote with your hard earned spending dollars.