Disney Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Robert Iger, briefly profiled in Newsweek in this gushing piece, announced yesterday that the Walt Disney Studios is acquiring the lucrative new Hollywood mini-studio Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-Men) for $ 4 billion. Marvel’s a solid player with potential and Disney is one of the best studios and both have their own relatively consistent brands.
What does one add to the other in creative terms? Disney’s driving philosophy had been, until recently, an American, which is to say benign, sense of life expressed with positive characters in story-driven material, whether in a theme park (Disneyland or Disney’s California Adventure) or in a movie. Marvel’s brand of comic book characters is rooted in marginally heroic, or at least not completely anti-heroic, cartoon figures (The Incredible Hulk) with broad appeal. Both derive success from plots that seem to attract general audiences.
Unlike Pixar Animation Studios, which Disney also acquired under Mr. Iger, Marvel’s catalog does not possess a quality that can easily or identifiably be assimilated into Disney’s wholesome, family entertainment. Sure, the Marvel pictures are noticeably less cynical than the competition, but that’s not saying much. This move further dilutes the Disney brand and may make the studio more relevant in the short term at the expense of being markedly less original in the long term. It has been 15 years since The Lion King, 20 years since The Little Mermaid, and 65 years since Disney released the classic Dumbo in movie theaters. I doubt that the un-Disneylike Enchanted, Pixar’s middling Up, or anything with Hannah Montana will be remembered with as much affection. While Marvel makes good popcorn movies, their stories hardly express childlike wonder, adventure, and innocence, something Disney used to imagine and reimagine in timeless tales. Besides, with politically correct Disney’s ban on smoking in movies, it’s hard to imagine Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark, lighting up the occasional cigar, which raises the question of whether this hyped deal may end up as a lose-lose proposition that signals the end of the legendary Walt’s creative influence in an age of dying Americanism.