Marvel, An Entertainment Superhero?

Article  by  Kevin PICCIAU  •  Published 28.02.2011  •  Updated 29.07.2011
Marvel superheros
America’s biggest comic strip franchise has built its fortune on iconic characters that generate brand equity. Since 2000, a series of films have revitalised Marvel’s successes in other areas of the entertainment industry.


70 years old and more than 5000 lives: the great big world of Marvel

Hulk, Wolverine, Spiderman, the Fantastic Four - more than 5,000 superheroes and anti-heroes make up a list that is now an integral part of American pop culture and that has, on a wider scale, coloured the world’s imagination, peopling not only the comic strip shelves of bookshops, but also our cinema screens, and appearing in the shape of numerous toys, school supplies, clothes and other promotional supports. A large palette of characters, each operating as an independent brand, coupled with a vigorous licensing activity, is the key to the success of the Marvel business model. In 2009, Marvel celebrated 70 years of profitable trading driven by characters, masked and unmasked, human and not-quite-human, whose particularities and stories lend themselves to constant repetition or renewal. Marvel heroes, like other comic strip heroes who, with one foot in the world of fantasy, ensure a certain degree of commercial sustainability, evolve easily from support to support, and can be readily updated by designers to give them a more modern appearance.

Since its foundation in the 1930s, the Marvel machine has managed to maintain its leading position on the comics market in the American zone, accurately measuring the tastes of the day, and often copied by the competition. During the 2000s, its success has been maintained by two major changes: a reversal of its strategy from 2005 onwards, with the judicious decision to self-produce its blockbusters centred on Marvel characters, and integration into the Disney group, giving it access to a powerful distribution and marketing machine for the brand’s merchandise.
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For seven decades now, two giants have dominated comic strip publishing in America: DC Comics, officially founded in 1944[+][1] and now an integral part of the Time Warner conglomerate, and Marvel.
Over and above the purely commercial battle between the superheroes of the two companies, the relationship between Marvel and DC Comics seems to have been characterised by a more positive component; a sort of one-way system of stimulation and inspiration has emerged. On several occasions, publisher Martin Goodman, founder of the Marvel publishing house, has considered the experiences – and successes – of DC Comics to be a cursor pointing the way to success for his own projects. In 1934, Martin Goodman created the Timely Publications Company in order to publish comic strips drawn exclusively by an external company, Funnies Inc. When, at the end of the 1930s, he saw that Superman, a character developed and owned by DC Comics, was enjoying an unprecedented level of success, Martin Goodman decided to take advantage of the craze for half-human, half-godlike characters living in worlds situated between the here-and-now and the imaginary future to launch his own range of superheroes. Superman proved that readers like repetition and comic books that tirelessly exploit the world surrounding a character and as a result, he was given his own comic. In 1939, encouraged by this winning formula, Martin Goodman launched his own superheroes comic book, christening it Marvel Comics. Marvel, which from then on created its own in-house “stars” of the drawing-board, had launched its brand. Iron Man, Daredevil, Hulk, Captain America, Ghost Rider and Thor soon put in an appearance.
In the early 1960s, DC Comics once again inspired changes in the Marvel universe. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s company had just launched an original concept: in several comic books, the most famous DC heroes joined forces to combat evil. Their army called itself the Justice League of America or JLA) and was immediately successful on the newsstands. Marvel took up the idea and Stan Lee, genitor of many Marvel characters, was given the job of developing the League’s counterpart. On 1st November 1961, Mr Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Thing and the Human Torch, otherwise known as the Fantastic Four, were born and found a public just as vast as that of the JLA.
Although the imitation game was obvious and recognised by Marvel’s directors, the company, led by Martin Goodman, was also working to develop its own identity. Many specialists have noted a difference between the “soul” of the Marvel heroes and those of DC Comics: unlike DC heroes who were simply supermen on the Batman and Superman model, Marvel protagonists were given a more complex psychology. In the world of Marvel, the heroes asked themselves the same questions as their adult and adolescent readers and from time to time, took account of political situations. The character of Hulk, created following a nuclear incident in the early 1960s, denounced, in a sense, the excesses of science, whilst Peter Parker, the young man under the mask of Spiderman (created the same year as Hulk), was tormented by typically adolescent existential problems, where ideas of vocation, courage and commitment all jostled for headspace. Martin Goodman confirmed this analysis of Marvel characters in the numerous interviews he gave throughout his career, putting forward the idea that Marvel had made the depth of its characters and atmospheres, its own distinct brand. This analysis nonetheless fails to study DC Comics, into which more sophisticated ideas were sometimes integrated, in enough detail, in particular from the 1970s on. But overall, it was Marvel who succeeded, very early on, in earning itself the glorious reputation of being the company to succeed in simultaneously combining entertainment and an appeal to the conscience of the individual.

The precise impact of this editorial choice on Marvel’s commercial success is difficult to determine. Nonetheless, since the 1970s, Marvel’s sales and turnover, for its publishing activity alone, have regularly exceeded those of DC Comics, and the gap has been getting wider since the 1990s. The company Diamond Comic Books, which possesses exclusive distribution rights for all issues of Marvel and DC Comics, publishes a monthly statistical report on the sector. The months of July, August and September 2010 are highly representative of the distribution of market shares for comic strip publishing in the North American zone for the years 2000 to 2010.

The impact of the two companies can also be measured in the number of comic books offered for sale and the number of comic strips present in the Top 10 and Top 100 sales tables. Although for the period 2005-2010 the two companies have approximately the same number of publications in the Top 10 and Top 100 tables, Marvel has an average of 15 comic books more than DC Comics on sale each month. Marvel’s bigger production volume is not unrelated to the higher turnover of its publishing business.
Although publishing is Marvel’s primary sphere of interest, the real product on which the publishing company Marvel Comics centres its strategy is not the comic book itself, but the character. The raw material, the hero, is exploited to the hilt. With this in mind, a licensing activity was rapidly grafted onto the Marvel business. In the late 1990s, it had entered and grouped together four sectors under the umbrella of a parent-company, Marvel Enterprises:
  • print publishing (Marvel Comics), to which was added in 1996, digital publishing (online publications Marvel Cyber Comics, the future Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited) division;
  • licensing;
  • the creation of television programmes and films for the cinema (Marvel Studios, Marvel Animation and Marvel Productions);
  • toy manufacturing (Marvel Toys).
At the end of 1996, Marvel Enterprises was declared bankrupt and gave up its in-house audiovisual and cinematographic projects. Marvel Productions was sold to Saban Entertainment and then taken over in 2001 by the Walt Disney Company whose hold on the Marvel business did not stop there. Marvel Enterprise’s financial impasse brought about another change in its policy: the takeover by the toy manufacturer Toy Biz which led to the addition of the “toy manufacturing” division, under the leadership of Marvel Toys. The new model therefore entered into the 21st century with four divisions and henceforth existed under the name Marvel Entertainment.

The post-2005 strategic turning point: Marvel produces its own films

2008 was, for Marvel, a record year in terms of income: 676 million dollars, that is to say, an increase of 39% compared to 2007, for a net result of 206 million dollars. The figure was 47% higher than in 2007. The “House of Ideas”, as the Marvel factory had been dubbed since the earliest years of its existence, had never, in all its history, reached such heights. Although 2008 benefited from excellent performances in the licensing and publishing fields, it was the cinema business that played a decisive role, both directly with income from ticket sales for the first part of Iron Man, and indirectly by revitalising the sale of comic books and merchandise linked to the characters brought to the screen (Hulk and Iron Man).
These ten years of adapting Marvel characters for the cinema (with variable results depending on the hero and director in question) have had a knock-on effect, revitalising other products (books, toys, textiles and video games). Each of the three Spider Man films (released in 2002, 2004and 2007) increased the number of ticket sales well above the already highly satisfactory scores of Iron Man. If the cinema is responsible for the record turnover of 2008, it is because Marvel undertook a radical change of strategy, enabling it to maximise its profits for this activity: in 2005, it decided to self-produce the blockbusters dedicated to its heroes, allocating 525 million dollars to the creation of a cinema production department in 2006. Up until then, Marvel’s big films had always been entrusted to outside producers. Spiderman, the most shining example in terms of revenue, was produced by Columbia Pictures. The three spider-man films generated more than 3.3 billion dollars in revenue at world level (source: Box Office Mojo), not counting the revenue generated by the release of DVDs and the revitalising of merchandise. By way of comparison, in 1997, Titanic, with the best world box-office score of all time, directed by James Cameron (who had suggested to Marvel in the 1990s that he should film the adventures of Peter Parker) had set the record at 1.8 billion dollars before being beaten in 2009 by Avatar, also directed by James Cameron, which to date has grossed more than 2.7 billion dollars of revenue in tickets sold.
Marvel realised that using an outside producer resulted in a loss of income and in the spring of 2008, its first self-produced film, Iron Man, was brought to the screen. For this baptism-of-fire, Marvel took care of production from start to finish. The film generated 585 billion dollars at world level, placing the film in the top 50 of the best box-office sales successes of all time. At the end of the year, the DVD of the film was classed second best-seller for 2008. The success of Iron Man has had very positive repercussions on merchandise, recording excellent figures, to the point of overtaking the revenue generated by Spider-Man products. This was a great surprise because the “red and gold man of iron” was known only to comic book fans before seeing his adventures brought to the big screen, unlike the character of Spiderman, who was extremely popular even before Sam Raimi’s three films. The Incredible Hulk, released in 2008, made a reasonable score of 263 million dollars at world level, a score comparable to that of the Hulk film made in 2003.
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Erratic results in the cinema

The balance sheet of Marvel adaptations for the big screen is by no means consistent, independently of the choices made concerning production. The handful of films made in the 1980s and early 1990s (for cinema and television) – Mark Goldblatt’s The Punisher (1989) with Dolph Lundgren, Albert Pyun’s Captain America (1991) and Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four (1992) – were of no great financial or artistic interest. The “serious” projects begin with the film Blade (1998). At the time, comic book publishing was in crisis and the cinema option appeared to be a simple solution to the problem of revitalising the franchise. The operation was profitable but may be classed amongst the semi-failures of Marvel’s adaptations for the cinema. Alongside Blade, those films that did not make a big profit are always attached to secondary figures from the Marvel catalogue, little known to an uninitiated audience. The following table summarises the financial stakes of Marvel’s venture into film.

Three categories emerge: resounding successes, semi-failures, and honorable operations in the context of a “saga”. With Spiderman 1, 2 and 3, Iron Man, X-Men 3 and Wolverine, Marvel succeeded in placing six films amongst the ranks of the cinema’s biggest commercial successes, allowing them to counterbalance less satisfactory experiences. It is interesting to highlight the profitability of “batches of films”, sagas that place the modest scores of films considered separately, in context. For example, the adventures of the Fantastic Four ended up bringing in 620 million dollars, though taken separately, each of the two parts of their adventures did not exceed the “small” sum of 300 million dollars in terms of tickets sold. The X-Men collection, which still has room for further exploitation, made 1.5 billion dollars from ticket sales alone, making the modest scores of the first two exercises in adaptation palatable.
By privileging the logic of sequels and multiple episodes, Marvel Studios are but faithfully developing the narrative line of Marvel’s first activity, the comic strip where the hero must respond to the principle of recurrence and appearance in constantly-renewed worlds, an ideal recipe from a commercial point of view. Loyalty is pushed even further with IronMan2. Spectators are no longer merely encouraged to go and see the further adventures of the star character (Iron Man in this case), but future Marvel films are promoted through multiple references to projects in the course of development. For example, the last scenes of Iron Man 2 reveal two characters who will each have their own film on the big screen in 2011; Thor (a project assigned to the director Kenneth Branagh) and Captain America. A reference to the Avengers, a team of super heroes made up of the three latest stars in the Marvel stable, is also slipped in, for a film scheduled for 2012 – a year that looks promising for Marvel, since it is also the year when the much-awaited Spiderman 4 is to be released. 
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A revitalisation of audiovisual and editorial activities

The new priority given to film has had repercussions for the organisation of the other branches of Marvel Entertainment. The company committed itself to providing a third of the production budget for each film with the Marvel stamp. These new directions are not unrelated to the decision to bring the story of the Marvel Toys (formerly Toy Biz) division to an end. The toy production activity has been transformed into an exclusive licence signed with Hasbro, the company that produces Monopoly. In 2009, the licensing agreement that gives Hasbro exploitation rights to Marvel merchandise for the entire world excluding Japan, was extended until 2017. The licensing contract procures Marvel a base of 100 million dollars in royalties, which may be increased, within an additional limit of 140 million dollars, depending on the number of films that hit the screen, until the end of the contract. This new financial scheme has enabled Marvel Entertainment to explore other promising directions.
A direct descendant of its cinema projects, the presence of the group on television has been reinforced with the launching of three successful series. Hoping to profit from cinema successes on the small screen, the Cartoon Network channel commissioned, in late 2008, twenty-six 26-minute-long episodes that bring together Marvel heroes that the cinema has updated to suit today’s tastes. Captain America, the Silver Surfer, Iron Man, Hulk and Wolverine, banded together in the Marvel Super Hero Squad, have been achieving excellent audience ratings on the American channel since the end of 2009. This success was repeated with Black Panther, also programmed for the end of 2009 on the BET channel, and Wolverine and the X-Men, one of the best programmes of 2008 and 2009 in terms of the Nicktoons channel audience figures, in both its American and international versions.   Marvel chose to exploit brand logic to the full with Iron Man by placing the series Iron Man Armoured Adventure on Nicktoons America at the end of 2009, an easy way to whet the appetite of a young audience just before the release of Iron Man 2 in the cinema.
The publishing activity has also been revitalised: an online comics department, known as Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, was launched on 13 November 2007. Since various analyses show the readership of “traditional” print comic books to be shrinking, Marvel has chosen to develop its heroes’ original format – comic strip boxes and text – by turning to a modern digital support. The production of printed comic strips is far from over, however. Marvel remains the sector leader and by remaining loyal to the image it has promoted since the 1930s, that of a company attentive to the living environment of the reader, Marvel pulled off a master stroke by featuring the new President of the United States, Barack Obama, in the January 2009 issue of Amazing Spiderman. The combination of these two popular figures, real and fictional, solicited an unprecedented level of media interest and made the January issue a best-seller with more than five reprints.
Lastly, Marvel is playing the innovation card by occupying positions on other battlefields with its best soldiers: on 21 December next, Spiderman will hit Broadway as a musical, Spiderman, Turn Off The Dark. For this, Marvel has decided to combine the tried and tested (the music and songs are by Bono, leader of the Irish group U2) and innovation (completely new villains, created for the occasion, must give the impression of seeing something completely new and contribute to enhancing the catalogue of Marvel characters).
It was therefore a dynamic company in terms of both finances and ideas, and one that was reaching out ever further on all the entertainment fronts, that allowed itself to be swallowed up by a big-eared giant at the end of 2009. The monster, however, does not interfere in the content of Marvel’s projects and has given itself the sole task of harvesting the fruits produced by its new toy.
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Disney, new manager of the Marvel goldmine

On 31st August 2009, the Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Entertainment for a sum of 4 billion dollars (i.e. 2.8 billion euros). Although this figure represents just under half of the sum paid out by Disney to acquire Pixar, it is an enormous sum compared to Marvel’s turnover, which did not exceed 700 million dollars in 2009. The shareholders of the two companies validated the operation on 31 December 2009.
Disney’s new acquisition has had a direct effect in terms of competition: Disney and Warner, already in opposition in the cartoon sector (Warner created Looney Toons), have extended their competition to the comic strip sector, as Warner owns DC Comics, the home of Batman and Superman. Has the Disney group made a wise choice in acquiring Marvel and paying a high price for it? From a purely strategic point of view, Marvel, with its universe of strong heroes, seems like a golden opportunity for Disney to reclaim a target – young boys – that has been turning away in vast numbers from its creations over the last fifteen years, by offering them their dose of tough guys and villains on the small and large screen. Thanks to the Marvel catalogue, Disney can bring into play its beloved strategy of creating “film brands”: a film highlights a character which then brings in additional revenue in all the other entertainment sectors (books, merchandise, etc). However, at the time of the acquisition, the real stars of the Marvel catalogue have already been used, and several times over. Although the elastic universe of comic strip stories can stretch to several more Spiderman and X-Men episodes, the seam will soon be stretched to its limits. For the directors of the Walt Disney Company, the highly positive conclusions of the Iron Man cinema adventure were a vital argument in the decision to buy: the example of Iron Man was analysed, not only as an isolated case, but as the promise of real commercial potential for the secondary characters that make up the core of Marvel’s portfolio of 5,000 heroes and villains. Disney therefore decided that working the brand using the Marvel catalogue still offered numerous opportunities.
Marvel’s directors, for their part, can also draw certain advantages from this takeover. Entering the Disney Group offers access to a colossal distribution and marketing machine, stimulating the development of the brand into numerous by-products. On a more creative level, Marvel can now use Disney’s technical capabilities throughout the world, whilst maintaining its independence and its own studios in Manhattan Beach. Moreover, Marvel’s designers benefit from a great deal of freedom during the creative process, the aim being not to alter its original artistic identity. Disney applied the same operating principle to Pixar after its acquisition. Marvel heroes do not, therefore, in principle, run the risk of being watered down and served up as part of the “wonderful world” of Disney.
The management of the Pixar and Marvel heritage is not, however, completely identical. When it acquired Pixar, Disney obtained all the rights to its creations. In the case of Marvel, Disney is limited to the United States zone for the use of the characters in theme parks. For the rest of the world, Marvel has a long-term commitment to Universal Studios. It is therefore not impossible that Disney may succeed in changing the deal and acquiring the missing regions, for nothing seems to stop the multinational. On 18th October 2010, the papers announced, with only a relative degree of surprise, the acquisition of the distribution and marketing rights held by Paramount Pictures for The Avengers and Iron Man 3, Marvel’s two flagship projects for 2012 and 2013.
Is this transfer of rights really proof of Disney’s omnipotence? Nothing could be less certain. Paramount had signed an agreement with Marvel for the distribution of six films. Since The Avengers and Iron Man 3 were the last two in the batch and Disney had taken over Marvel, it was unlikely that a new agreement would be signed between Paramount and Marvel. Paramount’s loss of a strategic juicy contract was already on the cards when Marvel was taken over by Disney, which had, moreover, reaped 92% of the revenue from ticket sales for Iron Man 2 (621 million dollars), whilst Paramount Pictures took charge of distribution. The 155 million dollar sum that Paramount will obtain when The Avengers and Iron Man 3 are released seems, in comparison, an equally comfortable alternative. Lastly, it is interesting to note that when it signed its agreement with Marvel, Paramount needed to be involved in buoyant projects. Today, the distribution company receives requests from all sides to promote the blockbusters shortly to appear on cinema screens; Transformers 3 and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, to name but two.
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Where to now for the “Disney dream”?

It is clear that the Walt Disney Company is following a very intelligent path by taking up Marvel creations: it is a question, quite simply, of injecting new material, “fresh blood” (the 5000 secondary characters brands that Marvel has not yet brought into the limelight) into the heart of a distribution and marketing machine that is already very well broken-in. Although several media specialists have presented Disney’s latest acquisition as proof of an unquenchable thirst for power in the entertainment world, it is perfectly possible to interpret the taking up of the distribution rights held by Paramount Pictures as a more pacific gesture, motivated by the desire to simplify the management of the films in question. Paramount, Marvel, Disney – behind each of these structures is a group of strong personalities, in directorial positions, and eliminating one of them from discussions is not without interest. For, in the new configuration, Isaac Perlmutter and Kevin Feige, CEO of Marvel Entertainment and Marvel Studios, respectively, are always consulted by Disney’s directors. As an article on points out, it is unlikely that Disney will reproduce its offensive on the rights to the distribution of franchises such as Spiderman or X-Men, which traditionally use major studios such as Sony and Fox, who readily contribute to the production budget.
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Key Facts

  • Chairman of the Board: Morton E. Handel
  • Vice-President of the Board and CEO of Marvel Entertainment: Isaac Perlmutter
  • President of Marvel Studios: Kevin Feige
  • President and CEO of the Publishing Division and Marketing Director for Marvel characters: Alan Fine
  • International Sales Director and Director of the Animation Division: Simon Philips
  • Financial Director: Kenneth P. West
  • Parent Company: The Walt Disney Company
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Les DANIELS, Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, H.N. Abrams, New York, 1991
Industry Statistics page of the official site of Diamond Comic Distributors Inc.
Press release: "Disney to acquire Marvel Entertainment for $4B", 31 August 2009

Translated from the French by Liz Guill
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  • 1. But already existing in 1934, with the foundation of National Allied Publications, which is going to become DC Comics.
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