Media

Marvel-louse: How entertainment has become a corporate shell game

By Richard Poplak 29 March 2011

Marvel Entertainment, founded in 1939 as Timely Publications, is part of American publishing lore. In 1969, when it took current name, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were churning out characters from a particularly rich superhero mill—Spiderman, Iron Man, The Fantastic Four - all told a version of the American story. Marvel is now a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, and the Hulk and Human Torch share a stable with Minnie Mouse and Goofy. This is the sordid tale of the 21st century entertainment industry. It has more villains than heroes. By RICHARD POPLAK.

In 2007, Dominican-American Junot Diaz published a novel called “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (hereafter TBWLOOW). It was the coming-of-age immigrant story of a fat, unloved Dominican youngster named Oscar, so catholic in his taste for the riches of geekdom that his room resembled a particularly well-stocked collectibles store. The book’s epigraph, from Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four #49, reads, “Of what import are brief, nameless lives…to Galactus??” This hinted at the book’s subtext: Comic book villains exist; they certainly did in the Dominican Republic, where Ernesto Trujillo’s brutality affected the lives of generations of his countrymen. So garish was his violence, so absurdly prodigious was the bloodshed, he might as well have donned a cape and a mask, and called himself the Trujillator.

TBWLOOW is at once a meditation on all the mythological and imaginative fecundity geekdom has to offer, but also an indictment of its corresponding paucity – how it allows one to exist outside the world, as if following the adventures of Thor and the minutiae of his back-story are somehow a replacement for life. In this, geekdom is a corollary for religion, if a gentle one. Unlike their heroes, most geeks don’t shoot webs from their wrists or pack magic hammers. Oscar’s life was brief and wondrous because he did not have the tools to function in a world without superpowers. Comics taught him everything, and prepared him for nothing. In other words, they were art.

Do comics find geeks? Or do geeks find comics? These questions, while ontologically and sociologically intriguing, hardly matter. Certainly, as Junot Diaz demonstrated, comics matter. Or, at least, they did. Now, that the comic book sensibility has suddenly gone global and mainstream, they have become an essential sidebar to understanding the “corporatization” of the entertainment industry. In 2009 Disney bought Marvel Entertainment, rolling publishing, multimedia and film wings into one formidable line-up. They forked over $4.24 billion in Earth cash for their haul, and it is paying Hulk-sized dividends.

This was not necessarily ordained, especially when one considers both Marvel’s and its lifelong and mortal enemy, DC’s, history in trying to transform their stables of heroes into film stars. Marvel in particular made poor decisions by selling off the rights to Spiderman and The Punisher to hack, D-list producers in the early eighties, missing the nuances of the tent-pole era ushered in by “Jaws”, and then “Star Wars”. DC did a better job with Richard Donner’s first two “Superman” films (1978 and 1980), but the franchise fell into utter disarray with the third and fourth instalments.

The next true DC smash was Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989), which grossed $400 million. The film was a result of several producers realising the grimy, paranoid vision of Frank Miller’s classic “The Dark Knight Returns” comic book series would resonate with mainstream audiences. Warner Brothers bit—a first spark of coming corporate synergy that was again scuttled, as if by the Joker himself, in the third and fourth films. (Anyone remember the nipples on George Clooney’s “batsuit” in “Batman and Robin”? Didn’t think so.)

In the 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy, and in what future historians will no doubt describe as the great entertainment revolution, fuelled by the dot.com boom in the early zeroes, the company understood that survival depended upon its ability to successfully unify its properties. It’s a decision that has incidentally debased their comics line, which chief editor Joe Queseda describes as, “the cheapest R&D there is, but the best R&D there is”. Comics, like jazz, are one of the true American art forms, and both Marvel and DC have done the medium no favours of late. Their work, with three-panel pages that more resemble storyboards than dense, classic Steve Ditko layouts, is no longer dazzling. For the geek at heart, it’s a tragedy. Thank Galactus for the indies!

Watch: Captain America trailer.

When Wesley Snipes kitted up as “Blade” in 1998, and grossed a respectable $70 million, bells went off at Marvel HQ. Then, the motherlode: Sam Raimi’s “Spiderman” (2002) became an example of what could happen if Marvel represented a character properly. An origin story with heart, Tobey McGuire’s Spidey swung into the hearts of a massive global audience. The film’s international gross topped out at roughly $821 million, with its two lesser sequels adding a further $1,7 billion. But it wasn’t until 2008, when Marvel aided and abetted the making of “Iron Man”, starring Robert Downey Jr. as a version of himself, or some would say Elon Musk, (produced at the nascent Marvel Studios), that the true potential of their franchise was tapped. “Iron Man” was, at best, a secondary property, and he jet-packed his way to $585 million. Tacked onto the credits was an introduction to “Nick Fury” and “S.H.I.E.L.D”, and thus the “Avengers”. (Bear with me, non-geeks.) This set the stage for endless spin-offs, and heralded the coming of the Josh Whedon-directed “Avengers” for 2012, which is for dorks what the Bhagavad Gita is for Hindus.

Bubbling away under this narrative, however, we find, like the lava of Mordor, the story of the post-modern entertainment industry. We must go back to the aforementioned bankruptcy to properly understand what accidentally transmuted Marvel into a vast global entertainment brand. In 1991, another boom era, Ronald Perelman’s MacAndrews and Forbes took Marvel public on the New York Stock Exchange. Perelman than sold a host of junk bonds on the back of the stock, many of which were purchased by the infamous Carl Icahn, who would come to own much of Marvel at the time of its bust in 1996. In the course of these corporate shenanigans, Marvel bled most of its creative talent and the remainder of the decade was spent destroying the mainstream comics industry with gimmicks and other on-the-cheap incentives. The shareholders were all that mattered. The company was handed around like a hot potato until it began diversifying heavily, investing in online content and becoming more involved in its creative stock.

The comics division is now headed up by the talented and dedicated Axel Alonso. But his mandate is not necessarily that of his earliest predecessors. He is part of an assembly line— a front-line development engineer, if you will — rather than a writer of the American story. Stan Lee, after suing the company in 2002, was instated as chairman emeritus, even he isn’t enough to properly reinvigorate the moribund mainstream comics brand. Marvel has become a meat grinder for the corporate master with mouse-ears.

There’s something poignant, if inevitable, in the fact that the fantasy life of the Oscar Waos of the world are governed by such machinations. Is nothing safe from Capitalism-O, the all-conquering super-villain who eventually comes to commoditise both the sacred and the profane? Marvel Entertainment rolls out three big tent-poles this summer: The X-Men prequel, “First Class”, “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Thor”. Should those films meet expectations, they’ll net The Walt Disney Company around $2 billion in revenue. Should they collectively fail, hundreds of millions of dollars will be sucked into the vortex, tanking Disney’s shares, further denuding the mutual funds of retirees in Florida and Arizona.  

Every art form has its cycle, and online publishing will hopefully reinvigorate mainstream comics once again. But as Junot Diaz wrote in TBWLOOW, “It’s never the changes we want that change everything”. This is Marvel’s year. Let’s hope it delivers some magic along with the stock options. DM


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Photo: Copies of the Captain America comic book are displayed at a store in New York March 7, 2007. Captain America, who was created by Marvel Entertainment Inc. in 1941, is shot dead in New York by a sniper in the latest issue that hit the newstands on Wednesday, after being kept a closely-guarded secret. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton.

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