The big pop culture news this week – and other than the death of Michael Jackson, likely some of the biggest pop culture news of the year so far – is that the Walt Disney Company has purchased comic book, film, and video game powerhouse Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion.
While I'm personally in no way rattled by the acquisition/merger, I do think that it provides some opportunities to discuss gender, entertainment and marketing.
Marvel has over 70 years of history, and Disney will have access to over 5,000 characters (though the ones that have been mentioned most in the past week are the most profitable: Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men. Hmmmmm . … what could be missing here?)
The deal has included lots of business speak about "brands," "vertical integration," "long-term growth," "value creation," and my favorite, "synergy," (mostly because it reminds me of 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy telling Liz Lemon to "never badmouth synergy"). There certainly will be many opportunities for profit, but I'm interested in how y'all respond to the fact that one of Disney's major motivating factors has been securing a young male demographic.
Heidi MacDonald at The Beat notes that: "Disney has always wanted strong boys properties. They rule the pink world with their princesses, but have had a historic weakness with older boys that they've tried to bridge. This is obviously a slam dunk for that."
The New York Times echoes this somewhat with: "The brooding Marvel characters tend to be more popular with boys — an area where Disney could use help. While the likes of Hannah Montana and the blockbuster Princesses merchandising line have solidified Disney's hold on little girls, franchises for boys have been harder to come by."
They also write that:
"The deal is not without risk. Questions include whether Marvel's lesser-known characters can be effectively groomed into stars and to what degree the most valuable and heavily exploited assets (Spider-Man, the X-Men) have weakened in box-office power."
Lesser-known characters include obscure characters – of which in a universe of 5,000 are many – but we can also assume that a handful of those are women and minority characters that might make compelling stories that have the potential to reach a diversified audience.
The Huffington Post writes:"Buying Marvel is meant to improve Disney's following among men and boys. Disney acknowledges it lost some of its footing with guys as it poured resources into female favorites such as "Hannah Montana" and the Jonas Brothers."
There's lots we can tease out here about pouring resources into projects that resonate, for whatever reason, with girls (and we can, and should get into those reasons too). My concern is that the resulting products will continue to be two unfortunate sides of the same gendered coin: Good-Girly Princess and Oversexed Superheroine.
As Nicholas Yanes muses in his piece for SciFi Pulse:"The final issue I want to address ties into why I think Disney bought Marvel in the first place – they are desperate to appeal to the young male demographic. The problem I have with this is that Marvel and Disney suck at appealing to anyone outside of their core demographic. Marvel has never been successful at developing a female fan base and Disney, in recent years, has developed a larger female following at the expense of gaining young male fans. My concern is that Disney and Marvel are going to forget appealing to the other gender: Disney will continue to roll out with Pop Princess stuff and Marvel will give up on creating powerful and popular female characters. Meaning that I'll be stuck feeling like a creep every time I buy a comic with a woman on the cover."
Johanna Draper Carlson reported on the investor call for Comics Worth Reading, and noted that Disney's President and CEO, Bob Iger, said something about "how the popularity of Marvel characters and stories transcends gender and age, which I disagree with, but once Disney gets a hold of them, that will likely become more true."
Like Carlson, I find Iger's comment difficult to swallow considering all the comments concerning the idea of a "Disney for Boys" – as well as how much of popular culture is marked towards the perceived and stereotyped male gender –but I'm curious to read what y'all think about this in the comments section.
Now I would hate to see a Princess Sue Storm (gag) – but there's a real opportunity here. Warner Brothers (who own DC) has dropped the ball on a live-action Wonder Woman film, and as I already discussed at length in a previous post there was all the buzz in the past year about how they are no longer making films with women in lead roles. And Marvel royally effed up with their semi-adaptation of Greg Rucka's Elektra/Wolverine: The Reedemer in 2005's Elektra (though there is one aspect I appreciate that I discuss at length in my book.) They also did a disservice to both Jean Grey and Ororo Munroe of the X-Men.
BUT, if Disney is willing to take a chance on female characters, albeit a specific type of female character, they may be willing to take more chances than Marvel was fiscally willing or able to do.
Additionally, Disney owns Pixar and John Lasseter has already expressed interest in the possibility of a Marvel/Pixar project. Pixar, of course, already produced one of the greatest superhero films of all time in The Incredibles, as well as one of the most multidimensional of female characters in Helen Parr/Elastigirl.
Aside from the numerous jokes about a Howard the Duck/ Donald Duck smackdown or the emergence of a Spider-Mouse (à la Homer Simpson's Spider-Pig) right now the focus seems to be on how this deal will affect male characters and male fans. I, for one, would be very interested in seeing a Jessica Jones project, something with Araña Corazon -- the first Latina superhero, and a Storm origin story (maybe staring Zoe Salanda?).
This news is still fresh and I'm sure the geekosphere will discuss every aspect of it in appropriately obsessive detail. But since the merger isn't likely to get much feminist attention, I'm wondering what thoughts you smart Bitch readers have to share about the deal and what it may or may not mean for female characters in film, comics, and television. Will the pop culture Disney and Marvel produce continue to be ever more gendered? How are our responses to the preceding question complicated by the fact that many of us get nostalgic over our experiences of girl (and boy) culture? Should entertainment be gendered at all? (Check out the enormous difference between Disney's Disney Princess and Disney XD websites.)
What female character from the Marvel Universe would you like to see get a proper treatment in film or television?