Disney’s Marvel-lous investment

Andy Fry
By Andy Fry
August 19, 2016

Hit & Miss
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has been airing on ABC since 2013

Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment gave it some obvious assets such as The Avengers and Iron Man. But the real genius of the partnership is the way Disney has managed to mine Marvel’s wider universe, which extends to 5,000 characters.

The success of the deal is especially evident in the movie business, where the Avengers franchise has performed beyond all expectations under Disney’s stewardship.

No less impressive has been the way Disney has developed hit movies out of thin air – examples being Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero 6. The company also benefits financially from the success of franchises like Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four, which, although Marvel-created, are controlled in the film sector by Sony (Spider-Man) and Fox (the latter two). Add all the above together and the total Marvel box office take since Disney took over easily tops US$10bn.

Disney being Disney, the deal was never just about film, of course. With the world’s best IP exploitation infrastructure already in place, the company has also managed to squeeze value out of its Marvel assets across video games, theme parks, TV and more.

As with film, Disney is using TV to unleash an ever-expanding array of characters onto the market. However, there are a few notable differences in approach. One is that TV seems to be a more tolerant environment for female superheroes, making it easier to set up shows with women as central characters rather than sidekicks. The same is true in terms of diversity, with TV more inclined to showcase non-white and LGBT characters.

Agent Carter ran for two seasons
Agent Carter ran for two seasons

Another is that TV can take more risks with character selections and stories. Marvel characters that could never support a movie franchise are more than capable of attracting one million-plus viewers on cable TV in the US.

There’s also more of a narrative drama feel to Marvel on TV. In part this is because TV can’t compete with the movies in terms of special effects. But it’s also because TV needs to develop characters fully to sustain them over several seasons.

Disney’s biggest Marvel TV excursion to date is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which was launched to huge fanfare in 2013 on Disney’s flagship free-to-air channel ABC. Created by Joss Whedon, the show is based around an ensemble cast of characters, some of which have appeared in the modern Marvel movie franchise and others from the comic book canon. Testament to the strength of the Marvel universe is that the central character in the show (Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg) was killed off in one of the films but has now bounced back to lead the show for (a minimum) four seasons.

The show started very strongly – trading on the Marvel name – but has settled into a kind of solid mid-table performance, averaging around 3.4 million viewers for its 2015 third season. Despite this, it has a value to Disney that goes beyond the headline audience. One is that it does well among younger viewers. Another is that it has sold to around 135 countries worldwide. And finally it has also proved useful for Disney in terms of trying out new TV ideas.

Daredevil has met critical acclaim
Daredevil has met critical acclaim

For example, it provided the platform for ABC to launch Marvel’s Agent Carter, a spin-off from the Avengers franchise that lasted two seasons. It also spawned a spin-off called Marvel’s Most Wanted, which featured the characters Lance Hunter and Bobbi Morse from S.H.IE.L.D. Although this didn’t get further than pilot phase, it’s an indication of how Disney can work its Marvel assets through ABC.

It’s not just ABC that’s benefiting from Disney’s acquisition of Marvel. In April, Disney-owned cable channel Freeform (formerly ABC Family) announced it had greenlit a straight-to-series order for Cloak and Dagger. Based on Marvel comic book characters, the show will tell the story of an interracial superhero couple – underlining the freedom that TV allows to break down barriers.

There are also important relationships beyond the bounds of the Disney empire. The most significant to date is Disney’s multi-series pact with Netflix, which has had a storming start. The first show from the partnership was Daredevil (2015), a critically acclaimed series that has just been renewed for a third season.

This was followed by Jessica Jones, another well-received show that has recently been renewed for a second season. Starring Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad), Jessica Jones completely encapsulates the points made above – namely a female lead and tough storylines that deal with topics such as rape, assault and PTSD.

Jessica Jones deals with topics that might be considered too difficult for Marvel's big-screen outings
Jessica Jones deals with topics that might be considered too difficult for Marvel’s big-screen outings

Coming up next are series based around Marvel characters Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Then, in true Marvel fashion, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and the latter two will be bundled together for a series called The Defenders. Given that Marvel’s comic book iteration of The Defenders also includes Doctor Strange, there’s also a neat cross-over with the forthcoming Doctor Strange movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

On top of all this, Netflix is working with Marvel on a series based around its anti-hero The Punisher – a decision perhaps made easier by the massive success of the Deadpool movie, which also has an anti-hero at its core.

Alongside its in-house activities and the Netflix partnership, Disney’s Marvel TV division, which is headed by Jeph Loeb, is also building up a warmer relationship with Fox and FX. In past years, the two companies have not got on that well because Fox controls the movie rights to X-Men and Fantastic Four and has no intention of relinquishing them back into the Marvel fold.

However, this summer it was announced that Marvel and Fox are collaborating on as as-yet-untitled X-Men-themed series starring two parents who discover their children possess mutant powers. They are then forced to go on the run from a hostile government and join up with a group of mutants in order to survive.

Luke Cage is next off the Marvel TV production line
Luke Cage is next off the Marvel TV production line

In parallel, Marvel and FX are working on an eight-part series called Legion, another X-Men spin-off. Written by Noah Hawley (Fargo), this show follows a schizophrenic who has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years. But after an encounter with a fellow patient, he realises the voices and visions is his head may be real. Significantly for this show, it has also been picked up by Fox’s international channels, meaning approximately 125 countries, including the UK, will air it day-and-date with the US.

For Disney, the possibilities of the Marvel universe don’t end here. US streaming service Hulu, for example, is planning a series based on the Marvel comic book Runaways, about six diverse teenagers who can barely stand each other but must unite against a common foe – their parents. And there are also reports that Disney XD is planning an animated spin-off based on Guardians of the Galaxy.

All in all, then, that looks like US$4bn well spent.

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