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On New Year’s Eve 2009, Marvel Entertainment’s shareholders casted their votes and approved the company’s acquisition by The Walt Disney Company (DIS). The deal, valued at around $4 billion, added Marvel’s lineup of more than 5,000 characters to Disney’s vast portfolio. Disney is the largest media and entertainment company in the world and through its Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group and Pixar Animation Studios (purchased in 2006), it has released some of the most successful animated films to ever touch the big screen.

With hits like the Spiderman and X-Men franchises Marvel has made its presence strongly felt at the box office. Unfortunately, the company was unable to fully capitalize on these blockbusters. Specifically, because Marvel did not possess the resources to independently finance and produce these films, it licensed the rights to these characters to movie studios like Sony (SNE), Fox, and Universal, among others. So although these titles raked in billions of dollars in revenues worldwide, Marvel only received a small fraction of the profits. Realizing that these moves were not in the best interest of the company, Marvel closed a $525 million debt facility with Merrill Lynch in 2005, giving it the ability to fund its own in-house production and announced a 2008 release date for the first film under the Marvel Studios banner, Iron Man.

Now let’s fast forward to the opening of the summer movie season in 2010. Marvel’s Iron Man 2 hit the theaters and grossed over $130 million domestically in its opening weekend.  Marvel Entertainment, although now under the Disney umbrella, appeared relatively untouched. Indeed, as with Pixar, Disney has stated that Marvel will retain its autonomy and, therefore, continue to develop its characters with the same vision that have made them comic book icons. This should be welcome news for fans anticipating the release of Thor in 2011, and the Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers movies, which are currently in development.

Marvel’s ability to maintain its creative control likely means that Disney will reach a new demographic. Disney’s younger fan base, who are attracted to characters like Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear, and Hannah Montana, are probably not the main target of the Marvel adaptations. Comic book-based movie titles with spectacular explosions, wild shootouts, and, at times, more graphic themes instead cater to older boys and the teenage and young-adult crowd. Because of this we expect to see a clear line of distinction drawn between the two entities.

By respecting Marvel’s expertise in its genre, Disney will likely allow the company to continue releasing movies with a higher degree of action and violence than the typical Disney film. That is not to say that Disney, being in the business of family entertainment, will not exercise some oversight especially on material that it deems over the top. For instance, the Blade and Punisher movies (released years earlier), which depict some of the darker characters in the Marvel universe would probably not have as easily been given the green light under Disney. These films received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, which is in staunch contrast to the G and PG-13 ratings that the usual Disney audience is accustomed to.

How fully enveloped Marvel will become into the Disney brand remains a question. Disney’s goal is no doubt to mine the abundance of Marvel’s characters and use its global presence, marketing capabilities, and vast resources to bring more of these action heroes out of the pages of comic books and onto the big screen, television, into video games, toy stores, and maybe even theme parks. Although we think Marvel’s super-hero movies will continue to capture a different audience than Pixar’s The Incredibles, Disney’s influence may ensure that they maintain the company’s tamer brand identity. Still, it might be a long shot, but maybe one day Mickey will get a chance to don the Iron Man suit.