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Box office returns are back for Thor: The Dark World’s first weekend in theaters, and not surprisingly, they’re really, really good. More than $86,000,000 good to be exact. No doubt counting that money feels pretty damn good for executives at Marvel Studios, but the ramifications actually run far deeper than just this one-time lump sum payment for parent company Disney.
Just as the runaway success of subsidiary Pixar inspired Disney to make some fundamental alterations in the way it worked on animated movies and to rapidly promote executive John Lasseter, the money-making machine that is Marvel Studios will likely alter the way the studio develops live action characters and properties and could lead to a similar rise for key executive Kevin Feige. Even if you’re not a Marvel fan, this will likely impact you down the road as Mickey Mouse’s long arm stretches through ABC, ESPN, Disney World, Star Wars, Pixar, Disney animation and a whole lot more. Luckily, that should be a great thing, and I’m here to explain why.
Theme ParksWhen Disney purchased Marvel, the studio basically purchased a giant tangle of complicated licensing agreements the powers that be had made with other companies over the years. As a result, certain characters, like say the X-Men, belong to other studios and various other distribution agreements, like the one with Paramount, had to be bought out for large sums of money in order to give Disney full control. When it comes to theme parks, the dots are even more complicated. Basically, Mickey and friends are allowed to use Iron Man and company in theme parks anywhere in the world that doesn’t fall in the Eastern half of the United States or in Japan. It would take too long to get into the whys, but in short, Disneyland, Disneyland Paris and Disneyland Hong Kong could start to get brand new rides based on all the classic Marvel characters, but to this point, only Disneyland Hong Kong has announced it will.
If that ride puts asses into the seats and the Marvel Studios films continue to grow in popularity, it’s a sure thing that Disneyland, as in the Anaheim one, will eventually figure out a way to incorporate at least a couple large scale attractions that aren’t merely displays. Because of space limitations, that could involve knocking down some attractions in California Adventure and building over them. It could involve moving parking further offsight and creating an entirely new full-size park or it could involve building on an entirely separate site. If enough people clamor for something, Disney will build it, and I think I speak for everyone when I say I’d love to ride an attraction based on the epic Avengers climax.
Complicated And Layered WorldsPart of the appeal with Marvel and with comic books in general is their ability to create a very textured and complicated universe complete with crossovers, Easter eggs, teases, obscure references and potential mash-ups. The cameo in Thor: The Dark World is a great reminder of that, and based on how much people like it, the example should serve as a very good one for Disney as it attempts to make a Star Wars adaptation that both thrills casual fans and lets hardcore obsessives know the film was made by people who understand and care as much as they do.
The best way to handle a series of films is to plan ahead of time and to have creative consults on staff to map out overall story arcs before the individual writers get to work. The more that’s outlined ahead of time, the more can be seamlessly incorporated to create one running narrative. With a wealth of source material, the decision makers have plenty of different routes they can go in, and there’s no reason why they can’t use Marvel’s example and stockpile each film with reminders and hints at the larger Star Wars universe they’re adding to.
Breathing Room For PixarFew studios have ever gone on a run as magical and lucrative as the one Pixar began with, but in recent years, a bit of the gold polish has started to wear off a little bit. For the first time, the studio began encountering some bad reviews and behind the scenes squabbles and next year will mark the first since 2002 that the studio doesn’t offer up a new project. June will no doubt be a lonely place without Pixar, but Disney will be able to stomach the break in part because Marvel has turned into such a cash cow.
If Disney was reliant on Pixar as its primary source of income, it’s very possible the studio may have kept original director Bob Peterson on The Good Dinosaur or brought in someone with marching orders to put their head down and finish the film quickly for a 2014 release, but thanks to reliable anchors like ESPN and now Marvel, it’s okay for the studio executives to take a few deep breaths and figure out a solution to right the ship over the long haul.
An Increasingly Popular CharacterThor may not be a star on the Iron Man or even the Captain America level, but he’s now toplined two movies that did major box office and co-starred in a third that proved to be one of the most popular flicks ever. With the addition of any future sequels, that should be enough to turn the character into a figure that resonates with non-comic book fans for decades to come, whether he’s had a new movie released recently or not. That’s a good thing for both Marvel and Disney because he’s a superhero that’s not exactly cloaked in red, white and blue.
People like to rag on Disney for creating a lot of dumb direct-to-DVD efforts, but in recent years, the company has put very rigid standards in place to prevent main characters from getting misused. Beyond that, the decision makers have long figured out creative ways to incorporate Disney characters into fun merchandise, theme parks and more. They’ve also regularly churned out remastered versions of the films and brilliant and informative featurettes for anniversaries. Thor will do very well under the Disney banner, especially because he’s an ideal ambassador for Disneyland Paris, considering he’s not as tied to America as a lot of Marvel’s characters. Thanks to the marketing machine, he should see his popularity grow, which will mean more money and better talent to work on sequels and maybe a reboot a few decades from now. Say what you will about Disney, but they know how to transfer the love of a character to a new generation.
A Hands Off ApproachSuccess has a way of keeping managers at bay. The more an employee, a division or in this case, a studio achieves, the less bosses tend to mettle, which is great news for the next few Marvel movies. Until the company swings and misses, Disney executives are going to hang out and worry about other things, only stopping in long enough to get the occasional update. As such, the actual creators will be allowed to continue to find their own perfect balance between nerdy and mass-marketed and between true heart and chaotic action. That process might sound like it will have a pretty quick expiration date, but ESPN has been profitable for years without any end to it in sight.
Disney isn’t always the most reactionary company. There haven’t been any grand shake-ups at Pixar because of a few misses, but there definitely have been some minor ones. If Thor: The Dark World would have proven a disappointment, there’s a good chance there would be a few more conversations between Marvel and Disney executives, but as it stands, the business relationship is no doubt more one of high fives than frustrating memos. Here's to hoping that continues for decades.