Like millions of Canadians, Peter Birkemoe grew up reading Marvel Comics and its tales of Spider-Man, Iron Man and Thor.
Mr. Birkemoe now owns a comic-book shop in Toronto called The Beguiling,and when he heard yesterday that Walt Disney Co. was buying Marvel Entertainment Inc. for $4-billion (U.S.), he was stunned.
"It's kind of a shocking figure," Mr. Birkemoe said from his shop. "In the world of comics, $4-billion is a number that does not exist."
Disney sees far more than comic books in the acquisition. Buying Marvel gives the creators of Mickey Mouse and Snow White more than 5,000 superheroes - such as Ant-Man, Cloak and Dagger, Captain America and The Punisher - to turn into movies, video games, television shows and toys. Disney also plans to twin the creative talents at Marvel with Pixar, which Disney bought in 2006 for $7.4-billion. And it hopes to finally win over an audience that has largely eluded the magic kingdom - boys.
Many of Disney's biggest successes - Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers, Cinderella - have been popular with girls, but Marvel's more edgy, violent characters are big with boys. Disney is already using Marvel content for 20 hours a week of programming on its recently launched cable channel, Disney XD, which is aimed mainly at young males.
The deal "is a great opportunity for Disney," said Mark Andrew Fuller, a business professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. "It really opens [Disney]up to a whole new generation."
Marvel "meshes perfectly with Disney's business," Disney's chief executive Robert Iger told analysts on a conference call. "The popularity of Marvel characters and stories transcends gender, age, [and] cultural and geographic boundaries and can be told successfully across a wide range of both traditional and new media platforms."
The Disney deal ends 70 years of independence for Marvel, which dates back to 1939 when New York magazine publisher Martin Goodman created Timely Publications. Mr. Goodman published his first comic book featuring the Human Torch and followed it up with Captain America. Launched just nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Captain America became an instant hit during the war, beating up Nazis and selling more than a million comic books a month.
Timely eventually changed its name to Marvel, and for decades, it dominated the comic-book market, churning out character after character. During the 1960s and 1970s, Marvel rivalled Disney as an entertainment giant, selling 50 million comic books a year.
"No one ever said, 'I can't wait to get the next issue of Mickey Mouse Magazine,' but they couldn't wait to get another edition of The Fantastic Four," Stan Lee, Marvel's legendary comic-book creator, once told reporters.
In the 1990s, Marvel ran into financial trouble as the comic-book industry sank. The company filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors in 1996 and emerged two years later largely as a licensing company with 300 employees and less than $700-million in annual sales. Meanwhile, its main rival, DC Comics, owned by Warner Bros., had already been making films based on DC characters Superman and Batman.
In 2000, under the control of toy-company executive Isaac Perlmutter, Marvel moved into the movie business as well and teamed up with studios to produce films featuring its superheroes. The first film, Blade, generated $133-million in revenue and was followed by a string of features including three Spider-Man movies, two Fantastic Four films, four X-Men pictures, and two for The Hulk.
Last year, Marvel started producing its own films, hoping to keep more of the profits. Over the next three years, it plans to release Iron Man 2, Thor, The First Avenger: Captain America and The Avengers, as well as numerous video games based on Wolverine, X-Men and The Punisher.
"Disney is the perfect home for our great collection of characters and their stories," said Mort Handel, Marvel's chairman.
Even Mr. Lee, who created Spider-Man, Iron Man and dozens of Marvel characters and is still in the comic-book business, praised the takeover.
"I couldn't be happier with this agreement," he said yesterday in a statement. "Just imagine, with this deal, Marvel gives Disney a library of literally hundreds of unique and colourful characters that have the potential to make great, high-concept movies and long-lasting franchises - and nobody knows how to play in that ball park better than Disney."
Iron Man for boys, Jonas Brothers for girls makes Disney a lot of cash
Many of Disney's biggest successes have been popular with girls, but Marvel's more edgy, violent characters are big with boys. Here's a look at box-office numbers for each:
Iron Man: $318,412,101
The Incredible Hulk: $134,806,913
Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience (2009): $30,427,454
Hannah Montana: $79,576,189
Cinderella (Re-issue): $34,101,149
Source: Box Office MojoReport Typo/Error