In theory, superhero fans should be delighted by Thursday’s news that Disney, in one one of the biggest corporate deals in history, is acquiring most of 21st Century Fox for around $52 billion. One of the major creative consequences the move is that it will bring together the hitherto scattered intellectual properties of Marvel Comics, allowing for a consolidation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into one coherent entity. Hitherto, Disney had owned most of Marvel’s vast pantheon of heroes, including Iron Man, Thor, and Black Panther, while Fox owned the rights to X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Deadpool. Now, all these characters can be brought under the same roof. Rotten Tomatoes described the merger as “a win” for Marvel fans since it’ll give them more X-Men, more Fantastic Four, more Silver Surfer, more Doctor Doom, and more crossovers with these characters.
If you’ve ever dreamed of an X-Men versus the Avengers movie, then the Disney/Fox union is cause for glee:
While fans are exhilarated, there’s little in the news to cheer filmmakers like Ridley Scott or Martin Scorsese, both of whom have expressed dismay at the domination of superhero films (although Scorsese has perhaps surrendered to commercial reality by agreeing to produce a Joker film). Nor is it good news for those concerned about the increasing concentration of corporate power in a few hands. As Harvard literary scholar (and comic book fan) Stephanie Burt noted:
But this deal might be bad even for those, like superhero fans, who are welcoming it. Under the control of Disney, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a hugely popular but ultimately cookie-cutter franchise, with little tonal diversity from movie to movie. Each movie follows the same mixture of cartoonish fisticuffs leavened with jokes and an epic, universe-threatening CGI ending.
One advantage of having different studios making superhero films is that they bring different sensibilities. As Alex Abad-Santos of Vox notes,
Fox’s X-Men aren’t locked into that [Disney] system, nor does there seem to be an overarching narrative that the studio wants to accomplish with its X-Men movies the way Marvel wants to with its Avengers, leaving individual X-Men movies to establish their own distinctive approaches and personalities. X-Men: First Class is a stylish, charming superhero period piece set in the Cold War era. X-Men: Days of Future Past plays with time travel and the idea of changing history. Deadpool is a raunchy comedy full of butts, murder, and jokes about chimichangas, while this year’s apocalyptic Logan is a bloody Western that received rave reviews.
Yes, the freedom that Fox has given the X-Men has resulted in some clunkers, like 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But it’s also resulted in superhero films that take risks, delve into different genres, and play around with different modes of storytelling.
Abad-Santos’s point can be pushed further: The very history of Marvel Comics shows that trying to shoe-horn every character into a single universe smothers creativity.
The fact that Marvel Comics comprises a single “universe” is due to the creativity of two men, artist Jack Kirby and writer/editor Stan Lee. When Kirby and Lee teamed up in the late 1950s, Marvel (then known as Atlas) was a second-string company that specialized in imitating genres made popular by more successful firms: teen humor, romance, horror, and western. Atlas/Marvel produced many comics, but they were nearly all imitative.
In 1961, Kirby and Lee broke from this pattern by creating innovative superhero comics, characterized by angst-ridden heroes and flights of cosmic fantasy. Starting with the Fantastic Four, they soon proliferated into a vast array of characters including the Hulk, Thor, the Avengers, Iron Man, Black Panther, the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer and scores of others. While Marvel employed other artists, almost all these characters came out of the Kirby/Lee team (with artist Steve Ditko co-creating Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Lee).
The fact that there were so few people working on these comics was partly an accident of creativity and partly caused by economics. Kirby had a powerhouse imagination and had been creating characters and pioneering genres since the early 1940s, when he and Joe Simon co-created Captain America. But the burst of creativity was also fueled by the very low page rates that Marvel paid. Kirby was a freelancer, and to support his family he worked at a prodigious rate: In the early 1960s, he often produced 100 pages a month, four or five times the rate of most artists.
While Kirby was the ideas-generating dynamo populating Marvel Comics, it was Lee’s editorial instincts that led to a vast array of characters forming a universe. Lee’s genius was in advertising and promotion. He discovered the value of having characters cross-pollinate, and constantly encouraged Kirby to plot stories where the Fantastic Four would meet-up with the X-Men or Spider-Man. The fact that Kirby created almost all the characters anyway made this sort of mixing and matching easier.
Most of the early crossovers in Marvel Comics had the feeling of casual cameo appearances. The fusion of all these characters into a coherent universe came later, after Kirby left 1970 in a dispute over not receiving credit for his work. Post-Kirby, Marvel was taken over by a second wave of epigonic creators like Roy Thomas and Jim Shooter, who were interested in bringing continuity to the Marvel universe. As a result, Marvel in the 1970s and 1980s became increasingly imitative of its earlier success, with fewer new characters created. Tellingly, most of the big Marvel successes in the 1970s (Conan, Tomb of Dracula, Star Wars) were based on properties created by other firms or in the public domain. Marvel never rediscovered its creativity, and continues to run on the fumes of the Kirby and Lee years.
In 1982, Kirby teamed up with writer Steve Gerber (creator of Howard the Duck) a comic series satirizing Marvel Comics. In Destroyer Duck, the avian superhero fights an evil corporation called Godcorp Ltd. whose slogan is “Grab It All, Own It All, Drain It All.” The Godcorp of 2017 is Disney. With Thursday’s deal, it looks like Hollywood is about to replicate the same mistakes that Marvel Comics made in the 1970s. If you think superhero franchises are dull copycats now, just wait until Marvel movies are all under one roof. With the imperative to bind every character together, any possibility of stylistic and narrative diversity will be squashed.
The superhero genre is already a very specialized niche, even in its most adventurous works. The variation that exists tends to be stylistic: the Gothic grotesqueries of Gotham City in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) or the Art Deco nightmare vision of Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990). With Disney absorbing Fox, even stylistic variety of this sort is likely to be squashed, replaced instead by movies that constantly reshuffling the same deck of cards. There will be team-ups and cross-fertilizations galore: the X-Men versus the Avengers, Spider-Man meets Wolverine, Black Panther allying with the Hulk. No movie will be self-contained. They will all be part of the franchise tapestry, planned out years in advance by Disney. Each movie will serve as a trailer for the next.
There will be no narrative finality in the superhero genre: It won’t matter if characters live or die, since they will always be resurrected for future installments. And these movies will dominate the box office, further crowding out big-budget films of other genres and increasingly pushing independent films out of theaters altogether, to debut on Netflix and Hulu (in acquiring Fox, Disney will also own latter). In announcing the deal, Disney CEO Bob Iger said, “The acquisition of this stellar collection of businesses from 21st Century Fox reflects the increasing consumer demand for a rich diversity of entertainment experiences that are more compelling, accessible and convenient than ever before,” This is pure corporate double-speak. Disney’s latest corporate takeover will dilute what little “diversity” is left in superhero movies and Hollywood as a whole. We will all live in Marvel’s universe.