Of mouse and x-men. will disney’s latest acquisition prove as marvellous as it appears

Disney is bringing the commercial heft

NOT even the combined powers of Spiderman, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America and the X-Men could keep The Mouse at bay. On August 31st Walt Disney announced it was buying Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion, just days after the comic-book publisher had celebrated 70 glorious years of independence, during which it had created many of the most famous cartoon characters not invented by Disney itself.

In fact, Marvel did not put up much of a fight, accepting what most analysts think was a generous price. Disney will get access both to Marvel’s creative minds and — potentially far more valuable in an age when familiar stories rule the box office — an archive containing around 5,000 established characters, only a fraction of which have yet made the move from paper to the silver screen.

Marrying Marvel’s characters with Disney’s talent for making money from successful franchises is a good idea. In recent years Disney has proved the undisputed master at exploiting the same basic content through multiple channels, including films, websites, video games, merchandising, live shows and theme parks.

The edgier, darker Marvel characters should fill a hole in Disney’s much cuddlier portfolio. This currently covers most people from newborn babies, through the addictive “Baby Einstein” DVDs (popularly known as “baby crack”), to adults, through its Touchstone label. Disney’s own cartoons, and the newer ones created by Pixar, an animation studio it bought in 2006 for $7 billion, appeal to children. “Hannah Montana”, a hit television show, caters to pre-teen girls. The Marvel characters should be just the thing for boys of the same age, whom Disney has found especially hard to attract of late.

However, many of Marvel’s best-known characters already have contractual obligations to various rival media conglomerates that will not be easily or quickly undone. Sony has an indefinite hold on Spider-Man; News Corporation exerts similar control over the X-Men. Universal owns distribution rights to the Hulk and long-term theme-park rights in Florida to several characters. This is a pity, because Disney’s theme parks are a part of its business where teenage boys would particularly welcome the contrast that Marvel’s superheroes would provide to the Magic Kingdom’s oppressive wholesomeness.

Another risk is one that often presents itself in mergers, especially those involving creative types: a clash of cultures. Happily for Marvel, Disney is no longer the corporate control-freak it was under its former boss, Michael Eisner. His successor, Bob Iger, has turned out to be a relatively hands-off boss, with the Pixar acquisition a model of the sort of treatment Marvel can expect. Indeed, John Lasseter, the chief creative force behind Pixar, reportedly played an important role in reassuring Marvel’s talent that their culture would be safe in Disney’s hands.

Also fully behind the deal is Stan “the Man” Lee, a living legend of the cartoon world who helped create many of Marvel’s best-known characters during the 1960s. Mr Lee, who recently launched his first digital comic as part of a partnership between his new firm and Disney, has predicted that the Disney-Marvel merger will prove “a terrific deal which will be extremely beneficial to both companies. The synergy between them is perfect.”

Ironically, in the 1960s, Mr Lee tried, without success, to convince his bosses to turn Marvel into a multimedia company like Disney.