Disney gets new comic heroes with $4 billion deal for Marvel

•Movies. Marvel produced its first movie, Iron Man, last year. It has several deals with other studios that Disney said it will honor and re-examine upon expiration. Spider-Man 4, for example, is being made with Sony's Columbia Pictures. It is set for release in 2011. Iron Man 2, made by Marvel, will be distributed by Viacom's Paramount Pictures next year. And X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2, due in 2011, will be made and distributed by News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox. Pixar also had third-party licensing agreements that eventually expired, letting it and Disney move forward together.

Marvel earned $206 million in its last fiscal year, up 47% from a year earlier, on revenue of $676 million. It is scheduled to produce and release two movies a year, starting in 2011.

With so many Marvel characters, Disney will be tempted to find another hit franchise, analysts say. "It is possible for Disney to break out other characters, as Iron Man did on screens last year," Morris says. "It is a matter of choosing the right characters, the right story, and what you do with them."

•Amusement parks. John Frost, who runs thedisneyblog.com, which focuses on theme parks, expects to eventually see Marvel characters at the Disney theme parks — but not at the main Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., or Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Orlando.

"I don't think we'll see Spider-Man or Thor walking down (Disney's) Main Street, U.S.A.," he says. "Disney won't confuse any of their original animated characters with ones they acquired."

Marvel characters are currently licensed in Florida to Disney's theme park competitor, Universal (but not to Universal Hollywood), where attractions based on Marvel's Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and Doctor Doom are currently in operation.

Disney now has four theme parks in Orlando: Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. Frost could envision Disney opening a fifth, with Marvel characters, once the deal with Universal expires. "They could take some of the great Marvel villains," he says.

•Toys. Marvel and Disney together account for billions of dollars in toy-related merchandise annually. That creates a powerful revenue stream for Disney among males, says Reyne Rice, trend analystfor the non-profit Toy Industry Association, which represents more than 500 companies in the $21.6 billion domestic toy industry.

"There is a huge following among not just boys, but teens and older male collectors of Marvel comics, action figures and trading cards," Rice says.

Two icons united

Like a classic Marvel team-up of superheroes, the merger pairs two American media icons: Walt Disney and Lee.

"Stan Lee has proven himself to be a creative genius on the same level as Walt Disney. Certainly, one can argue that Spider-Man is just as important as Mickey Mouse," says Stephen Fishler, founder of Metropolis Collectibles & ComicConnect, the world's largest dealer of vintage comics.

In a phone interview, Lee called the deal "a perfect marriage." He now is Marvel chairman emeritus and founder of POW! Entertainment. Lee, 86, recalled his early days at Marvel Comics— then called Timely Comics — in the 1940s. "In those days, I never thought anything like this would be possible. All I hoped was that the comic books would sell, I'd keep my job and I'd be able to pay the rent."

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