- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2009

Almost a month after Disney purchased comic publishing powerhouse Marvel for $4.1 billion, lingering questions remain. Consider this one: How does Disney plan on making any money from the deal?

In theory, the move was a sound one for Disney. It would gain access to a library of characters that is both incredibly deep (7,000 characters deep, in fact) and appealingly broad (international icons including Spider-Man and the X-Men form the core of the Marvel Universe). Given the last decade of success Marvel has seen on the cinematic front, with even mediocrities such as “Fantastic Four” and “Ghost Rider” shooting past the $100 million mark at the box office, it seemed like a sure bet.

But take a closer look. Marvel’s premier properties are tied up with virtually every other major film studio in Hollywood. Sony appears to hold the rights to the “Spider-Man” film series in perpetuity; 20th Century Fox holds the rights to the “X-Men” series and its spinoff titles; Paramount holds distribution rights for “Iron Man 2” as well as the upcoming “Thor,” “Captain America” and “Avengers” movies.

And don’t expect to see Marvel’s titans appearing at Disney’s theme parks anytime soon: Universal owns the theme-park rights for most of the major Marvel creations (including Spider-Man, Wolverine and Captain America).

Another complication arose this week, when the estate of Jack Kirby (who, along with Stan Lee, created a number of the key characters from Marvel’s 1960s and ‘70s silver age) sued to reclaim the copyrights on those creations. The suit is similar to one won by the estate of Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman; earlier this year, a judge ruled that Mr. Siegel was owed a share of the copyright.

In the long run, the Mouse House might be able to turn a profit from the Marvel deal, but those days are at least a decade away, if not longer. Instead of picking up a huge brand name with a renowned stable of largely unusable characters, Disney should have done something a little more subtle: gone the indie route.

Comics produced by the independent houses have become more and more attractive bait for film companies in recent years: Two movies adapted from the indie comics scene — “Whiteout” and “Surrogates” — have opened in the past three weekends alone.

The world of independent comics has come a long way in the past few decades, offering a range of subjects far greater than those seen at Marvel or DC Comics. And movie studios have come to realize that they’re ripe for the cinematic plucking. Some are clunkers — “Whiteout” in particular was disappointing, given the quality of the source material — but the right material combined with the right director makes for fascinating filmmaking.

Think of “300,” Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s iconic take on the 480 BC battle of Thermopylae. The stylized look of Mr. Miller’s battle sequences and the intense violence made the book, originally published by Dark Horse Comics, pretty much untouchable for the major publishers. It also translated incredibly well to celluloid, as Mr. Snyder used the comics as a virtual storyboard from which to plan the picture.

That movie was a blockbuster, raking in more than $210 million domestically despite the hard R rating. Produced for just $65 million — about half the budget for most of the recent Marvel pictures — “300” was cheaply optioned and relatively cheaply made by Warner Bros. You might not see half-naked Spartans roaming around WB-themed parks, but the movie was a solid business proposition nonetheless.

Another Dark Horse comic has seen similar success: Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” has turned into a reliable franchise for Universal Studios, spawning one sequel and several animated features.

They’re not all winners at the box office: The underrated “30 Days of Night” springs to mind. Taking the traditional vampire story and moving it to a town just above the Arctic Circle — where the sun doesn’t shine for a full month — the movie failed to click with audiences, pulling in just under $40 million. Still, that was enough to recoup the production budget.

There is a healthy, largely untapped vein of independent comics that could be turned into big-budget movies, art-house thrillers, even television series. Disney’s live-action unit would have been better served — both financially and creatively — by investing in those properties rather than making a big splash by purchasing Marvel.

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