The Elephantine Mouse in the Room

One of the most important things I ever learned from Doctor Who is that humanity will never cease to surprise, and by no means is that always a positive. Until quite recently, I was dead certain that we lived in the information age where the importance of intellectual property and who owns it was very well understood. The complete lack of concern over Disney's purchase of Marvel proved otherwise. This is a pretty terrible thing, and I'm not talking about any kind of phantom fear of Daredevil having to change his name to Dareangel or anything that insipid. What we are staring down the barrel of is one singular corporate entity weilding a massive fucking chunk of the most valuable and well known intellectual property in the world. Why it's particularily frightening that Disney is that entity takes a bit of context and a history lesson of sorts.

The year is 2007, it's a balmy summer evening in Calgary and I'm ignoring a beautiful sunset over the river because I'm gamely trying to impress the most beautiful woman I've ever seen with a kind of stump speech- that kind of irreverent yet pointed interpretation of pop culture you usually see in a Kevin Smith movie- about the lack of interesting or progressive male role models in Disney films. With the exception of Bambi, which was in my mind the real hook. That plucky little deer who grows up practically without a father, saves the forest, and refuses to buy into the might-makes-right alpha male complex when it comes time to fight for his woman. It all went according to plan. Until she responded.

According to her, the look on my face when she demolished my argument and completely reconfigured my perspective and understanding of Disney films was such that she never expected to hear from me again. (She's now my girlfriend.) Her opening line, a verbal left jab to the head, was to shift the focus from Bambi and his merits to the fact that his mate was little more than a docile, submissive female there for him to protect and bear his children. Pop went that balloon, but on she went, going through each Disney Princess and tearing each one down, explaining which stereotype each belonged to and why it was essentially worse that young girls had these characters to look up to than if they had none.

Beyond just dismantling my opinion, what Katrina highlighted was how Disney has, through their films, been able to influence public discourse on femininity and the role of women in society by disseminating a decidedly patriarchal perspective to a massive audience of fertile young minds. Feminist literary critics have for years wryly pointed out that womens' stories typically end in either marriage or death (say nothing about the fact that the literary female is almost to a fault defined by the men in her life). Disney Princess stories all end in marriage. Marriage to rich, handsome princes.

While it's true that the majority of Disney films- especially those dubbed Princess Movies- are based on much older material than the cartoons, there has never been much interest or attempt at altering the source material beyond changing the endings where the protagonist died to the protagonist getting married. There is not a single Disney Princess movie that does not feature a romantic relationship that is based on a man coming to the rescue of a woman. While some of the female protagonists assert themselves or attempt to gain control of one facet of their life or another, they are all ultimately submissive to their male love interest.

Which, is how the Sex and the City movie ends, with Big proposing to Carrie using one of her diamond encrusted shoes in lieu of a ring. The obvious reference to Cinderella wasn't even truly necessary to illustrate what the ultimate arc of the series- or at least Carrie's character arc- was; which is essentially that the duty of the Post Feminist Woman is to toil at a career and navigate the jungle of contemporary dating just long enough to find the Prince Charming ready to sweep her off her feet. It's all a cleverly masked shell game; it pretends to celebrate female economic and sexual independence while ultimately giving a thumbs up to the traditional paternalistic view of marriage. It's Disney for Grown Ups, and the best example of how pervasive the influence of Disney's repackaged fairy tales is, especially in fiction targeted at women.

At this point, it probably isn't all that clear what the social and cultural impact of Disney Princess movies has to do with the Marvel purchase. When the news about the purchase broke, representatives from Disney were widely quoted as saying that it's primary interest in Marvel is to reach the young male demographic that has- relative to it's female counterpart- eluded them in recent years. Given the kind of conservative, self-limiting message Disney has been hugely successful at marketing to young girls, I am very concerned about these same people gaining control over a large stable of characters aimed directly at impressionable boys.

Which is a very important point to make even if you take the deluded perspective that Disney only wants Marvel as an intellectual property farm for movies and merchandising, which I simply cannot believe given Disney's history in meddling with their subsidiaries, most notably film studio Miramax, pressuring the Weinstein brothers to push back release dates, purchase the international distribution rights from Disney to be sold to a third party, or in the case of Kids, purchase the film from Disney altogether, effectively removing their name from it. In every case the dispute was caused over objectionable content that sparked backlash from political and religious groups, most notably in the case of Michael Moore's documentary Fareheit 9/11. This of course contributed greatly to the Weinsteins' acrimonious departure from Disney to found their second company, The Weinstein Company.

Disney also had very public and acrimonious disputes with another collaborator; 3D animation juggernaut Pixar. It's important to note that the majority of the disputes between Pixar and Disney came while Pixar was under contract but a separate entity from Disney, and that the later purchase of Pixar came with negociations that resulted in many consessions in Pixar's favor due to their status and worth including a restructuring of the animation department that re-opened the 2D animation department and closed the direct to video department (after the release of Tinkerbell, which was the culmination of a bitter battle begun with Disney's attempt to make a Pixar opposed Toy Story sequel that forced the creation and release of Toy Story 2, taking John Lasseter off production of Monsters Inc and later led to a public debate between Steve Jobs and Michael Eisner).

In addition to Marvel having no such leverage over how Disney as a corporation will interact with them and their properties, the current leadership (above and beyond Editor in Chief Joe Quesada) has been traditionally fidgety in issues that may offend the sensibilities of important Hollywood types. In short, Avi Arad watches what happens in the comics carefully and is never afraid to lower the boom. The most notorious incident involves internet muckracker Rich Johnston informing The Daily Mail that Peter Milligan and Michael Allred were prepped and ready to publish a comic that featured the reanimated spirit of Princess Diana on a superhero team. The story goes that it was pressure from Arad, who was losing face with his Diana-worshipping Hollywood connections that forced Milligan and Allred to re-create the arc using a dead brunette popstar of their own invention, which greatly compromised the story and it's impact in parodying contemporary celebrity culture.

Since at least 2003 Avi Arad and Dan Buckley were eager to sell Marvel to Hollywood, although they bitterly argued about whether they should make overtures to Sony or Paramount (among other things), which as the example above shows, compromised the more daring creative minds at Marvel and the political manoevering doesn't end there. Shortly after the controversy surrounding the X Statix arc broke, Rich Johnston was in contact with a source either from within or close to Marvel going by the name Felicia who outlined- filtered through her own interpolations and opinions- what the next few years of Marvel would look like. The only thing that stopped it from happening is that it took another six years for Marvel to find the right buyer.

One of the more important parts of her diatribe was to point out that- in 2003 (before the release of Spiderman 2 or 3)- the publication arm of Marvel accounted for 5% of the company's revenue, which among other things led Dan Buckley to do insane things to attempt to justify its (read his) continued existence. With Quesada in tow, the two poured over every communication from the west coast they could in order to find tidbits of how the characters would be interpreted in the movies and as much as possible integrate these changes into their comic book counterparts as soon as possible, including such things as Spider-man's organic webbing and Bullseye's revised Colin Farrel look not to mention the primary unspoken motive behind the "One More Day" fiasco. Quesada's personal vision for the continued existence of Marvel comics is a literal interpetation of the company's nickname the "House of Ideas," to essentially become a pitch farm for movies and video games, a concept that so far has only been successful for individual creators (Mark Millar, J. Michael Strazynski, Tim Seeley, Robert Kirkman) but has shown no promise for entire companies. Successful or not, the tactic serves only to diminish the potential and actualization of the medium.

At the end of the day, the Disney purchase is just adding one more layer to an already poisonous cake that will not- under current leadership- result in the enviable creative and market position currently enjoyed by DC. The degree of creative autonomy enjoyed at DC and their upcoming shift to a position of contribution and consultation in brand usage across Time-Warner did not come overnight. It required the integrity and determination of Paul Levitz, Karen Berger, and Jim Lee as well as Warner Brothers' hands off approach to DC's output that allowed them the freedom to craft daring narratives, and tread on nearly any ground they desired. None of the elements of that equation exist in the current leadership at Marvel, and none of it is present at Disney either. I'm not here to Chicken Little, I'm here to remind you that Dark Reign is the perfect metaphor for Marvel. You've just got to hope there's an Emma Frost at the table.


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