NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Stan Lee, who died at the age of 95, built an Incredible Hulk-sized box office legacy. Through Marvel, the comic-book creator helped whip up a brigade of characters – including the tetchy green giant among others – on which movie studios now depend for audiences. He also showed, inadvertently, that even superheroes need powerful friends.
Lee’s influence at Marvel, which has long battled rival DC Comics’ Batman and Superman for dominance, was legendary. As editor-in-chief he led a group of artists who dreamt up nuanced superheroes like the teen-angsty Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, an outcast group born with otherworldly powers. Today, media companies like Netflix and Amazon spend billions of dollars on generating content – but media’s most potent properties were created by the likes of Lee literally decades ago.
The journey was bumpy. Television forced the company to bring its characters to the screen as sales of comic books declined. That contributed to a patchy financial history. An early feature film, “Howard the Duck,” has been justly consigned to cinematic oblivion. Ronald Perelman, the corporate raider who staged a hostile takeover of Revlon, bought Marvel and took it public in 1991, before making a series of strategic mistakes. Marvel went through lousy deals, unsustainable price hikes, infighting and bankruptcy.
The reversal in Marvel’s fortunes owes a lot to Walt Disney chief Bob Iger. He snapped up Marvel in 2009 for $4 billion and has made it one of the $174 billion Magic Kingdom’s most successful film studios by scaling up Lee’s ideas and cranking out sequel after sequel, using Disney’s massive budgets and marketing muscle. The top two grossing movies in the world so far this year, Marvel’s “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War”, have pulled in more than $3 billion in global ticket sales. Lee showed superheroes can stay young forever; Disney showed they work better as a team.
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