Moviegoers have shown a willingness to be entangled by Spider-Man's web over and over again. Now, as Disney prepares to buy the comic-book powerhouse Marvel, it faces the question of whether fans will also get attached to characters as obscure as Ant-Man and Iron Fist.
The Walt Disney Co. is making a $4.2 billion bet that they will as it nears completion of its acquisition of Marvel Entertainment Inc. this week. The cash-and-stock deal brings those characters and thousands of others to an entertainment empire that already includes Mickey Mouse, Kermit the Frog and Hannah Montana.
Disney's biggest challenge will be to get enough people enthused about second-string superheroes to justify the price — about $1.2 billion, or 40 percent, more than what Marvel's stock was worth when the deal was announced Aug. 31.
The high price means Disney will have to find new ways to earn revenue from Marvel — perhaps by bringing Marvel-licensed toys to more store shelves around the world, and by digging deep into its comic vault for potential new blockbusters.
Although Disney is constrained by the fact that big-name Marvel superheroes such as Spider-Man are already locked up in long-term deals with rival movie studios, Disney has had a history of successfully turning unknown talent such as Miley Cyrus, the actress behind "Hannah Montana," into multibillion-dollar enterprises.
"With Marvel, it's not just about `Iron Man' and `Hulk,'" Caris & Co. analyst David Miller said. "It's all about the other 5,000 characters that you and I don't even know about yet."
Disney shares are already being helped, having risen more than 20 percent since the deal was announced, partly on the hope for new character development and better use of Marvel heroes in movies, stores and theme parks.
Marvel shareholders are expected to give final approval to the offer on Thursday, with the closing of the deal to follow immediately.
The deal has already spawned a bout of speculation in the comic book world about who will be the next big Thing.
Possibilities include classics such as Ant-Man, the alter-ego of mad scientist Dr. Henry Pym, and Dr. Strange, the mystical go-to guy whenever there's an extradimensional threat. Both are connected to The Avengers line of characters that Marvel had started developing for the big screen long before Disney made the deal; Iron Man and the Hulk are among the Avengers that Marvel already has tapped.
There are about 5,000 more characters, including obscure ones such as martial arts master Iron Fist from the 1970s and up-and-coming ones such as the Runaways, a street-savvy pack of teenagers that have become a recent Marvel comic-book hit.
Whoever is the next comic book movie star, Marvel has a track record of success: its "Iron Man" movie took in $572 million at box offices worldwide despite the character once being a B-lister in the pantheon of superheroes.
"They picked the right one and they did it the right way," said Gareb Shamus, whose company Wizard Entertainment Group runs several of the Comic-Con fan conventions around the nation. "When you do that you've got a franchise that could last forever."
Through the deal, Marvel gains the ability to quickly reach more markets worldwide. Disney is by far the world's top licenser of its character brands, with $30 billion in retail sales in fiscal 2008, compared with fourth-place Marvel at $5.7 billion, according to License! Global magazine.
"It gives Marvel the opportunity to expand internationally and leverage the Disney retail relationships as well as their licensee relationships," said Tony Lisanti, the magazine's global editorial director.
Marvel Chief Executive Isaac "Ike" Perlmutter, who owns 37 percent of Marvel stock, also secured himself the top job overseeing the Marvel business after the acquisition. That includes decisions on which characters are developed into movie stars.
Disney, which is based in Burbank, California, and plans to keep Marvel's operations in New York, hasn't tipped its hand on what lesser-known characters it believes have the potential to leap off the printed page.
And there are some characters Disney says it is happy to let other movie studios keep developing, including Spider-Man at Sony Pictures and the X-Men and Fantastic Four at 20th Century Fox. Marvel earns royalties and a piece of the merchandising sales from those movies, and Disney soon will, too.
Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger said the company may initially develop new characters on television rather than in movies. Its boy-focused cable channel, Disney XD, already airs 25 hours of Marvel cartoons every week and recently launched in Japan, as well as in several European and Latin American countries.
Television is where Disney incubated such hits as "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical." Since their debut on cable TV's Disney Channel, the franchises have spawned movies, concerts and a cascade of related merchandise.
"Instead of making a $200 million movie and kind of betting the farm on one character, you can develop a television pilot, a television series," Iger told analysts this month.
Disney would benefit the most from new characters that Disney and Marvel develop together because the company would own the franchises outright instead of simply receiving licensing fees from the movies that Sony Corp. and News Corp.'s Fox produce on their own. Those deals last until Sony and Fox stop making the movies.
New characters could also be a boon for fans who are tiring of sequels.
Analysts note that when Disney does land a hit, it is quick to spread the success around to its other businesses.
That's why "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical" have combined to sell billions of dollars in merchandise, and why "Cars" — a product of Disney's purchase of Pixar — is getting its own section at Disney's California Adventure theme park. Conversely, Pirates of the Caribbean was a theme park ride decades before it became a huge movie franchise.
"What Disney does better than anyone else is they leverage content across multiple platforms," Miller said. "When Disney has a hit film property, it uplifts and enhances all the other businesses."