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The Mouse Buys the Fox

From the Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt:

The Mouse Buys the Fox

Back on the old television show Fringe, there was a fictional megacorporation called Massive Dynamic that advertised with the vaguely ominous slogan: “What do we do? What don’t we do!”

How long until we feel that way about Disney-Fox, or whatever the new merged megacorporation is called?

Walt Disney Co. is close to a deal to acquire a large piece of 21st Century Fox Inc., people familiar with the situation say, in a pact that could help the entertainment giant accelerate its ambitions in streaming media, shore up its television business and grab hold of lucrative movie franchises.

The deal, expected to be announced Thursday, would value the assets Disney is acquiring at $60 billion, including debt. Those assets include the Twentieth Century Fox movie and TV studio, cable channels including regional sports networks and key international properties. They don’t include properties such as Fox News and broadcast assets.

If Disney can afford to buy almost every entertainment brand in the world… I guess they were right, it really is a small world after all.

The bad news about this deal is that one super-conglomerate will soon own and run so many of our entertainment options. Ask any new parent how much Disney stuff they have in their house. Disney owns Pixar. Disney owns Star Wars. Disney owns Marvel’s superheroes. Disney owns the Muppets. Disney owns ABC television, ESPN, and half of A&E. Disney owns 30 percent of Hulu. From your youngest years with Mickey Mouse and the Muppets, to Star Wars and Marvel, to ESPN, to A&E, you’re probably watching a Disney product at every stage of life.

More than a few conservatives contend they see some heavy-handed propagandizing in Disney’s entertainment options. The controversies about ESPN growing more political are well-covered. Julie Gunlock recently laid out the increasingly crass and activist tone on the programs of the Disney Channel and Disney XD. Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, has grown increasingly vocal about topics like the DACA program, the Paris climate accords, and gun control.

Even if the new mega-company is relatively apolitical, at what point do arguments about a monopoly or a near-monopoly kick in for the world of entertainment?  Hey, it’s not like we’ve just heard about monstrous abuse in the entertainment industry enabled by particular individuals having the ability to create or destroy careers in Hollywood, right?

The good news is that in the world of the movies, the X-Men can now join the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Way back when, Marvel Comics sold the rights to make movies about their superheroes to several different companies: 20th Century Fox got the X-Men and related mutant characters like Deadpool; Sony bought the rights to Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, Universal had the Hulk, and New World Pictures bought the rights to the Punisher. When Marvel Studios launched, it had the rights to what was left over… and what rights had returned back to the comic book company. It turned out Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America were pretty popular in their own right, and Marvel was able to reach a deal with Sony to bring Spider Man back into their universe and share the profits. (Thus the in-joke of the title of this summer’s movie, “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”)

Actor Chris Evans jokingly pitched, “Who do I talk to about a Cap/Human Torch buddy comedy spin-off? I’m thinking Planes, Trains and Automobiles meets Parent Trap.” (The joke is that he played both characters.)

In Marvel’s comic-books, all of these heroes operate in the same world and have cross-over adventures pretty regularly, and that’s one of the aspects that makes Marvel’s movies fun. Thor needs help from Doctor Strange, Iron Man is mentoring Spider-Man, Captain America’s third movie featured a conflict that affected just about every heroic character seen so far. But the X-Men can’t appear (and don’t appear to exist in Marvel’s cinematic fictional world so far) because 20th Century has the rights.*

(It’s fair to wonder if this separation is actually for the best, because the Marvel comics universe featured a world where the X-Men and mutants were distrusted and feared by the general public for their powers, while the Avengers were largely trusted and celebrated. More than a few writers struggled to write around that contradiction. The real reason is that the two sets of characters were created to tell two different kinds of stories – one for classic adventure stories and the other for an allegory about discrimination and being an outsider.)

*One odd exception: In the comics, the super-fast Quicksilver was a longtime character in both the Avengers and the X-Men series, and so the studios negotiated for two slightly different versions of the character to appear in the separate movie series.

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