Disney buys Marvel (send in the anthropologists!)

Spider woman a marvel motion comic Anthropological dreams are made of this: helping Disney and Marvel manage their rapprochement.

Nothing short of heroic effort will do.  Disney is, after all, a pretty good marker for all that is mainstream about American culture.  Marvel is, by deliberate contrast, darker and less predictable.  One corporation turns in towards the gravitational center of our culture.  The other prefers to plot a course for the margin, for the uncharted, for the unknown.  I mean, this can't be a match made in heaven.  It's going to be tricky, complicated and, possibly, agonizing.


No, actually.  Stan Lee, god of the comix world, says the "synergy" between the two companies is "perfect."  And The Economist says a clash of cultures is unlikely.

Disney is no longer the control freak it was under its former boss, Michael Eisner.  His successor, Bob Iger, has turned out to be a relatively hands-off boss, with the Pixar acquisition a model of the sort of treatment Marvel can expect.

Hmm.  I wonder if it's not too soon to go leaping to conclusions.  It may well be true that Disney and Marvel will not suffer cultural differences of the big C kind.  The center-periphery distinction matters less and less.  Both parties have decoded the other.  So Disney and Marvel may occupy different cultural trajectories, but they need not be prisoners of their strengths.  What will vex and potentially undo this marriage is not the culture "out there," and their relative locations in our culture.  It's the culture "in there."

This is culture of the little "c" variety, the ones that define the corporate culture.  These are subtle and powerfully different.  Some are merely "tomato" and I say "tomaato," that sort of thing.  But others are fundamental differences of concept and problem solving.  These sound little but in the press of everyday work, they add up and occasionally tip over.  The difference between the two corporate culture is a little like the differences between the operating system of a PC and Apple.  Not so very different, but when you are working on the fly annoying as the dickens, and sometimes just completely wrongfooting. 

The differences of the corporate culture are subtle and deeply embedded.  Indeed they are so deeply buried they are impossible to see.  You cannot see them just by looking, anymore than you can work out the grammar of a speech just by speaking. 

No, the thing to do is send in a team for anthropologist who will dig out these assumptions, logics and subroutines (to say nothing of the mixed metaphors) and (wait for it) build a translation table for the two companies. 

Think of us as ferrets, but think of us.  Tom Guarriello, Mary Walker, Steve Portigal, Cheryl Swanson (for all of whom I speak without permission), and yours truly are standing by. 


Anonymous.  2009.  Of mouse and X-Men.  The Economist.  September5-11. p. 71. 

7 thoughts on “Disney buys Marvel (send in the anthropologists!)

  1. Steve Portigal

    It’s funny that the news of the merger led to a lot of Twitter/blog/etc. mashups of Wolverine with Mickey Mouse ears, etc. The cultural outcroppings of the two brands, dark and sweet, and lo and behold the humor of the collision. These cultures can’t combine, says the wry public, because look at the combined product.

    Ahhh, but as usual, we ignore the Japanese. They made Marvel cute (kawaii) a long time ago: http://www.portigal.com/blog/kawaii-superheroes/

  2. srp

    I think the biggest cultural gap has already been closed. Decades ago, Marvel was clueless about Hollywood culture–its mores and business practices. They kept getting into bed with low-rent operators who turned out craptastic, cheesy versions of Marvel properties for TV and theater. (I have a very slight fondness for some of these efforts–the 1970s Doctor Strange TV movie with Jessica Walter as the demon sorceress has some delightfully campy moments–but for the most part these products sank beneath the waves and had no cultural or economic impact.) During this period, DC comics, which was owned by Warner and so infused with Hollywood savvy, was able to do some decent things like the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies and the Tim Burton Batmans.

    Stage 2 at Marvel occurred after many changes of ownership and management. They licensed out to a better class of partner and got small but low-risk shares of titanic movies like Spider-Man and X-Men. The failures were conventional Hollywood failures (Daredevil, the first Hulk, the second and third Punishers) rather than the old Grade-D disasters.

    Finally, they got to Stage 3 and put up more of the capital and took more of a steering role in developing Iron Man and some of the more recent properties. This required them to develop even more connections and understanding of production, distribution, and marketing filmed entertainment. By now, their conversations with Disney execs should include lots of shared grammar and semantics. Twenty years ago, it would have been tragi-comical.

  3. Mary Walker

    Hi Grant — thanks for the mention, per our earlier conversations about the cultural & business issues around mergers.

    Per Disney-Marvel — my sources in the fanboy/girl communities tell me reaction is mixed…some ppl freaking out that Marvel’s track record
    of “shades of grey” characters & stories will be disney-fied into pap. Other fans saying that Miramax successfully continued to have its own
    brand separate from corp Disney after it was acquired in 1993. then again the Weinsteins did finally break from Disney/Miramax in 2005,
    citing power struggles over creative and budget issues…so who knows.

    Per mergers: I’ve decided that much depends on the implementation of the merger. Are you 1) cramming together the two entities into one surviving entity, like the mythical mating amoebas, or 2) allowing the two sibling companies to remain largely separate under a high-level corp umbrella parent.

    If cost cutting was the objective of the merger, then 1) is usually necessary — but also involved huge cultural/social unheaval. If the merger was about capturing market share, or expanding skill / core competencies capture, or adding new brands to the corp stable — then 2) may be a better approach. If you want to keep the acquired entity performing like it has been — then you have to largely maintain the internal biz / social / cultural environment that enabled it to be successful. Otherwise you’ll see all those expensively acquired human assets walking out the door.

    It’s like buying a saltwater fish tank and putting all those saltwater fish into your existing freshwater tank to save $$ on tank maintenance
    — and then wondering why all your new SW fish are dead dead dead. It’s because they couldn’t thrive in the environment that you forced
    them into.

  4. Nyny

    marvel needed better channels of capitlizing on their content, and disney needed content better aimed at boys. win win – as long as disney stay’s out of it. and world internally, is that we are.

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