It was a decade that left even the Mighty Thor cowering under his bed. For Marvel Enterprises, home to more than 4,700 comic-book characters, the '90s were decidedly unheroic: It weathered eight come-and-go CEOs, lawsuits over character rights, a 1996 bankruptcy, and dueling would-be owners (ultimate winner: kiddie-and-collectibles firm Toy Biz).
But the company is taking the offensive to regain its luster courtesy of its muscle-flexing Marvel Studios, which has been partnering like a Hulk in heat with nearly every lot in Hollywood. Boasts Marvel Enterprises president and CEO Peter Cuneo: ''Marvel has the potential to be bigger than Disney, bigger than DC Comics or anyone has ever been.''
A step in that direction occurred last month, when Marvel allied itself with Artisan Entertainment, giving the newly flush Blair Witch studio access to its entire library. So far there are nine films planned (with budgets ranging from $15 million to $30 million), whose revenues will be shared by both companies. ''The whole premise is to create a Marvel world within Artisan,'' says Amir Malin, Artisan co-CEO. ''This is going to be a cornerstone for us.'' The first four characters to get their big shot: Black Panther (an adventurer Wesley Snipes is interested in playing), Deadpool (a wisecracking hitman), Iron Fist (a sort of superpowered Bruce Lee), and Morbius (a scientist-cum-vampire). Artisan is now taking pitches from various scribes-about-town. Says Malin: ''A lot of A-list writers picked up the phone without their agents and agents hate that and said, 'Is there any way for us to be involved?'''
Though the Artisan partnership limits Marvel's ability to make any bulk deals with other studios, the comics giant already has a dozen other individual projects soaring toward the cineplex, including next month's X-Men from Fox. Alas, even if X-Men mutates into a blockbuster, the company is unlikely to cash in due to agreements made while Marvel was floundering. ''Sometimes you have to make a deal that's not the best possible just to be in the game,'' admits Avi Arad, CEO and president of Marvel Studios, which should see returns from its plans to tie all major Marvel movies to the tube like the X-Men animated series on The WB this fall. But, adds Arad, at least ''now we have a great coming-out party.''
Here, just a few of the post-X-Men party favors racing your way.
PLANNED RELEASE November 2001
THE STORY SO FAR
Marvel's most popular character has emerged from more than a decade of legal wrangling over rights. ''It's an enormous franchise movie for us,'' beams Columbia executive VP Matt Tolmach. Stars from Leonardo DiCaprio to Wes Bentley have been rumored a three-picture contract is planned for the Peter Parker picked. Self-professed Spidey obsessive Sam Raimi (Darkman, A Simple Plan) is working from a script by David Koepp (Jurassic Park) for what will likely be a $100 million-plus production. Raimi gets the stamp of approval from the character's creator, Stan Lee: ''I know Sam and he knows Spider-Man.''