If you follow comic-book merchandising… oh, you don’t? Yeah, I can’t blame you. It’s usually pretty dull. But Marvel’s recent merchandising has been getting… interesting, as they’ve begun outright omitting major characters from their new merchandise, to the point where they’ve been editing old covers and artwork and even putting a stop to premium merchandise. What’s going on?
The prevailing narrative, promoted by Bleeding Cool, is that Isaac Perlmutter has decided that since Marvel doesn’t own the movie rights, there’s no reason to actually make merchandise featuring the X-Men or the Fantastic Four, so onto the rubbish heap they go. The second is that Marvel is trying to make 20th Century Fox surrender the rights by limiting the profits the company can make off its Marvel movies.
I’ve expressed my skepticism of the first theory before, insofar as the FF is concerned. It’s not that I doubt Perlmutter is cheap or petty: If you cover the comics industry at all, it quickly becomes clear Perlmutter is in no danger of winning the Best Boss in Comics. It’s just extremely odd that Perlmutter would leave money on the table over a deal he himself helped orchestrate.
Here’s what’s at issue: Nobody knows exactly what the Fox rights entail, but one thing they without question don’t have is a right to any money from merchandise based solely on the comics. If Marvel wants to turn out crates of Fantastic Four or X-Men merch based on the comics and dump it into stores right before the movie comes out, Fox won’t get a nickel. And one thing notably missing from all this hubbub is the mention of an actual major manufacturer like Hasbro getting turned down; it’s all in-house merch or premium format stuff.
I’d like to propose a third narrative, and sadly a much more realistic one: Maybe Fantastic Four and X-Men merchandise just isn’t selling, at least not to the general public. It’s worth remembering that with merch, the real cash is in the back end; a licensee will give you an upfront sum, but the royalty you get when they actually sell the product can be staggering.
Spider-Man is instructive here; Marvel collects more in Spidey royalties than the entire comic-book industry makes selling actual comic books. So the Avengers are obviously close behind, what with their movies being vastly popular, right? Nope. They rake in just shy of a fifth of what Spidey makes. And let’s face it, the FF and the X-Men don’t exactly make Avengers money in theaters.
So, why the editing of the T-shirts, and leaving the X-Men and FF off marketing materials? My guess is that edict comes from over Perlmutter’s head, or is at least how he’s interpreting Disney policy. Let’s not forget that Marvel is a Disney company, and Disney has some very strange ideas when it comes to merchandising. It seems more likely some VP at Disney wrote a grouchy memo than Marvel deciding to torch any character it can’t make a movie out of.
Is it annoying and silly? Absolutely, and one hopes Marvel notes that its fans find it so. But at the same time, a vast X-Men-suppressing conspiracy seems unlikely. It’s just that fans, it will likely turn out, love these characters more than the man on the street does.