On May 6, 2016, Captain America: Civil War, the latest installment in Marvel’s current slate of film leading to the Infinity Wars, opened in the US. After one weekend, the film had already surpassed its production budget and has made over $1.1 billion to date in box office revenue across the globe.
The same weekend that #Marvel fans were shelling out millions to watch the next story for Steve Rogers, the United States Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, was trying one last-ditch effort to stop Donald Trump from becoming the Republican nominee for President in 2016. It was a futile effort, as Trump wound up getting the necessary amount of pledged delegates by the end of the month.
While American politics and Marvel films seem to be completely unrelated, the two are tied together thanks to Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter and the current conservative movement within one of the most profitable studios in Hollywood. From stories about his strange sense of cheapness and privacy, to accusations of racism and xenophobia, Perlmutter is representative Marvel’s increasingly visible internal battle between the progressive content of its creative teams and the fearful conservatism that proliferates among the business of filmmaking.
The Origin Of Marvel's Real-Life Super Villain
To be fair, Perlmutter’s rumored cheapness likely comes from his extremely modest beginnings. Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter is the American Dream in its truest sense. He arrived in New York City from Israel with little money and slowly worked his way up in the business world as a wholesaler. After two business ventures where Perlmutter exercised a certain degree of ruthless sharpness, Perlmutter amassed enough money to become the Chairman of the Board of Marvel Comics by March 1995.
While Perlmutter’s beginnings appear humble, questions about his business practices begin long before he set foot into Marvel’s doors. It is no secret that people who profit in the face of a failing business or industry are automatically placed under a microscope of skepticism. Anyone who has ever watched "Crash Course Economics" on YouTube or remember the basics from high school understand that in a free market system, slumps are nearly unavoidable without some intervention by either the government or some fraudulent action on the part of people involved in the business.
Perlmutter’s sketchiness begins less so with his alleged fraudulent business activities as it does with his already initial reclusiveness. While most people can respect a desire for privacy from those in the public eye, it’s also hard to believe the person isn’t hiding something when defensiveness permeates any and all attempts to find out more. That is to say, when a reclusive billionaire with “course English” deals in the business of profiting from bankrupt companies, you’re likely dealing with material for every notorious comic book villain ever.
How Ike Perlmutter Became The Mavin Of Marvel
In fact, Perlmutter’s questionable activities in the toy industry preceding his time at Marvel has an entire section in the non-fiction novel The Vulture Investors by Hillary Rosenberg. The story goes that due to Perlmutter’s relationship with the management toy company Coleco Entertainment Corporation was a suspicious occurrence when the company began to make negotiations after filing for bankruptcy.
Basically, Perlmutter had purchased Coleco’s bank debt, assuring his power over actual bondholders and his ability to profit greatly from the sale of the company to Hasbro while the bondholders would receive nothing. After much litigation and the general complicated nature of corporations filing for bankruptcy, bondholders managed to retain some dignity in the sale to Hasbro by arguing Perlmutter down to a decreased claim on debt. Perlmutter walked away with a $14 million profit, or a 28 percent return on the money to buy the original debt.
Perlmutter’s business interests seemed to have always been headed toward Marvel, presumably because of how the businesses he profited from were always connected to the toy industry. As mentioned previously, Perlmutter’s modest beginnings involved selling toys. As such, one might think that Perlmutter always had his eyes set on an industry with a seemingly stable market. Comics, at that point, had an extremely stable fan base. Assuming that Perlmutter had officially honed his business-takeover-from-bankruptcy skills with the settlement at Coleco it’s not a far-fetched idea that Perlmutter took note of the comic book industry bubble that was forming.
After the settlement with Coleco, Perlmutter continued to work his way to money and profit through debt purchases until he wound up with interests in Marvel Comics in 1993. At the time, Marvel was being controlled (and some would say ran into the ground) by the interests of millionaire businessman Ron Perelman. Like Perlmutter, Perelman had invested and controlled a variety of businesses, and had managed to purchase Marvel Entertainment Group for $82.5 million in 1989.
Perlmutter's Toy Empire
In the early '90s, Perelman had plenty of profit from Marvel and is said to have gone a spending spree worthy of Julia Roberts’s Rodeo Drive adventures in Pretty Woman. According to Den of Geek, Perelman bought a couple of trading card companies, Panini stickers, a distribution outfit entitled Heroes Worlds, and somewhat not surprisingly, shares in Perlmutter’s current business venture, Toybiz. The total costs for Perelman’s ventures was reportedly $700 million.
At the outset, Perelman’s spending doesn’t seem that bad of an idea in the early 1990s because Marvel was riding huge waves of success. This was especially thanks to #SpiderMan and #XMen sales. Marvel then began to introduce clever marketing schemes for their new comics to increase revenue. An example of this is the release of X-Force, where each first issue came with one of five different collector’s cards. As a result, fans who wanted to collect all of the cards would have to purchase multiple copies of the same issue. The problem with this sales gimmick of course is that it assumes that comic book fans would always have the disposable income to invest in multiple copies.
Marvel began to appeal only to the small facet of fans who could afford to buy multiple copies of an issue and only ever fully enjoy one of them. The other copies would instead remain sealed forever to one day be (hopefully) sold for a huge profit.
Neil Gaiman, critically acclaimed author and creator of The Sandman series, had warned Marvel and other comic book companies that this kind of strategy would eventually be catastrophic.
"You can sell lots of comics to the same person, especially if you tell them that you are investing money for high guaranteed returns, but you're selling bubbles and tulips, and one day the bubble will burst, and the tulips will rot in the warehouse."
Gaiman’s reference to tulips is a classic economics teaching case of the tulip mania that struck Europe in the 17th century. The parallel is basically that people became so obsessed with buying tulips that the prices rose too high and the market collapsed. Essentially, the same fate was awaiting Marvel Comics if the company did not find a way to circumvent the collector culture that was basically leading casual fans to either pay thousands for the newest issue of a comic or miss out completely.
Upon the eve of the supposed bubble burst, Perlmutter was setting up shop with a larger investment in Marvel as a member of the Board of Directors in 1993. Given his history, one would think that Perlmutter’s interest in a company should make any CEO nervous, but he went largely unnoticed during the initial fall of the market because of the spat between Carl Icahn and Ron Perelman over who would control Marvel.
Perelman didn’t exactly make a great case to continue to steer the ship of Marvel, as some from the outside comic industry had blamed him for the devastation that everyone suffered. Chuck Rozanski, CEO of Mile High Comics explained it like this:
"Perlmutter reasoned, quite correctly, that if he raised prices and output, that hardcore Marvel fans would devote a larger and larger portion of their disposable income toward buying comics. Once he had enough sales numbers in place to prove this hypothesis, he then took Marvel public, selling 40 percent of its stock for vastly more than he paid for the entire company.”
"The flaw in his plan, however, was that he promised investors in Marvel even further brand extensions, and more price increases. That this plan was clearly impossible became evident to most comics retailers early in 1993, as more and more fans simply quit collecting due to the high cost, and amid a widespread perception of declining quality in Marvel comics."
By 1995, it would appear that Perlmutter was ready to make his “first strike” by agreeing to merge his ToyBiz company with a new venture entitled Marvel Studios. Perelman may or may not have viewed the dealings with Perlmutter as a deal with the devil then, especially when you consider he was involved in a heated battle for control with Icahn and other shareholders. Icahn felt that Perelman had done enough damage and the merger/creation that would yield Marvel Studios seemed to be yet another dangerous venture that would leave the company in shambles.
The Marvel Bankruptcy
Perelman filed for bankruptcy in 1996, basically allowing him to take complete control of how the company would be reorganized. Unfortunately for Perelman, Icahn would not go down without a fight and thus a long two-year legal battle began for control of Marvel and all its entities.
After the long battle however, neither Icahn nor Perelman ended up with major control of the company. Instead, it was Perlmutter and Avi Arad — ToyBiz executives — that had apparently been leveraging their ability to save the company from debt (similar to the Coleco situation with Hasbro) through merger. By 1997, the merger of ToyBiz and Marvel was complete and the company was out of bankruptcy.
Perlmutter’s involvement in the business side of Marvel may have seemed benign at first to any average comic book fan — it wasn’t as though he was affecting the creative content that the company produced.
Until he was.
To the credit of both Perlmutter and Arad, the move to produce Marvel films in-house instead of working with Hollywood studios was pretty necessary. Though the company’s first venture into films with Blade and X-Men was profitable, Marvel wasn’t the company making the profit. According to a piece from Slate, Blade only grabbed the company $25,000. Moreover, of the $3 billion that the first two Spider-Man films made for theaters, DVD, and broadcast sales, Marvel only took home $62 million.
According to reports, David Maisel was the person who pitched to Perlmutter the idea of Marvel producing its own films. Maisel is also credited as the reason why every project Marvel announces in the future will need to tie into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Marvel Loses Film Rights To All Of Its Best Characters
However, given that Marvel was still reeling from the bankruptcy and shake-up in the 1990s, it would take much more for the current shareholders and Perlmutter to be sold on Maisel’s ideas. The selling came thanks to the financial backing (and creative dealings with on future projects) from Merrill Lynch. The non-recourse financing deal that would give Marvel $525 million to make 10 character films over an eight-year period allowed Marvel Studios to birth its cinematic universe. When the rest of the #Avengers rights — including the Hulk, Black Widow, Thor and Iron Man — made their way back to Marvel, it seemed their fate as a monstrously successful company was sealed. The Disney sale was merely icing on the cake, especially for the executives, who each grabbed $30 million for their Marvel shares and then gained additional shares in Disney.
All of this probably sounds as though Perlmutter was again, only a problem from a financial position. However, as many creatives in Hollywood are beginning to express anguish over, the financiers of films are the ones causing the destruction of the film industry. Essentially, these finance people who have little to no knowledge nor passion for film (or comics, in the case of Marvel) are assessing risks and micromanaging in a way that is stifling to creativity.
Ike Puerlmutter's Creative Interference
Hence, the feeling that every movie in the past 10 years has been either a franchise film, a film with a big star, or a film that wasn’t produced by a major studio. And if we’re just talking about summer blockbusters, then franchise films are the only films that are marketed and distributed to a level that yields the most possibility of success.
Arad, as a comic book fan, is somewhat excused from this issue. Perlmutter, on the other hand, is allegedly the reason why Joss Whedon refused to come back for another Avengers film, why the diversity in Marvel Studio’s executive office has decreased, and essentially why Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige dug his heels until he would no longer be forced to report to the man.
Admittedly, the stories surrounding Perlmutter’s micromanaging is shrouded in a bit of rumor-mill reports. Almost no one will go on the record and say that Perlmutter is the reason for the “years of frustration” that seemingly lead to Perlmutter being removed from creative input into the cinematic universe, but when several powerhouse directors (like Whedon, Jon Favreau, Patty Jenkins, Kenneth Branagh, John Johnson) leave swiftly after a short time, and when Edgar Wright apparently wrote the best Ant-Man script ever and then left, it’s hard not to believe the rumors.
Avengers: Age Of Perlmutter
As for the rumors themselves, the issues with Joss Whedon leaving the Avengers franchise after Age of Ultron seems to be the best example of where reading between the lines yields the thinking that Perlmutter himself is Ultron in the face of Marvel’s creative Avengers.
Whedon’s official reason for leaving the Marvel Cinematic Universe was explained as tiredness from the workload that involved consulting on almost every future film while spearheading the Avengers:
“But, I sort of had my finger in all of the films in the second phase, but then I just had to concentrate only on 'Ultron,' and sort of know when it was done I was just going to stop. So I made a completely clean break — not because we had a falling out — just because I was like, ‘I can’t…’ If I was still there going, ‘Well, here are my thoughts on this film,’ I’d be there every day."
If you read between the lines however, Whedon’s tiredness likely has to do with the fact that despite seemingly having boundless creative control, he was also at the mercy of Marvel’s executive team (which included Perlmutter) and Perlmutter’s rumored penny pinching. As reviews came out for Age of Ultron, many found the cave scene involving #Thor to be obvious pandering and setup for the next film in the franchise. When asked about it, Whedon lamented that he had basically no choice but to include the scene if he wanted to keep any of his personal darlings from the farm sequence:
"The dreams were not an executive favorite either — the dreams, the farmhouse, these were things I fought to keep … With the cave, it really turned into: they pointed a gun at the farm’s head and said, ‘Give us the cave, or we’ll take out the farm,’ — in a civilized way. I respect these guys, they’re artists, but that’s when it got really, really unpleasant."
Perlmutter’s penny pinching and its possible effects mostly have to do with guesswork based on rumors. Nevertheless, if one had to argue for something as minute as extra funds for craft services, filming Age of Ultron was likely even tougher for Whedon.
An example of Perlmutter’s initial stinginess with Marvel begins with the company move to #Disney. According to sources at the Hollywood Reporter, Perlmutter refused to update the furniture of the Marvel offices when they moved into Disney’s lot in Burbank, California because “he did not want to change the culture.”
Additional rumors include Perlmutter’s insistence on using the same pencil even if there’s only two inches left on it, complaining that journalists were allowed two sodas instead of one at a press conference, and that the best way to gain favor under Perlmutter is inform him that someone spent too much money on something. Even on a film like The Avengers, where you can argue for all of the best/most expensive equipment, it’s probably not a fun time arguing with a man who doesn’t want journalists to drink two sodas at a press event because it costs too much.
In fact, this micromanaging of funds reportedly even led to Disney running out of food at a media event for The Avengers. Some might argue that Perlmutter is perhaps reeling from Perelman’s presumed running of Marvel into the ground with overspending, but now that Marvel is largely in a place of safety, it seems like the company is overdue for some flexibility with investment.
Perlmutter Penny Pinches The Talent
While the micromanaging of finances seems mostly aggravating, it was the rumors about his feelings toward black actors Terrance Howard and Don Cheadle that began to make Perlmutter seem more worrisome. According to the Financial Times, Perlmutter allegedly argued to hire (the then cheaper to cast) Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2 to cut costs. When executives expressed concerns over the change in casting, Perlmutter allegedly stated that no one would notice because they’re both black. In the wake of Perlmutter’s comments, Disney pointed to Marvel’s new diverse comic book characters, seemingly attempting to absolve the company of accusations about lack of diversity.
Unfortunately, Disney’s statements about Marvel Comics' new ventures into more diverse representation still doesn’t include diversity on screen and behind the camera. It would seem that, at this point, Marvel Studios is just as whitewashed as the rest of Hollywood, especially given the company’s recently under-fire casting of Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange.
In some sense, Perlmutter’s stinginess is the perfect vehicle to mask any latent prejudices he may be holding against an individual level. Perlmutter and those faithful to him reportedly were extremely unwilling to compromise on negotiations of salary for anyone but Robert Downey Jr. This was because he had apparently proven his ability to be the face of an entire franchise of films while other stars were still working their way into the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In fact, Perlmutter is perhaps the best example of how “putting your money where your mouth is” can garner endless influence. If you have the ability to halt production because of dissatisfaction with the tiniest number in the budget — as Perlmutter seemingly did — then it’s not far-fetched to believe you have the power to do anything you want with a personal agenda.
Another troubling example of Perlmutter’s agenda disguised as frugality policies is the Avengers toy line. Given that Perlmutter was the head of Toy Biz during the merger with Marvel, it was not surprising that Perlmutter would guide the release of Marvel superhero toys. The unfortunate stench of sexism appeared in Perlmutter’s choice in toys for promotion of Age of Ultron when it appeared that Black Widow was nearly impossible to find as opposed to her male counterparts.
Vanity Fair reported early in April of last year that in the featured Age of Ultron line offered on marvel.com, Black Widow only showed up on four items. Meanwhile, though the Vision’s and Hawkeye’s roles were much smaller in the film, they received much more merchandise than Black Widow. Disney eventually replied to Vanity Fair’s with examples of more merchandise across different venues like #Lego and Hot Wheels. The response, however, appears to hold little clout when you hold it up to a former Marvel employee’s anonymous piece about the total absence of young women as a potential market for merchandise.
Kevin Feige Stands Up
As for what Perlmutter thinks of all of the accusations of racism, sexism, being a cheap-skate, and his general sketchy behavior, we’ll never know. The final facet of his supervillain parallel in Marvel’s internal civil war is that the man has maintained secrecy seemingly from day one of owning one of the most successful companies. His interviews have been limited to perhaps singular digits (I didn’t find a freely accessible one in research for this piece), and Perlmutter is rumored to have even worn a disguise to the premiere of Iron Man to prevent the press from questioning him.
It’s clear what Disney and other shareholders (mainly Kevin Feige) thought: Perlmutter was officially removed from creative influence in Marvel Studios in the Fall of 2015.
Kevin Feige aired his grievances with Perlmutter to Disney CEO Bog Igner and studio chief Alan Horn allegedly right after the release of Age of Ultron, and the plans for creative control to move away from Perlmutter were solidified by the fourth quarter of the year.
"Marvel Studios is taking the next logical step in its integration with The Walt Disney Studios, joining Pixar and Lucasfilm in centralizing many of its film-related functions in Burbank, with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and co-president Louis D’Esposito continuing to lead the Marvel Studios team reporting to Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn," said a Disney spokesperson.
In addition to Perlmutter no longer being in charge, Birth Death Movies also reported that the creative committee that had made enemies out of Edgar Wright and lead Whedon to leave the studio, would also be disbanded.
While it is not yet certain to what the shake-up will mean in the films (as Civil War and #DoctorStrange had already pretty much been in post-production by the time the changes went into effect), Marvel Comics appears to be growing more diverse. As of July, the comic arm has produced a new Black Panther by noted black activist and writer Ta-Nahisi Coates, and also announced a new Iron-Man starring a black female lead named Riri Williams. Add in recent announcements about the black presence both in front of and behind the camera on the 2018 scheduled Black Panther film, and things seem hopeful.
Perlmutter Still Controls Marvel TV
However, Perlmutter still oversees Marvel Television and the TV properties of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Prior to Kevin Feige’s defect to Disney, Perlmutter and Feige were both dealing with the struggle of having X-Men wasting away (depends on who you ask) at Fox. Perlmutter’s answer for the inability to use the X-Men was the introduction of the alien DNA superheroes called the #Inhumans. The rest of Marvel’s creatives seemed to get behind the introduction of the Inhumans, having them first appear in the TV universe and then finally enter into the cinematic universe after the slate leading to the Infinity Wars.
Unfortunately, now it seems that Perlmutter — on a level of pettiness only surmounted by a bee that is willing to kill itself to hurt you — is forcing the Inhumans into development hell. According to Birth Death Movies, the film adaptation completely disappeared from the Marvel Cinematic Universe slate as of late April this year. Though it’s certainly possible that without the Inhumans film, the characters will finally be able to be named and cast in the TV universe. That, however, depends on how Feige is reacting to Perlmutter now that he no longer has to directly report to him.
If you were hoping that any of the TV series characters like #Daredevil or Jessica Jones would make it into the cinematic universe, you should probable take note that Perlmutter’s pettiness with property precedes itself.
According to anonymous sources at Marvel, Perlmutter has demonstrated his unwillingness to compromise over intellectual property with his treatment of the final Marvel titles that are still stuck in the Hollywood studio system. The obvious one is Fantastic Four. Though it was never confirmed by Perlmutter (as it likely never will be), Marvel’s choice to end the comic series in 2015 was because of his unwillingness to boost profits for Fox’s 2015 film reboot. According to Bleeding Cool, Perlmutter even went to the extreme of making sure that no Fantastic Four posters were in the office as to not remind him of Fox’s current ownership of the property.
Things turned out a little better regarding negotiations for the new Spider-Man, but with the current phasing out of X-Men in the comics, Perlmutter’s feelings toward Fox seems pretty clear. To be fair, X-Men was one of the most successful Marvel comics series around the time that Perlmutter came into the fold of the company. In that regard, it likely does anger Perlmutter that basically any new X-Men characters or storylines pretty much belong to Fox Studios as soon as the writers finish putting them together.
The Battle Continues
However, when you think about comics, films, and the fans that buy them, it is almost certain that Perlmutter’s business sense is not interested in profit as much as he’s interested in monopoly. This goes back to the initial push to make films in-house, but is now amplified because it directly affects the comic book market that Marvel is engaged in. Put simply, it’s hard to see Perlmutter’s silent phasing out of X-Men in the comics (and merchandise and video games) for the sake of movie rights as anything beyond a slap in the face to the comic fans that made Marvel film adaptations possible in the first place.
So, is Perlmutter really a supervillain behind the scenes at a company that is still inspiring and bringing geek culture out of the basement and into pop culture?
It depends on how much you feel about his meddling and tinkering with Marvel’s money. On one hand, Marvel may have never survived bankruptcy court without him. On the other hand, he’s made enough money from dealing in somewhat morally reprehensible bankruptcy deals to not only donate to Donald Trump’s charity (which we all know is likely somehow kicking back to Trump), but also allow his wife to donate millions to Marco Rubio.
In that regard, Marvel may be internally warring over what to do in TV vs the cinematic universe, but the real problem still seems to be the villain that continues to profit immensely at the head post of the company.
How do you feel about the situation? Let us know in the comments below.