It Will Never Love You Back: Marvel Entertainment, Ike Perlmutter, and Why the Corporation Cannot Be Your Friend
Late last week, word broke that the CEO of Marvel Entertainment donated $1 million to a charity connected to Donald Trump, a political figure of… some controversy. This is not the first time Perlmutter’s name has arisen in a negative light — leaked e-mails implied he cautioned against female-led superhero movies, he’s cited as the main reason Marvel Studios extricated itself from under the Marvel Entertainment umbrella, a famous story claims he was so cheap that Marvel Entertainment had to make do with one bathroom per gender for an entire floor, and he comes off especially poorly in Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
But every incident of Ike Perlmutter being Ike Perlmutter is someone’s first — like how every comic is someone’s first, only with a really rich guy instead of Marvel Team Up.
Some fans have talked of boycotting Marvel, which is understandable; consumer boycotts are part of how public pressure campaigns work. (Being cruel to Marvel’s employees crosses a line, however; they don’t set the policy, and their economic security has to be weighted into their response.)
I feel it’s also understandable to decide not to boycott, since life in an increasingly networked consumerist society exposes all of us to moral hazards that we navigate in our own way. From the clothes we buy to the food we eat to the computer you’re reading these very words on, odds are that we’ve all benefited from exploitative conditions and from companies run by CEOs that we would find as objectionable as Perlmutter. It’s ultimately a personal decision whether to boycott or not, or whether to give time or money to a worthy charity to balance out our consumer choices. No one has to live with your conscience but you.
A number of fans are surprised that Marvel, in the midst of making an extended push for diversity in its line, would have someone sympathetic to a candidate as xenophobic as Donald Trump at the very top. I’m personally not surprised, for two reasons. First, Marvel’s diversity push has been pretty haphazard, and second, this is a corporation we’re talking about.
It’s not that a corporation can’t do good of its own volition. It can. But good works are not, and never will be, the priority for a company like Marvel. While the goal of the creators is to produce the best comics they can produce, the goal of the company is to provide a return on investment to its shareholders, and no less than that. If the former conflicts with the latter, it’s the former that has to give ground, and that has always given ground in all but the most romantic versions of the company’s history.
To the extent that the push for diversity has worked thus far, it’s because of a form of socially conscious consumer activism. Marvel has realized that it has little to lose and a lot to gain by making carefully calculated moves towards diversity. The profit on the comics may be little more than a rounding error in the grand profits of the Disney monolith, but the cost on the comics is an even smaller rounding error, and the boost in positive publicity helps Marvel’s brand.
Even if the creators at Marvel are coming up with these ideas on their own, they are still given implicit approval by the company. At minimum, no-one is hitting them with a veto. Marvel reaps the benefits by creating a generally pleasant picture of itself in the average reader’s eye — or, if we’re being honest, in the average moviegoer’s eye, since a lot of this press is aimed at people who haven’t read a comic in years, but who are potential movie ticket buyers. Marvel is best served by having a positive association in these consumers’ minds.
But while this push is socially conscious consumer activism, it is still consumer activism — it’s still playing in a consumerist paradigm, where the company has to pursue a course that maximizes return on investment to its shareholders. What’s happening here is that the company is convinced that the best strategy for return on investment should incorporate a more diverse line, for the purposes of good press. Good sales don’t hurt either.
If the wind shifts in the other direction, if diversity in representation falls out of favor, Marvel will follow suit. It’s a company with a product. That product has to sell, or the company isn’t doing what it’s meant to do. Making the company’s product sell — making that return on investment to the shareholders — that is the job of Ike Perlmutter, and that is why his actions aren’t in sync with the choices in diversity that have been made by the company he runs. While our motivation, and the creators’ motivations, are advocating for and creating a diverse superhero line that reflects the world more accurately, the company’s motivations for doing so is, “it seems to sell and it’s good press.” That’s it.
This is a tough pill to swallow as a comic book fan. Marvel Entertainment sells a product, but to us they’re stories. The key point of the diversity-in-representation movement is that stories do matter to us. They touch us and inspire us and stir emotions and thoughts so grand that we can’t stop talking about the ones we love the most. We want the stories we read to reflect something profound and insightful about our lives, and our lives are a diverse mosaic where every piece is beautiful and important, and we especially cherish the pieces that don’t get highlighted as frequently or as prominently.
But that’s how a person views a story, and corporations aren’t people, my friends. To the corporation, Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales are just something to slap a ™ symbol on, even if they mean so much more to every reader and to their passionate creators. A corporation doesn’t have feelings to stir, or a heart to break. They lack the capacity to love for anything other than selfish reasons.
I get loving Marvel. I do too. But Marvel, by its nature, cannot love you back. As we continue to deal with these companies, as advocates and consumers, we should never forget that.