For most, it was simply a poignant moment in June's World Cup. Scoring his team's third goal to seal a victory over Costa Rica, Ecuador's Ivan Kaviedes pulled out a Spider-Man mask from his shorts, donned it and danced across the field, to the cheers of Ecuadorian fans. He did so in the memory of teammate Otilino (Spider-Man) Tenorio, killed in a 2005 car crash. But Marvel Entertainment executives took Kaviedes' tribute as their own. For a comic-book publisher, it marked a feat of superhero proportions: in less than a decade, the company had pulled itself out of bankruptcy to re-establish its global brand. "We've made Spider-Man beloved in even the farthest corners of rural Ecuador," says David Maisal, a vice chairman of Marvel Studios.
Not to mention more locally--on Wall Street. Marvel stock has leaped to $20 a share, from $1 in 2000. The films it produces with studio partners have grossed $3.6 billion. Licensing deals for its 5,000 characters, including Spider-Man and the X-Men, are worth $5 billion in retail sales. Next year could be even better, with Sony's release of Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 3.
Yet Marvel's future remains a cliff-hanger. "It's definitely one of the more--if not the most--difficult companies out there to forecast," says Bear Stearns analyst Glen Reid. In late May, just as Marvel kicked off what may be the greatest test of its powers yet--a slate of 10 independently financed films--the firm stunned investors and Hollywood alike by announcing that Avi Arad, the man behind the Spider-Man and X-Men film franchises, would leave to start his own production company. Not six weeks later, two more key execs departed unexpectedly--Tim Rothwell and Bruno Maglione, heads of Marvel's licensing and international divisions, respectively, perhaps Marvel's most important priorities.
That tumult has some analysts thinking Marvel is prepping itself for sale. "These are guys who'd be squeezed out by a merger," says Jefferies & Co. analyst Robert Routh, who owns Marvel stock. "A major move would make sense by the year's end."
What a potential buyer would get is a Marvel unrecognizable from the cartoonish operation it was eight years ago. First, owner Ron Perelman pillaged Marvel for cash and floated $250 million in high-yield debt. The weakened company couldn't make the payments and went bankrupt in 1996. Perelman had also sold off much of the company's most valuable intellectual property.
In 1999, Ike Perlmutter, who had bought control of the distressed outfit the previous year, hired as CEO Peter Cuneo, who had turned around such companies as Remington, Clairol and Black & Decker. Under the duo's guidance, Marvel slowly transformed itself into a conservative but lucrative licensing business. "I always tell people that when you come out of bankruptcy, it's like chemotherapy. You may be cured of cancer, but you're still very weak," says Cuneo, now a Marvel vice chairman. "But then along came Spider-Man."
The huge success of the first Spider-Man movie, in 2001, not only saved the day for Marvel but also set its business model in motion. Because Spider-Man's theatrical rights had been sold to Sony, Marvel received just 5% of the $400 million U.S. box office. But it raked in millions by licensing the Spider-Man brand, including $155 million from toys in the first year.