There are times in an investor's life when you just know. For me, this is the moment I decided Time Warner (NYSE: TWX ) was worth a closer look:
OK, this too:
To be fair, the friendly confines of Comic-Con aren't the best litmus test for the success of next year's debut of Green Lantern film, starring Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan, the appointed Green Lantern of space sector 2814.
(Interlude: Reynolds may also be the nicest guy in Hollywood. He symbolically raised his prop power ring to the young questioner from the video, and then signed memorabilia for him. A very classy move.)
Why should you care? Time Warner unit DC Comics is showing signs of becoming the sort of heavyweight Marvel was before Disney (NYSE: DIS ) bid $4 billion to acquire the company.
What hides behind Green Lantern's light
But don't take my word for it. Look at the box office receipts for director Christopher Nolan's take on the Batman franchise. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight combined for more than $738 million at the domestic box office and $1.37 billion worldwide.
We won't know how big a box office draw Green Lantern will be for another year. But I like the film's chances. Reynolds has charisma, and Green Lantern is a BIG character with a cosmic undertow. Viewers could be treated to an equal dose of superheroes and Star Wars. Geeky yet cool, you might say.
My lone worry is the film could get too busy. If you've ever read the comics, you know there's a lot more than one Green Lantern, and there's no such thing as a small story for this character. But I'm not sweating too much. DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns is to Green Lantern what Jon Favreau has been to Iron Man: a fan who has a big vision for the character's on-screen potential.
Smallville: getting bigger
Television producers made a surprisingly strong appearance at this year's Comic-Con. Comcast (NYSE: CMCSA ) debuts The Cape, starring Daniel Lyons as a vigilante accused of a crime he didn't commit, and Disney's ABC network premieres No Ordinary Family, about a family of superheroes who struggle with (what else?) family life.
Both shows have a long way to go before they catch up to what may be the most popular superhero program since the Super Friends: Smallville. Earlier this year, the show, which chronicles Superman's beginnings, drew 2.8 million viewers for a two-hour special.
Smallville is heading into its 10th and final season, and stars an ensemble cast as the young members of DC's signature superhero team, the Justice League. If there's to be more superhero films starring more of DC Comics' lesser-known characters -- such as Green Arrow, Aquaman, or Hawkman -- Time Warner could pull talent and story ideas from this series.
Cycling a comic book superpower
Would Time Warner benefit from having more superhero films? Possibly, but I think that's the wrong question. Look at The Dark Knight. Despite a billion-dollar global box office collected over 33 weeks, Time Warner's Filmed Entertainment division saw revenue improve just 9% from 2007 to 2008.
Even so, as an investor, I'm more interested in the value chain developing around DC characters. Between HBO and Cartoon Network and its digital and interactive video game properties, Time Warner has all the tools to market its superheroes to the wider world, and make a lot of money doing it.
Consider the partnerships on display at Comic-Con. Mattel (NYSE: MAT ) showed off collector's editions of action figures based on DC Comics characters and should have more in time for Green Lantern next year. Sony (NYSE: SNE ) , meanwhile, previewed the multiplayer game "DC Universe" through its Online Entertainment group.
Time Warner needs more deals like these, but it also needs a controlling partner. Someone who will defend the characters, ensuring they aren't extended to the wrong medium at the wrong time and in the wrong way. Enter Johns. He'll tackle that task when he isn't writing comics starring Green Lantern and The Flash.
Bottom line folly
For me, a business-focused investor with growth designs, I see a carefully crafted licensing and production powerhouse emerging inside Time Warner. A powerhouse called DC Comics.
And yet investors needn't pay up to get the added growth, which also comes free of the albatross that was AOL (NYSE: AOL ) . Time Warner trades for less than 14 times anticipated earnings, a nice discount compared to what traders are paying for shares of Disney and News Corp. (Nasdaq: NWS ) right now. Call it a heroic, if not super-powered, combination.
Do you think I'm wrong? Does Marvel still beat DC? Let the debate begin in the comments box below.