Go ahead. Sell Marvel Entertainment (NYSE:MVL). I dare you.

Shares of the comic book king were down as much as 8% this morning after its third-quarter report showed huge gains in revenue (up 47%) and per-share earnings (up 42%). Marvel also raised its full-year guidance from $1.55 - $1.75 per share to $2.45 to $2.65 a share.

None of that mattered. Investors chose instead to focus on 2009 guidance, which calls for just $1.00 - $1.35 in per share net income. Dumb. Next year will be light because Iron Man DVD sales are brisk. Brisk enough that payments from Viacom's (NYSE:VIA) Paramount Studios, originally scheduled for 2009, will now be made this year.

What's more, Marvel has no self-financed films planned for 2009 -- only a Wolverine solo shot made in concert with News Corp.'s (NYSE:NWS) Fox. Licensing revenue does best when there's a full film slate to provide a tailwind.

Economic headwinds also come into play. Vice Chairman Peter Cuneo called this year's panic-cum-opportunity "unprecedented" and told analysts that "it's very prudent for us to be cautious with our projections." The low-end of Marvel's 2009 guidance calls for a 10%-15% recessionary effect on every area of its business.

All hail the cash flow king
But what a business it is. Cash just keeps flowing:

Components of

Adj. Cash From Operations

TTM*

2007*

2006*

2005*

Reported net income

$170,154

$139,823

$58,704

$102,819

Depreciation and amortization

$2,465

$5,970

$14,322

$4,534

Amortization of film inventory

$65,599

$0

$0

$0

Amortization of financing costs

$4,981

$4,980

$4,980

$1,660

Deferred revenue

($19,105)

($28,956)

$140,087

($6,093)

Film production costs

($113,350)

($251,045)

($15,055)

$0

Borrowings from film facility

$123,448

$255,926

$7,400

$25,800

Capital expenditures

($1,218)

($2,659)

($16,286)

($4,289)

Adj. Operating Cash Flow

$233,334

$124,039

$194,152

$124,431

Sources: Press releases, SEC filings. *Numbers in thousands. TTM = trailing 12 month

And it's flowing onto the balance sheet, where you'll find more than $145 million in cash and short-term investments versus $182 million in net film debt. That's down $106 million from what the company owed in December. $106 million in nine months. Few firms short of Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) can boast as much relative cash-generating horsepower.

The mighty checkbook
Which explains Marvel's planned capital outlays; they aren't slowing a bit. Chief Financial Officer Ken West told analysts to expect $175 million in cash spending on Marvel's next four films -- Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers -- in 2009. He also said that Marvel should close next year with $100 million in cash and equivalents.

Do today's sellers realize how remarkable that is? Barring debt repayments, Marvel will end 2008 with between $200 and $215 million in cash and equivalents -- enough to write a check in January for all of next year's film spending.

And yet Marvel shouldn't need anywhere near $175 million. Not unless management plans to pre-pay its production commitment (33% of total budget) for both Iron Man 2 and Thor and most of its up-front costs for Captain America and The Avengers.

That's exactly what I'm expecting: huge up-front spending in 2009 in order to reap a windfall of profits and cash flow from any successes in 2010 and 2011.

Management muscle
Call it Marvel's financial superpower, as witnessed by huge returns on invested capital:

Return On Invested Capital*

TTM

2007

2006

2005

Earnings before interest and tax

$313.12

$273.03

$110.16

$181.17

NOPAT (37.5% tax rate)

$195.70

$170.64

$68.85

$113.23

Avg. Invested Capital

$453.68

$387.86

$345.75

$466.45

ROIC

43.1%

44.0%

19.9%

24.3%

Source: Capital IQ, filings. *Numbers in millions. TTM = trailing 12 month

Marvel bests every one of its peers when it comes to ROIC, which improved six percentage points from Q2 to Q3. Neither Disney (NYSE:DIS), nor DreamWorks (NYSE:DWA), nor Time Warner (NYSE:TWX), producer of the summer blockbuster The Dark Knight, get close. Only DreamWorks and Disney get into the double-digits.

So go ahead, investors. Sell Marvel, I dare you. All you have to lose are years of multibagger returns.

Face front, True Believer! More Marvel Foolishness awaits:

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers had positions in Marvel shares and LEAP options at the time of publication. He also hunts for the best of tech as a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers team. Here's how to try this market-beating service free for 30 days. Get access to all of Tim's Foolish writings here.

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