Walt Disney Company has made a surprise $4bn bid for Marvel Entertainment, the company behind comic book characters such as Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four, in a move that provides huge opportunities to expand its licensing businesses.

"We believe that adding Marvel to Disney's unique portfolio of brands provides significant opportunities for long-term growth and value creation," said Robert A Iger, president and chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company.

Under the terms of the deal, Disney will acquire ownership of Marvel including its more than 5,000 Marvel characters.

Marvel shareholders will receive $30 per share in cash plus approximately 0.745 Disney shares for each Marvel share they own.

"Disney is the perfect home for Marvel's fantastic library of characters given its proven ability to expand content creation and licensing businesses," said Ike Perlmutter, Marvel's CEO.

"This is an unparalleled opportunity for Marvel to build upon its vibrant brand and character properties by accessing Disney's tremendous global organisation and infrastructure around the world."

Disney is already one of the world's leading licensors with a stable of brands and characters that ranges from Mickey Mouse to Hannah Montana.

Most recently it launched new tween fashion lines inspired by its Jonas and Wizards of Waverly Place shows, which went on sale at retailers including JC Penney, Kmart, Sears, Walmart and Target last month.

But while these properties cover most children's bases, there is one glaring omission: teenage boys. And it is here that the deal with Marvel will create the most new opportunities for the entertainment giant.