Marvel Studio’s superhero movies are a big deal. The Marvel Cinematic Universe changed the realm of superhero movies forever. However, any comic book fan will tell you that there were gaping holes in the MCU — namely Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four-shaped holes. If you think that Marvel/Disney can easily require X-Men and Fantastic Four, you have another thing coming.
Marvel had been licensing their character properties out for years before the 1990s and 2000s. The first Marvel movie was a 15-part serial done by Republic Studios in 1944 called Captain America. Marvel (then called Timely Comics) made a poor deal. Republic’s Captain America merely took the image of Captain America and it was not the Steve Rogers turned super-soldier but someone completely different.
In the 1970s, CBS had a Spider-Man TV show. Marvel even licensed to Toei, which created Supaidaman (which was the birth of Super Sentai/Power Rangers). Dr. Strange almost got a TV show and Captain America had a couple of TV movies. There was a Hulk TV series starring Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby and three television movie, with varying degrees of success. 1986‘s Howard the Duck was an epic bomb and 1989’s The Punisher was forgotten. These are just some examples of licensing out their characters.
The 1990s were a rough time for Marvel Comics and comic book publishing industry as a whole. Comic books were not selling like they used. It was a darker time and age in the comic books stories. Many stories were controversial stories, published by Marvel Comics. Business was so bad that Marvel Comics had to file for bankruptcy in 1996. The bankruptcy did not mean that Marvel was out of business. They just had to reassess and figure out a way to make some money.
As Derek Johnson wrote: “For a [comic] publisher emerging from bankruptcy without the wherewithal to support capital investment in filmed entertainment, licensing multiplied revenue streams and provided mass-market cross-promotional visibility at no production cost. Although studios earned the bigger profits, license fees and royalties bolstered Marvel’s revenues in a time of need.” Prior to the bankruptcy, Marvel licensed out only some of their properties and were not dependent on it. After the bankruptcy, Marvel went a little crazy with licensing out their major properties. The licensing deals took time and varied with each character or superhero group.
Universal Pictures produced and distributed anything to do with the Hulk. Universal Pictures produced the 2003 Hulk movie starring Eric Bana as Bruce Banner/The Hulk. However, Universal Pictures lost the rights to produce Hulk movies in 2005, when they failed to make a sequel to the 2003 movie. Marvel required the production and merchandising rights to the Hulk. Marvel Studios produced The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner/Hulk. However, Universal still held the distribution rights to the Hulk.
In 1999 Sony Pictures licensed Spider-Man, which included all the varying licenses concerning the Wall-Crawler. Sony Pictures produced the original Spider-Man trilogy, directed by Sam Raimi and the reboots of Amazing Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man 2, starring Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. In 2011, Marvel/Disney bought the Spider-Man merchandising rights from Sony Pictures. Sony and Marvel/Disney soon came to a deal concerning a new Spider-Man, this one incorporated into the MCU. Tom Holland was Spider-Man in the recent Captain America: Civil War. He will be starring in a solo film. Despite the third theatrical Spider-Man version being included in the MCU, Sony Pictures still has the final say about a solo Spider-Man film.
Fox Studios owns the rights to Fantastic Four, X-Men and Deadpool. Like the Avengers, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men are two of the major Marvel superhero teams. In the Marvel comics, all the superheroes coexist with each other in New York City and its surrounding areas (New Jersey and Westchester, NY, for instance). X-Men: Days of Future Past had Peter and his baby sister introduced as the children of Magneto somehow. Peter/Pietro still had super-speed.
However, Marvel planned on introducing the same characters in their Avengers: Age of Ultron. Fox and Marvel/Disney had to figure out something. Scarlet Witch was never called that in the second Avengers movie, just by her real name Wanda Maximoff. Her twin brother Quicksilver was always called Pietro Maximoff. They were not mutants but “enhanced.” Their father was the mutant terrorist Magneto in the comics, but in the MCU, they were genetically altered by the super evil organization HYDRA.
Marvel Studios, created in 2005, was in response to the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men. It was also a way to stake creative control over their characters and to gain financial independence from their notoriety as the fourth-major licensor of their characters and properties. Marvel eventually released Iron Man in 2008. Even though Marvel Studios produced the movies, distribution fell to Paramount Pictures for all the MCU’s movies from Iron Man to Captain America: The First Avenger (except The Incredible Hulk).
But then, Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion in 2009. Paramount Pictures and Disney made a deal in the same year about what percentage of the distribution revenues Paramount received from The Avengers and Iron Man 3 (8% and 9% of the revenue, respectively). The deal over distribution rights ended with Thor: The Dark World. Disney eventually reclaimed all the licensing rights to all three Iron Man movies, Thor, Captain America, and Avengers Assemble.
With Disney in control of Marvel and all its subsidiaries, it was able to continue the process of acquiring rights to produce movies, distribute movies, and make merchandise from all the characters and teams that Marvel had to license out in the 1990s. The reason Disney managed was because the other studios failed to produce sequels. Blade, The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Elektra, and Man-Thing were given back to Marvel/Disney. The Inhumans have filled the lack of X-Men mutants in the MCU. Disney made deals with Netflix over producing Netflix only shows: Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and The Defenders.
So as it stands now, Fox owns Fantastic Four, X-Men and Deadpool. Sony still owns Spider-Man. Marvel and Disney own everything else, for the most part. It does not look like Sony and Fox will release their iron-grips on the Marvel properties any time soon, because they are making money from the movies. Disney and Marvel want those properties back for the purpose of expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it is highly unlikely.
Marvel’s financial situation in the 1990s forced them to license out their characters to make some kind of money from the flagging comic book sales. Money was the root of the movie licensing deals. For instance, 83% of Marvel’s revenue in 2004 came from the licensing deals. But what the future will hold, no one can tell. Will we suffer from superhero movie fatigue any time now and make movies not as profitable? Or will it just go on and on? Time will tell.
Do you think there’s a place for the X-Men and Fantastic Four in the MCU? Sound off in the comments or on Twitter with questions and anything to add. Why not check out these other articles too – “The Secret History of Marvel’s Pre-cinematic Universe”, “The Complete History of Marvel Superhero Movies”, “Your Guide to Which Movie Studios Own Marvel Characters”