Who Goes Where? Surveying The Complicated Movie Rights Situation of MARVEL COMICS
CREDIT: Marvel Comics
One of the things that set Marvel’s superhero universe apart in the early days was how the characters from each individual title co-existed in a shared universe, prone to numerous crossovers, chance meetings and even relationships between books. Since then that inter-connective continuity has become a staple of superhero comics, but it’s also coming back to haunt Marvel when it comes to their movie ambitions. It all came to light earlier this year when the productions for Marvel Studios’ The Avengers: Age of Ultron and 20th Century Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past both announced it would feature the mutant character Quicksilver, albeit with different actors playing that role – (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Evan Peters, respectively). This unique conundrum brings into focus an interesting and unintended aspect of movie adaptations of Marvel properties and the rights which Marvel sold prior to having its own movie studio, as well as other characters which might follow Quicksilver in becoming Marvel characters that are able to literally co-exist in two (or perhaps three) separate superhero movie continuities. But first, a lay of the land.
Up until 2004 when Marvel announced plans to finance their own movies, they instead sold the movie rights to its popular characters to movie companies to be developed into feature films. Its cross-town competitor DC avoided this fate by the fact that it was owned by actual movie studio – Warner Bros. – going as far back as 1970. But Marvel, who was in bankruptcy for several years in the late 1990s, sold the movie rights for virtually all of its characters to movie studios far and wide. Some of those movie rights turned into movie successes such as Fox’s X-Men movie franchise and Sony’s Spider-Man, but other movie rights owned by outside parties (including Sony) reverted (or were sold) back to Marvel as they began getting their own movie studio in order. Marvel successfully reacquired the movie rights to Iron Man and Black Widow from New Line in 2005, and the Hulk and Thor one year later from Universal and Sony respectively. Recently Marvel’s also retained the rights to Daredevil, Ghost Rider and Punisher as well – something they put to quick use, with Daredevil as the flagship of its Netflix line of television shows. Although they hadn’t been able to reacquire the movie rights to their entire character library, Marvel used an extensive line of credit to reacquire the central heroes that would form the Avengers – and Marvel’s in-house movie studio – and build what we know of today.
Currently, Sony owns the movie rights to Spider-Man, while 20th Century Fox owns both the successful X-Men movie franchise (both have new films hitting in 2014, and have already announced more for 2016 and beyond) as well as the soon-to-be rebooted Fantastic Four film series. With those rights agreements comes the use of ancillary characters of those leading characters, and while some characters are clearly associated to Spider-Man – say for example Aunt May – others had a more complicated backstory with association with multiple character families, some owned by Marvel in-house and some under these rights deals to Sony and 20th Century Fox. Quicksilver is an interesting example, as he was introduced in 1964 as the mutant son of the prime X-Men villain Magneto; sure thing to be considered part of the X-Men family of movie rights, yes? But after his early appearances in Uncanny X-Men, Quicksilver and his sister Scarlet Witch broke from mutantkind and became some of the earliest recruits into Avengers in 1965. For the most part, both Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s stories have been told in Avengers andits related titles. That complicates things, because apparently in these contracts – which haven’t been released to the public or the press – they weren’t completely specific on which characters they covered.
“It’s a little tricky, “Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige said of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch back in 2012 in an interview with HeyUGuys. “"If they want to use them in the X-Men movies they could, if we want to use them in the Avengers movie we could."
The first thing that comes to mind for anyone who’s read comics for a significant amount of time is “crossover,” but you’ll have to hold your horses on that front. In comic book terms, you have to think of these families of Marvel characters at Sony, 20th Century Fox and Marvel as separate companies… because, well frankly they are. And just as the idea of an official crossover between major companies like Marvel and DC in comics is a rarity, in Hollywood it’s even more so, due to the exponentially higher budgets, dividends and stock-holders involved. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen as Feige once attempted to insert Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in one of the Sam Raimi era Spider-Man movies, but the red tape involved is even stronger than that webcrawler’s webbing.
What instead is happening, in the case of Quicksilver, is that two versions of the character are appearing in X-Men: Days of Future Past and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Each named Quicksilver, each with the same powers, but played by different actors and with a strong possibility of different backstories and characterizations. For instance, marvel Studios can’t use the word Mutant to describe the character, or mention his connection to Magneto. Fox, likewise, won’t have mentions of his superheroic teammates of Iron, Godly, or Captain status. Quicksilver has become the face of this conundrum, but the super-fast speedster wasn’t the first to sit in this precarious position.
Stan Lee, the billed co-creator and writer of many of the Marvel characters that have been translated successfully to the big screen, and made a name for himself to mainstream audiences for his well-received cameos in nearly all of Marvel’s Hollywood outings, both in film and television; even in movies for characters he didn’t create such as Captain America: The First Avenger. In a majority of these roles he’s played unknown bystanders (or in the case of Fantastic Four, the lovable mailman Willie Lumpkin), but in two instances “The Man” in fact played the over-the-top character his parents created and he defined, himself. In both 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and the original Iron Man from 2008 he is billed as Stan Lee. While it might not be too factual to call him a Marvel character and someone whose movie rights are tied up in legal contracts, it’s still worth noting.
Stepping back into the completely fictional characters of the Marvel comics universe, there are a number of characters like Quicksilver who could be prone to shared rights between movie studios and simultaneous co-existence in separate movie universes. The easiest one to name is Quicksilver’s sister, the Scarlet Witch; she’s already been announced as having a major role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but Sony has yet to say if the mutant will play a role in X-Men: Days of Future Past or future movies. The third example is a mutant like the Maximoff siblings, and like them an offspring of a popular pair of characters: Cable.
Debuting in comics as the infant Nathan Summers in 1986’s Uncanny X-Men #201, the character who would later become known as Cable was born as the only son of Cyclops and Madelyne Pryor. Four years later in New Mutants #87, Summers returned from the future as a hardened warrior named Cable. At the time the connection between Cable and the infant Summers wasn’t made, but soon after the 1990 debut it was revealed. As a character he’s almost exclusively appeared in X-Men related books for his 27 year history, so logic would dictate that his character would also be a clear part of the raft of intellectual property acquired when 20th Century Fox bought the movie rights for the X-Men in 1994. But not so, apparently, as in 2009 Variety Senior Editor Marc Graser reported Cable was one of slate of characters Marvel Studios was developing as standalone movies. The co-creator of the adult Cable persona, Rob Liefeld, has stated unequivocally that Cable is part of the planned X-Force movie, which if true would by extension make the character a part of 20th Century’s movie rights holdings. Who’s right? Could they both be right?
The facts as they’ve been revealed don’t illuminate any clues as to why this might be. It’s certainly possible that Variety was simply mistaken to list Cable as a character in development at Marvel as a feature film. But if that was the case, wouldn’t Marvel, or especially 20th Century Fox, ask for a correction from Variety? To date that hasn’t appeared, but neither has any official confirmation of any of the properties Graser mentioned. Factual answers to this lie in the 1994 contract between Marvel and 20th Century Fox, but that is highly unlikely to ever come to light in the public. More likely, fans will find out which studio has Cable’s rights when he appears on the big screen for the first time. But perhaps, like Quicksilver, his rights are evenly split with the character able to be used by both indiscriminately; or perhaps for some reason the infant-aged Nathan Summers character is tied up in 20th Century Fox’s rights while the adult Cable in another; or vice-versa.
There are additional characters that have paths that crisscross different sectors of the Marvel Universe whose movie rights are owned by separate companies; two of which have already appeared, Sabretooth and Mystique. Although both of these characters are ardent parts of the X-Men side of the Marvel Universe and have appeared in numerous X-Men movies, both of these characters’ origins are rooted outside of the X-Men titles. Sabretooth was originally created for 1977’s Iron Fist #14 by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, and fought against heroes such as Iron Fist, Luke Cage and even Spider-Man. It wasn’t until 9 years later that he first stepped into the X-Men titles, with 1986’s X-Factor #10. Likewise, Mystique first appeared in 1978’s Ms. Marvel #16 under the pen of Claremont and Dave Cockrum; the character wouldn’t segue over to her more well-known haunts of the mutant side of the Marvel U until 1981’s Uncanny X-Men #141. In many ways, Mystique and Sabretooth’s complicated path in comics are reverse mirror images of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, but with them being extensively used in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men movies. But given this evidence, could they show up in a Marvel Studios’ movie? Imagine that for a second. Heck, even Rogue first appeared in Avengers Annual #10 (From yes, you guessed it, Chris Claremont), as a villain under the watch of Mystique. Now that she’s been cut from X-Men: Days of Future Past, maybe she can make her big screen return in a future Marvel Studios film.
This whole conversation doesn’t even bring in 20th Century Fox’s other Marvel superhero franchise, the Fantastic Four. Although currently in dry dock awaiting a reboot, when Fox bought the rights for Marvel’s First Family they also bought the title that during its first fifty issues was the crossroads for Marvel’s then-budding comic book universe. Numerous characters such as Black Panther, Uatu the Watcher, and Kang appeared there, as did entire races such as the Inhumans, the Kree and the Skrulls (and many other space-faring races). Marvel’s already made announcements about being in early development on Black Panther and Inhumans movies in-house, so perhaps those rights were carved out when they sold the rights to the FF to 20th Century Fox? The current push for the Inhumans in Marvel Comics has been speculated as being the first step to bring them into the movie spotlight. Perhaps, but there’s still a lot of question marks. Another big one to consider is Mephisto, who first appeared in Silver Surfer, a title whose titular star is squarely in the movie-verse of 20th Century Fox’s Fantastic Four franchise.
Again, it’s all down to the contracts signed by Marvel and these various outside studios. But much like some comics creators have had second thoughts about contracts signed with publisher years or decades after the fact, so might Marvel now as they build their comics empire.