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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade-and-change, you know that pop culture has entered the second age of the Super Hero Film.
This year alone, studios have released five films featuring characters who debuted in the “funny pages”, with Deadpool, Batman V. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of The Shadows serving as their respective studios’ tentpole films for the year. As of press time, those five films account for $3.4 billion dollars in worldwide gross ticket sales. Comic book films have become the lifeblood of Hollywood.
Of the seven comic book films on the schedule for 2016, four of them are based on characters originally found in the pages of Marvel Comics and, with the trend towards shared cinematic universes becoming the norm in Hollywood, the average moviegoer might be of the impression that every film which shows the Marvel banner at its opening is connected to the others. That perception could not be farther from reality. Deadpool and X-Men were released by Fox, while Civil War and the upcoming Doctor Strange are under the Marvel Studios/Disney banner, and the two sides exist in disparate realities which do not cross over. While even most casual fans understand that Batman and Superman are DC and the Avengers and X-Men are Marvel, the vagaries of studio ownership can cause the eyes of the initiated to gloss over.
So, how did we get here? How is it that Marvel, which still publishes comics featuring all of its characters, doesn’t release all of their films?
Bursting Bubbles: The Crash of the 1990s
In the 1990s, comic books had become a hugely hot commodity. Driven by rising prices in the collectors market for old back issues and huge events such as the Death of Superman, publishers began running off huge overruns of monthly issues. In a market where fans were buying one copy to read and multiple copies as “investments”, titles with a real-world readership of perhaps 100,000 at best were selling in excess of a million copies per month.
As with any market bubble, the bust eventually came, nearly destroying the industry. On December 27, 1996, Marvel Comics filed bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. In an effort to raise money and awareness of its print properties, the company launched a plan to license the use of its major franchises to movie studios for development. The rights to characters like the X-Men and Fantastic Four were sold to 20th Century Fox, Blade was licensed to New Line, and Marvel sold the film rights to their most recognizable brand, Spider-Man, to Sony Pictures.
Blade was a massive success in 1998, raking in over $70 million and spawning a pair of sequels. 2000 saw the launch of the X-Men franchise under Fox, a universe which (including 2011’s rebooted history) has gone on to earn over $1.7 billion for the studio through 6 films. 2002’s Spider-Man took the comic book film to new heights, with the first film grossing over $400 million worldwide, a take which remains the sixth highest in the history of the genre and nineteenth all-time for Hollywood. The franchise would run to a total of five films before the most recent installment, Amazing Spider-Man 2, petered out with a mere $202 million worldwide.
While these films were a huge success, Marvel saw almost no financial benefit from the box office, thanks in large part to the terribly one-sided nature of the deals they had struck with the studios. So, in 2003, a new plan was conceived. Rather than continue to essentially sell off their intellectual property for one-time fees, Marvel launched their own in-house movie production division, Marvel Studios.
The Rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
In 2008, Marvel Studios debut film, Iron Man, was a massive success for what was, for all intents and purposes, an independent film. The film which launched what Nick Fury refers to as “a bigger universe” earned over $318 million worldwide and proved to the world at large that Marvel could handle its own affairs where movies were concerned. Marvel Studios footed the entire bill for the production and released it through Paramount. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) would go on to become a box office juggernaut. The MCU was so successful that it drew the interest of one of the biggest power players in the history of film, the Walt Disney Company.
The House of Ideas Meets The House of Mouse
In 2009, Disney bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion and, over the next several years, slowly consolidated distribution and production control of all the film properties still controlled by Marvel Studios. The regained control of distribution from Paramount and combined Marvel’s development divisions into their own, even rolling out the MCU-concurrent television series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on the Disney-owned ABC network.
Despite their acquisition of the House of Ideas, Disney didn’t get everything.
Fox retains and continues to retain the rights to the X-Men franchise, Fantastic Four, and all of the subsidiary IP from those two properties. Deadpool, and its upcoming sequel, are part of the X-Men license, a massive catalogue of characters which essentially ensures that Fox will be able to mine the X-universe for decades without ever repeating themselves.
Sony retained ownership of the Spider-Man franchise, and technically still does. Sony’s relationship with Marvel, however, has evolved quite a bit. After the underwhelming performance of Amazing Spider-Man 2 at the box office and the hacking scandal which rocked the studio in November of 2014, Sony reached an agreement with Marvel Studios to essentially share usage of the character, an arrangement which allowed Sony an expanded timeline for developing new Spider-Man properties and allowed Marvel to utilize the character as a part of its shared cinematic universe.
While fans have clamored for all of the Marvel characters to united under a single studio’s banner, the odds of that happening are slim to none.
The Sony/Disney Spider-Man partnership aside, studios almost never agree to give up the rights to properties to another. Disney and 20th Century Fox are two of the oldest power players in entertainment, with an institutional rivalry which stretches back to the earliest days of Hollywood.
Marvel Comics, under Disney’s corporate auspices, has been employing a concerted campaign of devaluation against the intellectual property owned by Fox, with the directive to create no new mutants in the comic books, removal of X-Men characters from promotional materials released by the company, and the outright cancellation of the Fantastic Four comic book series.
If anything, the odds of a partnership between Disney/Marvel and Warner Brothers/DC is a more likely outcome than a combination of characters between Fox and Disney. Disney and Warners have worked together in the past, with characters from both studios appearing in the 1988 hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Until and unless the franchises operated by the individual studios become unviable on their own merits, we will likely never see the X-Men and the Avengers square off on the big screen.