If you go see the new Fantastic Four movie when it hits theaters Friday, that iconic red-and-white Marvel banner will probably fill the screen during the opening credits. But don't be fooled. This isn't a Marvel movie.
Yes, the Fantastic Four did debut in its own Marvel Comics book in 1961. So Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and the Thing are indeed Marvel superheroes. But we're talking about movies here, and in this medium, they belong to 20th Century Fox, not Disney — which acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009. And it's all Marvel's fault.
Back in the 1990s, Marvel was not the media juggernaut we know today. Its first attempts at movie-making were over-the-top campy affairs, like 1989 TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk and Roger Corman-produced 1994 feature film The Fantastic Four. With its comic book and trading card sales in decline, Marvel was on the brink of financial ruin, and the company filed for bankruptcy in late 1996.
Around this time, Marvel made a series of licensing deals that gave the movie rights for some of its most famous characters to various studios, such as Fox. Because of Marvel's financial situation, these studios kind of had the upper hand — and as a result, Marvel only received about 5 percent of the revenue from the films that featured its licensed characters, according to The Wall Street Journal.
With the success of Fox's X-Men in 2000 and Sony's Spider-Man in 2002, Marvel would soon realize that movies featuring its superheroes can be big business. In 2005, Marvel set up a credit facility for $525 million to start producing its own films. Soon thereafter, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige set the films' interlocking stories in motion, thus establishing the Marvel Cinematic Universe, of which Ant-Man recently concluded the second phase.
Unlike Marvel, Warner Bros. has access to all of the characters from DC Comics to feature in movies and TV shows. Established in 2009, the Warner Bros.-owned DC Entertainment has been responsible for putting Batman on the big screen with 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, giving The Flash his own TV show on The CW and assembling supervillains for next summer's Suicide Squad. DC has also taken a page out of Marvel's book by establishing its own connected universe for upcoming films and crossover episodes of its CW shows.
Oh, what a tangled superhero web we weave — and Spider-Man is only partly responsible for that. Keeping track of which movie studios have the rights to which Marvel superheroes is all a bit complicated — but if you break it down, it actually makes sense why we haven't seen another stand-alone Hulk movie or why it seems like there's always another Spider-Man reboot in the works. Well, a little bit more sense, at least.
Here are the Marvel superheroes by the movie studio, and what the rights mean for each franchise.
20th Century Fox
In the midst of all of those licensing deals with Marvel back in the '90s, Fox picked up the Fantastic Four and X-Men. The studio can also make movies featuring characters who are more on the periphery of the franchises, including Silver Surfer, who appeared in the 2007 film Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Deadpool, who appeared in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine and will be getting his own film in 2016.
Perhaps following in Marvel's footsteps, Fox intends for the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse and Deadpool films to inhabit the same universe, and there have been hints that an X-Men and Fantastic Four crossover could happen as well. Deadpool has already made an appearance at the end of the latest Fantastic Four trailer. Marvel may have noticed Fox beefing up its superhero movie game lately. The company announced that it would be canceling its Fantastic Four comic in October 2014, and issue #645 – published in April 2015 – was its last.
In addition to lagging comic book sales, Bleeding Cool speculated that the move was a result of the dispute over the franchise's film rights and Marvel not wanting to promote the Fantastic Four in the lead-up to Fox's upcoming movie — though Marvel never really gave an official explanation for putting an end to these comics. Sometimes, the relationship between studios is just as entertaining as the movies they produce.
Sony Pictures picked up the movie rights to Spider-Man for $7 million in 1999. The mega-success of the original Sam Raimi trilogy of the early-to-late 2000s – grossing nearly $2.5 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo – was part of the impetus for Marvel to start producing its own films. This has also made Sony eager to hold onto this property.
Sony has to make a movie featuring Spider-Man every three years, or else the rights go back to Marvel. That's why The Amazing Spider-Man reboot starring Andrew Garfield in the title role happened and why the movie franchise will be rebooted again for a scheduled 2017 release starring Tom Holland as the web-slinger. Unfortunately, the first Spider-Man reboot didn't seem to revive the franchise as successfully as Sony had hoped — so the studio does have quite a bit riding on Spidey's future. That's especially the case as Spider-Man is really the only superhero Sony's got, unless it does eventually end up making the Spider-Man supervillain movie Sinister Six, a female Spider-Man movie or a stand-alone Venom film — none of which seem to be progressing very much.
Long before we saw the Hulk talk about his feelings with Black Widow for two movies in Marvel's Avengers, Universal Pictures had the movie rights to the character and used them, too. The studio gave the superhero two stand-alone movies: 2003's Hulk starring Eric Bana and 2008's The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton.
However, Universal lost cinematic rights to the character in 2005 after it failed to make a follow-up to 2003's Hulk, so Marvel re-acquired those rights, according to MTV News. This is where it gets tricky. When Marvel decided to try its hand at making a stand-alone movie with The Incredible Hulk in 2008, Universal was still involved in the film's production and maintained distribution rights. This allowed the Hulk to later become a part of the Avengers movies.
Mark Ruffalo, the actor who portrays the Hulk in those films, grabbed headlines earlier this year when he told Collider that Universal still owns the rights to make a movie about the Hulk, not Marvel. Which is why there probably won't be a standalone movie featuring the not-so-lean, green, fighting machine in the near future — at least not from Marvel.
Well, that's not exactly true. Universal just owns the distribution rights to the Hulk — it doesn't hold any production rights to him. The studio has "the right of first refusal" to distribute future Hulk films, according to Forbes. That means Universal still has first dibs on distributing future Hulk movies, and if it doesn't pick them up for whatever reason, then Disney can obtain the distribution rights. So you can see why Disney would be hesitant to produce another stand-alone Hulk movie, as it could potentially miss out on all of that distribution revenue.
In this legal gray area, Universal still has the rights in perpetuity for its Marvel Super Hero Island at Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida, which includes the Incredible Hulk Coaster. But with more Marvel characters sure to arrive at Disney theme parks in the future, changes may come to these Islands of Adventures attractions.
In addition to the Hulk, Universal also had the movie rights to Namor the Sub-Mariner, but those rights seem to have returned to Marvel.
"There are older contracts that still involve other parties that mean we need to work things out before we move forward on it," Feige told IGN in 2014, regarding the possibility of Marvel making a movie about one of Marvel's earliest superheroes. It's unclear exactly what those contracts entail, but this situation could be similar to the one with the Hulk, which means it's probably unlikely we'll see a Sub-Mariner movie any time soon.
Paramount Pictures had distribution rights to the first films in the MCU – from 2008's Iron Man to 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger – with the exception of 2008's The Incredible Hulk, for which Universal has the distribution rights. Once Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009, it negotiated a deal in which Paramount would receive 8 and 9 percent of global distribution revenue for 2012's Avengers and 2013's Iron Man 3, respectively, according to Variety. Paramount's logo also appeared in promotional materials for both titles as part of the contract.
The deal ended with 2013's Thor: The Dark World, which was the first Marvel film without any involvement from an outside studio. Disney later acquired the rights to all three Iron Man movies, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers. Still, the deal worked out for Paramount for a time, which earned a nice chunk of revenue from the distribution of these films.
And now, we finally get to the mack daddy of them all: Disney. As previously mentioned, the Mouse House acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009. Marvel soon re-acquired many of the characters it had licensed out to other studios after they failed to produce sequels featuring these heroes within the timeframes of the deals. This included re-obtaining the movie rights to Blade, Punisher, Ghost Rider, to Daredevil as well as Elektra, and (most likely) Man-Thing, since his wife Ellen Brandt appeared in Iron Man 3.
Of course, Disney still owns the bulk of Marvel characters. This includes the Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye), the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and the Inhumans — who will basically serve to fill the X-Men-sized hole in Disney's Marvel lineup. Marvel characters have found a TV home on ABC, which is owned by Disney, through the series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter. Disney also inked a deal with Netflix to bring four shows and a mini-series to the video-streaming platform, including Daredevil, whose first season premiered in April, A.K.A. Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, all building up to The Defenders.
Marvel's current slate of movies takes it through 2019, and considering the wealth of superheroes in Marvel's arsenal, we should definitely expect more where that came from.
To make things even more confusing, Marvel also sometimes shares properties with studios.
One of those situations occurred in Avengers: Age of Ultron, when Disney included X-Men mutants Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in a movie a year after Quicksilver had been featured in X-Men: Days of Future Past. However, because Fox owns the movie rights to X-Men, their characters could not be referred to by these names in the Avengers sequel. Instead, the Avengers call them by their birth names, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff. The movie also couldn't use the word "mutant," since that, too, belongs to X-Men — so these super twins were called "the enhanced" instead. There was no mention of their famous father, Magneto — thus doing away with their origin story and replacing it with H.Y.D.R.A. genetically modifying them as the source of their powers.
Perhaps Pietro was killed off in Avengers: Age of Ultron so that Disney could lessen the amount of work it had to do to keep these mutants – that is – "the enhanced" as a part of the franchise without screwing up any contracts.
Marvel's most surprising shared property came earlier this year when it announced that it had struck a deal with Sony to feature Spider-Man in an MCU movie before the character stars in his own movie in 2017. Disney had already bought Sony's merchandising rights for Spider-Man in 2011. Sony will continue to own, finance, distribute and have final creative control over the upcoming Spider-Man film, but Feige will lend his expertise as a co-producer of the movie along with Amy Pascal. The web-slinger could make an appearance in the MCU as early as 2016's Captain America: Civil War, which seems like it will feature just about every Marvel superhero at this point. Well, the ones Disney is allowed to feature, at least.