When it comes to the printed page, Marvel owns all their stuff. Once we bring actors and cameras into it, though, things get confusing quickly. Rights to Marvel’s characters as they appear on the big screen are mixed between Disney, Universal, Sony and, until this week, Fox. But Disney is in the process of acquiring a huge chunk of Fox assets, so the landscape is changing. Who owns who? And how do they own them?
Well, it’s still complicated. let’s start with this picture from the Geek Twins, which gives us a quick reference:
Even with this image, though, there are some pieces that might be unclear. Everything in red is just Marvel’s stuff – full stop. The purple stuff is a little more complicated. Sony picked up the rights to Spider-Man years ago and has been steadily releasing Spidey pictures not just to make money but to make sure they get to keep the license.
The success of the MCU has finally spurred the company to launch a Spidey-centric universe with a Venom movie starring Tom Hardy under production, plans for a movie starring Black Cat & Silver Sable, and even movies based on Spider-Man villains Mysterio and Kraven. In other words, don’t expect those to change hands anytime soon. Sony and Marvel are playing nice for the time being, allowing Spider-Man and Aunt May to intermingle with MCU characters, but that’s a two-movie deal and the Sony exec who helped make it happen has since left the studio. There’s no guarantee Spider-Man will remain in the MCU.
And then there’s that yellow circle up top, and that’s even more complicated. Universal Pictures has distribution rights for films starring the Hulk and related characters, but they don’t actually own the rights to the characters. Universal’s distribution deal isn’t stopping Marvel from making a Hulk picture as much as Hulk himself not being a super-interesting character on his own is, it seems. This picture also puts Namor the Sub-Mariner over at Universal, though Marvel’s Kevin Feige and Joe Quesada have both said at points that Namor rests back with Marvel, though I think he might be the least likely to actually get a movie of any of Marvel’s heroes.
Speaking of confusing rights, there was some confusion surrounding the Fantastic Four. Marvel’s so-called “first family” isn’t as popular these days as they once were, but they helped to kick off the Marvel universe as we know it. And so when Marvel fell on hard times in the 1980s, the Fantastic Four was one of the first properties the company licensed. The recipient of that license was a production company called Constantin Films. The studio worked with Fox over the years to put out just enough Fantastic Four movies to keep the license but has only so far managed to churn out junk, including an intentionally bad movie in 1994 that was made specifically to retain the license but not to actually see release.
There was some question as to whether the rights to the Richards (and Grimm) family would return to Marvel alongside the X-Men, but the sale announcement explicitly called out the fam as part of the merger.
And then there are the mutants. The X-Men, Wolverine, Deadpool, X-Force, they’re all part of the deal. The weird mutant-not-mutant Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver character that doubled up, appearing in both the MCU (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and the recent X-Men films, can be merged. Which is going to be complicated, since Quicksilver is dead in the MCU. Oops.
At this point, Sony is the only other real player in Marvel movies aside from the Disney-owned Marvel superhero conglomerate – the other complications are merely that – complications, not real hurdles.
Yeah, it doesn’t help that Spider-Man is Marvel’s single most recognizable character, but there’s very little stopping Marvel from making the movies and shows it wants to make, when it wants to make them.
There’s some question as to whether Disney owning so much stuff is good for TV and movies in general, but at least we know who’s responsible for what now.