Marvel Studios’ interconnected series of films have been a smash hit by any measure, but many fans have wondered why star Marvel properties like Spiderman and X-Men have never showed up in a series that’s willing to toss in references to Wakanda and other oddball Marvel trivia.
That’s because the film rights are scattered all over the place, and while Disney’s scary legal department is drooling over the chance to bring everything under one roof, rival studios seem pretty determined to hang on to their characters as long as superhero movies stay popular. Will Ant-Man and Ghost Rider ever team up to fight Thanos? Read on to find out.
DISNEY: THE “MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE”
The best-known and most lucrative comics movie franchise is without a doubt the MCU, currently the only film adaptation of the sort of shared continuity common in superhero comics. The idea began when Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige noticed that while Marvel had licensed away many of its characters, the “core” members of the Avengers superteam were still under the company’s control.
Working first with Paramount and then with Disney, Marvel Studios began to work more and more details of a larger Marvel-based universe into individual films, cunningly building up anticipation for the big “crossover” film in much the same way individual comic titles tie in with each other for special shared-universe events.
Also like the comics, the individual movies are planned to become more heavily interdependent, demanding that audiences take in all the films before the big crossover if they’re going to have any chance of knowing what’s going on.
The newest additions to the MCU are going to be the sci-fi characters of "Guardians of the Galaxy" (coming this August) and, for some inexplicable reason, "Ant-Man" (continually delayed, but supposedly due for July 2015).
It’s difficult to imagine any sort of coherent Marvel universe without its most iconic character, but Sony Pictures Entertainment seems pretty set on keeping their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to themselves.
While there are rumors that Sony and Disney once planned to incorporate "The Amazing Spider-Man’s" OsCorp Tower into the climactic battle scene from "The Avengers" as a sort of architectural cameo, Kevin Feige dismissed the deal as “never close to happening.”
Just last month, Sony announced the development of films based on Spider-man foes Venom and the Sinister Six, indicating their desire to build a fleshed-out interconnected universe along the MCU lines.
That’s not going to be easy, though—Disney will basically have dibs on any Marvel character not explicitly tied to Spider-Man, and that distinction could get pretty dicey considering how often Spidey’s villains picked fights with other Marvel properties.
Similarly, retelling any of the classic Spider-Man team-up stories will be legally impossible, especially after Marvel managed to claw back the rights to Daredevil, Punisher, Blade, and Ghost Rider last summer.
Was the world ready for a film where Spider-Man battles both Nicolas Cage and Wesley Snipes for screen time? We may never know.
FOX: X-MEN, FANTASTIC FOUR
Owning X-Men and the Fantastic Four gives Fox a bit more latitude than Sony when it comes to building up a bigger shared universe, and it seems like every other day someone claims to have proof that an XM/FF crossover is secretly in the works.
For the time being, though, it looks like the studio wants to firm up the two franchises before smooshing them together: the "X-Men: Days of Future Past" film is going to try and synch up the two different X-Men storylines, while the "Fantastic Four" film for summer of 2015 is supposedly going to reboot the critically and commercially disappointing franchise.
That hasn’t stopped Fox from dropping all sorts of hints, however, and their hiring of comics writer Mark Millar to a sort of supervisory role (where he recently stated that all of Fox’s Marvel films are taking place in the same universe) points to an eventual desire to reap the sort of cash "The Avengers" did.
UNIVERSAL PICTURES: NAMOR?
There is almost certainly someone at Universal Pictures right now who is desperately trying to figure out the possible audience appeal of an grouchy fish-man with little wings on his feet. You see, Universal once had the rights to the Hulk, but sold it off to Disney after Ang Lee’s financially underwhelming Hulk.
Disney’s "The Incredible Hulk" reboot became the second installment in the MCU, with a cameo appearance by Robert Downey Jr. that continued a tradition of inserting little hints and teasers about the formation of the Avengers.
Universal is presumably unwilling to let something like that slip through their fingers again, but a Namor movie may be a tough sell. He may be one of Marvel’s oldest properties, but most of his adventures have been as a grudging ally to the Avengers or trying to get into Sue Storm’s invisible pants.
QUICKSILVER AND THE SCARLET WITCH: DISPUTED TERRITORY?
When Joss Whedon announced that a certain brother-sister hero pair would be a big part of "Avengers 2," everyone knew he was talking about Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, long-standing Avengers members (they joined up along with Hawkeye, several years before Black Widow made the scene) and the creepiest sibling couple in comics.
This raised a few eyebrows because while the two are arguably “core” Avengers, they’re undeniably mutants—the rebellious son and daughter of Magneto himself—and under the uneasy legal agreement between Fox and Disney, the Avengers aren’t even allowed to say the word “mutant” out loud.
Meanwhile, the upcoming "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is featuring its own Quicksilver appearance, although given that his shots will be filmed at 3600 frames per second it’s probably going to be more like a cameo than a real role.
WARNER BROTHERS: ANYTHING DC
Warner Brothers has had a near-total lock on the entire DC universe since 1978’s original "Superman," but their superhero comic adaptations haven’t made much of a dent in the market outside of Supes, Batsy, and "The Watchmen" movie that felt like it was filmed entirely in bullet time.
Based on that, it’s easy to see why "Watchmen"/"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder has been retained to direct 2015’s "Batman vs. Superman". That means that while Christopher Nolan is attached as associate producer, B v S is going to have more in common with the relatively sunny and lighthearted Superman franchise than the growly Christian-Bale-y Batman series.
This could mean trouble for the film, given that the news that the perfectly acceptable actor Ben Affleck would play Batman caused some 60% of the Internet to wet their pants and throw their My Little Pony doll at their screens.
JUSTICE LEAGUE: TOWARDS A DC CINEMATIC UNIVERSE?
The real goal of "Batman vs. Superman" (besides making lots of money, of course) is to set up a Justice League movie with the potential of being as big as "The Avengers," along with associated side films that will link together just like the MCU.
On the surface this looks like an easy layup, since WB’s film rights issues are going to be way simpler than Marvel/Disney’s, but this analysis ignores how much time and effort has gone into setting up the movies that tied in to "The Avengers."
Right now, literally nothing is known or even knowable about the Justice League movie other than David S. Goyer is contractually obligated to write it. There have been vague hints of a Flash movie coming out some time after B vs S.
The CW’s “Arrow” series has survived to a second season and has featured a few Flash cameos, but is that going to be enough to flesh out the two heroes for a feature-length movie? Was the Green Lantern movie enough to support the character’s reappearance considering nobody actually remembers seeing it? Can you really have a Justice League without the Martian Manhunter?
Warner would be better equipped to handle these problems if they had a dedicated organizer like Kevin Teige or Jeph Loeb, but this hasty sprint to cash in on the “fictional universe” conceit may end up as a sprawling mess.
THE SMALL SCREEN
Ironically, DC had a popular fictional universe with a fairly strong sense of continuity that ran for nearly ten years on The WB and Cartoon Network. The so-called “DC Animated Universe” was spawned by the enormously successful "Batman? animated series and eventually became influential enough to have its own sub-continuity in DC comics, but after the cancellation of Justice League Unlimited in 2006 it’s been left undeveloped.
A number of TV projects for DC got the green light after the launch of ABC’s “Agents of SHIELD,” although that show’s steadily declining ratings may give network producers reason to worry about how interested people are going to be in an Hourman TV show.
If “Agents” manages to avoid the axe, it’ll be because Marvel is hoping to use it to establish more background on the MCU and thus make it necessary to sit through in order to understand the “phase 3” movies for next year. It’s unknown whether DC intends the same with its properties, or even if DC is together enough to even understand why that’s a good thing.
Next: Worst Changes to Comic Book Characters in Film
DARK HORSE: JUST SORT OF THERE
Dark Horse is sometimes accused of relying too much on its licensed-property comics (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mass Effect, and until 2015 lots of comics based on Star Wars) so it’s odd to realize that the comparatively tiny publisher has had a hand in almost twenty theatrical releases.
Part of that is because most of their properties didn’t really have that much of a connection with their comics. T"imecop" was based on a single story in an anthology series, while the promotions for "The Mask" and "Mystery Men" rarely mentioned their roots in underground comics.
The tide may be turning with the relative success of the "Hellboy," "Sin City," and "300" properties, though, if only because these properties were based on respected and successful comics artists and their directors actually bothered to make the adaptations halfway decent.
Is a Dark Horse Cinematic Universe on the horizon? No, because Dark Horse hasn’t had a shared universe since 1998, the so-called “Comic’s Greatest World” that produced the world’s worst Casablanca remake in the form of "Barb Wire."