How Marvel Got Their X-Men Back!
:or: Will There Be Another Fantastic 4 Reboot?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe may have grown a lot larger. For the past couple of decades Marvel Studios has been trying to get the movie rights for their own characters back from the various studios and production companies that owned them. Deals were made with Universal and Sony to allow the Hulk and Spiderman, respectively, to appear in MCU movies.
But there have been holdouts. Studios refusing to part with the Marvel properties they own, believing that they could do much better with their own franchise that's not connected to the MCU. The most notably being 20th Century Fox who held both the X-Men and Fantastic 4. And there was little chance they would cede those rights back to Marvel as their X-Men franchise was almost as successful as the MCU.
Comic book companies have been selling the film rights to their characters since their beginnings. Superman had been in publication barely a year when Paramount acquired the rights, using them for a series of Fleischer cartoons. Other superheroes ended up in movie serials, often just barely resembling the characters from the books. While it would take nearly four decades for a legitimate superhero film to be made, comic book companies we're making a nifty profit on the film and television rights.
The money was made selling options to producers. Options were only a fraction of the cost of the full rights, but if a producer wanted to make a movie, he would still need to pay for the movie rights on top of the option. So why exactly were producers buying options? For one, they were a lot cheaper than the full rights. If you pitch the hero to all the studios and they all turn you down, then you have wasted less money on the option. You need the rights or an option to pitch to a studio. Hopefully a studio would buy the pitch, greenlight the film, and then reimburse the producer for his expenses. So for 40 years comic book companies sold off options and film rights to their characters and collected the easy money. It didn't matter that no superhero movies were actually getting made.
Superman The Movie was the game changer. Let's set aside that it was the first superhero movie that was not attached to a television series. What mattered was that it made money. Lots of money. Close to Jaws and Star Wars money. Where in the past studios were reluctant to greenlight a superhero film, now superhero films were seen as possible blockbusters.
By the time Superman The Movie was released, D.C. Comics we're owned by Warner Bros. It was just chance that Warner Bros ended up making the first three Superman films. The rights we're owned by producer Salkind, and when he sold the rights, there was nothing Warner could do to stop Cannon Films from making the fourth film. From that point on Warner took full control of the D.C. properties, no longer selling their characters to outside producers, and gradually buying back the rights and options D.C. had previously sold off.
For Marvel, it was a different matter. Not owned by any studio, they licensed the rights to their characters with little concern if any films actually got made. It was free money, right? But then came Howard the Duck, a character created by freelance writer Steve Gerber that Marvel had tricked him into signing away and spent five or so years in court with Gerber over the rights to the character. The whole affair became a public relations mess with most comic book fans taking Gerber's side. Marvel had fought hard for the duck, and now they would need to win back it's readers, otherwise it would all have been in vain. Howard was the first Marvel character to be made into a motion picture. But it was both a critical flop, and at the time the most expensive box office bombs of all time. The failure of the movie sank any chance of reviving the comic book.
It also gave a black eye to Marvel, even though they had nothing to do with the film other than selling the character's film rights to George Lucas. In the years that followed D.C. would have success with movies based on Batman and The Swamp Thing, while movies for one Marvel superhero after another were announced, but either died in pre-production, or were made but were so bad they were not released.
It was actually the implosion of D.C.s Batman franchise that changed things with Marvel. Comic book fans decried that it was Warner Bros executives that ruined Batman, and it would have been a lot different if the editors from D.C. Comics had helmed the franchise. Deciding to learn from Warner Bros mistake, Marvel decided to take creative control over the movies based on their characters by forming their own production company. They would still have to compromise between the studio releasing the film and the director, but at the least it was a compromise. With Marvel's guidance the successful Blade, X-Men and Spiderman franchise were launched.
Even when a Marvel film failed, it did so with mixed reviews. One of those failures was Ang Lee's Hulk. As the director of the Academy Award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Universal gave Lee full control of the movie. And while many critics loved the end result, fans of the comic book hated it. The origin was overcomplicated by having Dr Banner become The Hulk as a combination of accidentally being injected with nanotech, inheriting the dormant Hulk genes from his father, and not one but two accidental exposures to gamma radiation. ( The original origin had Banner turning into the Hulk due to a single exposure of a gamma ray blast. ) Lee made other alterations to the Hulk's mythos as he conceived the film as a confirmation between father and son. The father being a character barely in the Hulk comics, killed off in his first story arc.
Although Marvel Productions proved successful, Marvel wasn't satisfied. If Ang Lee's alterations to the Hulk wasn't a wake-up call, then studio politics were. Typically, a superhero film would go through cast members, many directors, and at least twice as many scripts before a film was ever made. This was usually due to the ever changing studio executives, each new crop who wanted a different script, a different cast, a different budget or a different director. Marvel would end up with egg on their face, announcing a major motion picture starring a Marvel superhero and the superstar actor who would play him, only for the film to end up cancelled or dumped back into development hell.
More often than not no film is ever made and the rights expire, reverting back to Marvel. This was the case with Iron Man. Instead of putting the rights up for bid again, Marvel decided to make the film themselves. Someone at Marvel realized that the rights to Thor and Captain America were also due to revert back to Marvel. They had three of the original Avengers team. All they needed was either Ant-Man or The Hulk for a full Avengers movie. And Universal was more than willing to lend The Hulk back to Marvel Studios, even agreeing to alter their Hulk sequel into a reboot.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe ( MCU ) began as independent solo movies, but after The Avengers, became chapters in an ongoing story. They branched out into television with series based on supporting characters Phil Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Agent Peggy Carter. Soon even the solo movies were glutted with guest superheroes. The third Captain America film had so many of the Avengers that it should have been released as the third Avengers film. The spillover ended up on Netflix where many of the less powerful Marvel heroes got their own individual miniseries, all leading up to a Defenders miniseries.
Eventually Marvel Studios had the rights to more characters than they could use. A planned Captain Marvel film was pulled from the schedule when Sony agreed to give Spiderman back to Marvel, and they celebrated by rushing into production a Spiderman solo film set in the MCU. Marvel had been trying to get Spiderman back for the better part of a decade. But Sony wasn't interested in giving the character up after they had three huge blockbusters via the Raimi directed installments. Sony was even considering spinning Spiderman characters off into their own solo films, and perhaps creating a Spiderman Cinematic Universe. But then came the decision to reboot the franchise, which was nowhere as successful as Sony had hoped for, after which merging with Marvel so Spiderman could be part of the successful MCU suddenly seemed attractive.
That left two outstanding omissions to the MCU. The Fantastic 4 and The X-Men.
Both properties were owned by 20th Century Fox. While not as successful as the MCU, or even Sony's Spiderman franchise for that matter, the X-Men franchise was a strong third, and Fox was not giving it back to Marvel. The Fantastic 4 was not as successful, culminating in a disastrous reboot. But Sony still had high hopes of The Fantastic 4 being part of their X-Men universe, eventually leading to an X-Men/Fantastic 4 crossover film. Perhaps after another reboot.
Still, being attached to the MCU was attractive to Fox, and for many years Marvel and Fox were in negotiations to link the MCU and X-Men universe. The sticking point was that Marvel insisted on full approval of any scripts, and preferred the entire X-Men franchise be rebooted, while Fox wanted Iron Man and other MCU characters to make guest appearances in X-Men and Fantastic 4 movies with scripts they approved.
Despite persistent rumors that Disney ( current parent company of Marvel Inc. ) and 20th Century Fox were close to a deal, some of which came from Stan Lee himself, Marvel and Fox were nowhere close to making any deal. Marvel may have desired having the Fantastic 4 and X-Men in the MCU, but they didn't really need them. They still had dozens of other properties yet to be added to the MCU, and just the sequel solo films alone could keep them busy for the next couple of decades. And so far everything they released was gold. Even the film based on the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy was a hit. Meanwhile Fox was on a roll with their X-Men prequels, and hit paydirt with the spinoff franchise Deadpool. Marvel had good reason to insist on script approval. The MCU prospered because their films we're all critical hits and had a high approval rating among comic book fans. One bad MCU film could sink the entire franchise. The last thing Marvel needed was for the executives responsible for the recent Fantastic 4 film to come up with their own MCU fiasco. So a stalemate it was.
And then the unbelievable. Disney bought 20th Century Fox. No, it had nothing to do with Marvel needing both companies to merge in order for The X-Men and Fantastic 4 to join the MCU. Disney had it's own reasons for acquiring the rival studio. Setting the Marvel delima was just a bonus.
So, does this mean we will be seeing any reboots of the Fox franchises soon? Not exactly. Marvel has been carefully building up to an adaption of the Infinity War War, and they're not about to change things up at this point. Fox already had a few X-Men movies and spin-offs in production, so Disney would want those burned off first. Since the Fantastic 4 Reboot failed, I think Marvel will once again postponed Captain Marvel in order to make a MCU Fantastic 4 reboot, complete with the proper origin story. We will have to wait until the next phase for an X-Men reboot, just in time for the studio's build up to a Secret War adaption.
So how did Marvel get their X-Men back? Pure dumb luck. Had Marvel not been acquired by Disney, or Disney not acquired 20th Century Fox, they could have been separated from their most popular characters for decades.