Superhero movies are everywhere these days. There are cinematic universes, big battles between famous pop culture icons and amazing special effects pushing the norms in movie culture. Whether you like it or not, superhero movies are here to stay.
If you didn’t already know, most of these iconic characters were born on the pages of comic books. There are two big companies that own the rights to almost all these characters: DC Comics and Marvel Comics (which is technically owned by Disney). DC Comics movie rights are owned by Warner Bros. Warner Bros. can do whatever it wants with the characters which is why a different actor plays Flash in the TV show, the animated show and in the cinematic universe.
Films that have Marvel characters, however, have been coming out of multiple studios which can create some confusion about who owns the licensing of each character. So, let’s delve into the conversation of who owns Marvel’s superheroes.
After Marvel made some poor business deals around 1996 – for example, a failed trading card game called “OverPower” and a tendency to overstock comic books stores – its sales with collectors plummeted. Marvel owed around $1.7 million and was looking to get money quickly, so it sold most of its characters like Spider-Man, Wolverine and Hulk to different movie studios.
Marvel sold Spider-Man, Ghost Rider and all of its individual characters of its respective books, like love interests or super villains, to Sony. 20th Century Fox got the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Daredevil. Lionsgate got Man-Thing and Punisher, Universal got the Hulk and Namor, while all the rest ended up at Marvel Studios. These deals actually turned out to be successful beginning with “Blade” in 1998, which was released under New Line Cinema and made $131.2 million at the box office. This was the first prominent superhero movie starring a Marvel character.
Marvel managed to get back most of its characters using stalling tactics in their deals. The way these tactics worked were that if a movie studio did not use the characters they bought in less than four years, they would automatically return to Marvel Studios. Some companies didn’t use or forgot they owned some characters, which is why, for example, Daredevil has a show with Marvel’s “The Punisher” on Netflix and Ghost Rider will appear on “Agents of Shield.”
Other companies have released bad movies purposely to keep characters. This is where Spider-Man comes in. The Web Slinger, believe it or not, has grossed more money than any other superhero franchise. After the first three Sam Raimi films, Mark Webb got control over the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man in 2012 (which bombed with critics and fans), just so they could keep the character rights. Because the movies didn’t do well, they struck a deal with Marvel/Disney: Spider-Man was allowed to go and hang out with the Avengers if Sony was allowed to reboot the same character and all of the characters involved in the comic books. It was like a messy divorce, where Spider-Man lives at home with Sony and gets to see Marvel every other weekend.
Lastly, the Hulk is a very interesting case. Universal Pictures owns the distribution rights to the Hulk as well the first say on a solo film or what he can appear in. The character, however, can appear in other movies like “The Avengers” and both studios can make money. This probably explains why Hulk hasn’t gotten a solo film yet and usually shows up as a side character, like as a cameo in “Iron Man 3″ or the new “Thor: Ragnarok.”
There are many more interesting characters whose fates are up in the air. I mentioned Namor and Man-Thing earlier, who have complex deals going on (She-Hulk and the Skrull alien race come to mind), but I don’t have the time to discuss it here. Leave a comment on any other character I missed or if you want to know more information about a character!