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These days, it’s nearly impossible to think of comics without thinking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which seems to break its own worldwide box office records with every new entry. But there was a time – and not too long ago – when it looked like there might never be a Marvel movie. And even now there’s some confusion, with Marvel movies like Morbius and Madame Web dating Marvel characters, but unrelated to the MCU. I can explain. It’s a big one, so buckle up.
By the mid-1990s, Marvel Comics was in dire financial straits. The 80s had been a golden age in comics (not in comics books, it was the 1940s): Gen Xers and young baby boomers were discovering that their parents had largely thrown away their comic book collections, and rare comics were selling for hundreds of dollars at nostalgic buyers; old and new comic book fans were buying comics in numbers not seen since the golden age of comics.
In 1989, Ron Perelman, a Revlon executive, bought Marvel Entertainment Group (the parent company of Marvel Comics) and began to diversify. He took the company’s stock public in 1991 and spent about $700 million buying stock in other companies, some of which made trading cards and toys; Toy Biz, owned by Ike Permutter, has made a deal for a perpetual royalty-free toy license to Marvel characters in exchange for a 46% stake (remember them; they’ll reappear in a few ).
In 1991, the first sign of trouble came when seven top creators, including Jim Lee, Rob Liefield and Todd MacFarlane left Marvel to form Image Comics. The bubble that had bolstered comics in the 80s was about to burst, as fans couldn’t and/or didn’t want to keep spending so much on comics, perhaps feeling that if everyone bought multiple copies, there would be no market for rare titles. like there had been in the 80s. (There’s also an argument to be made that the quality of Marvel was declining, but I’ll leave that to someone who read comics in the 90s; I was a weird teenager who mostly watched foreign movies and didn’t read comics beyond Milk & Cheese and Scud the Disposable Assassin.)
But Marvel continued to grow, acquiring Heroes World Distribution as their exclusive distributor in 1994. This had a ripple effect that caused many smaller distributors to close, creating two-way competition between Heroes World and Diamond, which distributed DC Comics (Heroes World went out of business in 1997, giving Diamond the monopoly). Then, in 1996, two big things happened: Heroes Reborn was launched, a year-long crossover that Marvel outsourced to Image, helmed by former Marvel creators Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld; and Marvel Entertainment Group filed for bankruptcy in December. But let me backtrack a little bit.
Marvel was short on cash, but Perelman had a plan to save Marvel: He was going to form Marvel Studios, bring their beloved characters to the big screen, and bring them back to financial security. To do this, he wanted to buy the remaining shares of Toy Biz, merge the companies, and start making money again. But the board disagreed. So Perelman filed for bankruptcy and a long legal battle ensued.
In 1998, Toy Biz came out on top. Perelman was out and Ike Perlmutter was suddenly in charge of Marvel Entertainment Group, which was renamed Marvel Enterprises. Until then, men in black (1997, Columbia Pictures, distributed by Sony) and Blade (1998, Marvel Enterprises, distributed by New Line) had both been made: movies based on Marvel comics. Within two years, there would be a x-men film (2000, 20th Century Fox), and shortly after, the Sam Raimi film Spider Man (2002, Columbia/Marvel/Sony) would break records. So how were these films made by these studios?
men in black
Producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald opted for the rights to men in black by Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers in 1992. An option is a contract that gives the optionter – in this case Parkes and MacDonald – a certain amount of time to make the movie (or TV series, as the case may be) before the rights expire. belong to the creator. Money paid for an option is not due if an option is not exercised, so it is often in the optionner’s interest to make the movie. This film is do not part of the massive rights debacle that many other Marvel Comics properties are or have been entangled in.
Marvel themselves developed and produced the Blade movies, to which they retained the rights in the 90s. It was their only series of films before the MCU.
X-Men and the Fantastic Four
Marvel sold the X-Men film rights to 20th Century Fox in 1993-94 in what was essentially a sellout, as the aforementioned bubble burst and Marvel spent more money than they had. were reporting, thanks to Perelman’s ambitious plans. Fox acquired the Fantastic Four at the same time. This deal probably seemed like a natural fit, since the Fox Kids network was producing the X-Men animated series (my personal introduction to Marvel) at the time. Fox held those rights until 2019.
Universal bought the movie rights to the Hulk character, which they exercised for two standalone films, starting with Pontoon (2003). Their deal only restricts other studios from making solo Hulk films, not using the character in other films, which is why Bruce Banner has appeared in several MCU films, including avengers and Thor Ragnarok. Marvel also retained the TV rights, which is why we have a She-Hulk series to appear on Disney+. Confusingly, Marvel was involved in Hulk’s second solo movie, in 2008 The Incredible Hulk, paying for production while Universal distributed. Under an ongoing deal, Universal retains distribution rights to the Hulk solo films, and Marvel hasn’t announced any plans to do another one as of yet.
Sony Pictures licensed Spider-Man in 1998 and, likely due to bankruptcy and protracted legal battle, Marvel pretty much gave them everything. As long as Sony releases a Spider-Man related movie every 5 years and 9 months, they retain those rights. Which not only explains why we’ve had several sets of Spider-Man movies, but also some of the more obscure films. Morbius? Spider-Man character. Silk? Spider-Man character. Madame Web? Say it with me, y’all: Spider-Man character.
So why is Peter Parker in the MCU? Well, Marvel basically licensed its own character. Yeah really. In 2015, after Sony amazing spider man failed to meet box office expectations, Marvel and Sony reached a deal to allow Spider-Man to join the MCU. The agreement was renewed four years later and will continue Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (which, in a nice loop, is directed by Sam Raimi, who directed Sony’s first Spider-Man trilogy).
Marvel Movies: The MCU and Disney
The Marvel Companies have created Iron Man in 2008, taking a pretty huge risk on a character then largely unknown — but one they had full rights to. Perhaps in part based on the film’s success, Disney bought Marvel – all of Marvel except the licensed rights – in 2009. Paramount Pictures, which had previously distributed Iron Man (2008) had an agreement to distribute iron man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Disney took over distribution with the 2012s The Avengersand produced and distributed all subsequent MCU films.
In 2019, Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, picking up the X-Men and Fantastic Four characters. They have yet to integrate them into the MCU beyond Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver’s appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron and the following MCU properties; both are mutants and Fox challenged Marvel’s right to use them, eventually coming to an agreement that the MCU could not mention they were mutants or refer to Fox’s films; however, now that Disney owns Fox, it’s widely speculated that they will eventually be integrated into the MCU.
Clear as mud?
That’s a lot of information, and it barely scratches the surface of the tangled web that is Spider-Man, the MCU, and Marvel.
All of this information is available in multiple places, online and offline. Here are some articles and a book I used: