While it may be hard to imagine now, back in the late 90s, Marvel was in a bad way. A slump in the comic book industry had placed financial strain on the company, to the point where it had to file for bankruptcy protection in 1996. In an effort to make a bit of cash, Marvel proceeded to sell the movie rights of virtually all of its characters to the big Hollywood studios including Fox, New Line, Sony (well, Columbia Pictures technically) and Universal. Shortly after this, the one-two punch of Blade in 1998 and – to a greater extent – the first X-men movie in 2000 revived the flagging comic book movie genre – but it would still take a few years for either Marvel or DC to make anything… well… good.
With Marvel back on sounder financial footing (presumably given a helping hand by increased interest in the X-men comics), the studio announced that it intended to finance its own movies in 2004 and reacquired what rights it could shortly after – namely Iron Man and Black Widow from New Line, Thor from Sony and The Incredible Hulk from Universal. And that, children, is how Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born.
Since then, the studio has managed to reacquire the rights to a large amount of their titles, either by buying them back outright – which would be an expensive endeavor to say the least – or by an intellectual property loophole. See, there is usually a clause in contracts of this ilk which stipulates that the movie rights revert back to Marvel (who still own the characters, obviously) if the studios don’t use them to make films. This stops studios from hoarding rights out of spite – a problem that is rife in other creative industries. It’s likely that this is how Marvel reacquired the majority of their titles – properties like Daredevil for instance reverted back because even Fox realised it wouldn’t recover from that 2003 movie (though there was some interest from film makers – as this ‘sizzle reel’ from Joe Carnahan shows).
(Sizzle reels are essentially demos of the look, sound and feel that a movie will have – effectively an insight into what the Director has in mind for a project. From the looks of it, this Daredevil movie would have been pretty cool!)
As Marvel went from strength to strength, the other studios – mainly Fox and Sony – became increasingly protective of their respective titles, mainly because they were among the most popular ones around. Arguably in an effort to keep hold of the rights and prevent them from reverting back, Fox made X-men Origins: Wolverine – genuinely one of the most appallingly incompetent films I have ever seen; and Sony made The Amazing Spider-man, which fairly conclusively proved that they had no idea how to make good Spider-man movies without Sam Raimi.
In fairness to Fox (Sony had it coming), they did also make X-Men: First Class – effectively reviving the franchise from stagnation and leading to the return of Bryan Singer, who kicked this comic book thing off in the first place. Recently of course, they took a big risk by green lighting Deadpool and were rewarded when it became an incredibly profitable movie. On the other hand, they made an absolutely awful Fantastic 4 that somehow managed to be worse than the at best forgettable 2000s movies and reportedly had major issues with regards to its production. Only time will tell whether they let the title revert back to Marvel or not.
Spider-man’s inclusion in Civil War and the character’s continued involvement in MCU movies generally is the result of an intriguing novel arrangement between Marvel and Sony. The character is effectively shared between both the studios – both can use the character to make separate movies, neither gets a cut of the other’s profits and it looks like Tom Holland will play him both in the MCU and the Sony franchise. This mutually beneficial arrangement is virtually unheard of in Hollywood – especially where one character is shared between competing studios. Given that Civil War will obviously be a massive success (I say again, it’s really good – go and watch it) and that Spider-man is a big part of that, there is every chance that other studios will try and cut a similar deal with Marvel. Maybe Fox could share the Fantastic 4, for example.
It’s going to be an interesting to see where this goes – the next Spider-man movie (cheekily called Spider-man: Homecoming by Marvel) will probably give a clearer idea of how it will all pan out. Marvel having access to all its titles again would obviously be great for fans, so here’s hoping that Fox will get involved.