Before I had even left the parking lot of the movie theater where I had seen The Avengers, I had already discussed with a few friends the possibility of where the series could go next. Imagine if Spider-Man came along as one of the X-Men showed up to fight alongside The Avengers. This is the Marvel Universe after all, a place where superheroes drop in unannounced to help one-another. Sounds really cool right? This has alway been one of the best aspects of comic books, seeing your favorite heroes team up. Maybe The Fantastic Four will show up and Doctor Doom can battle alongside Thanos, the guy with the scary face who shows up after The Avengers credits. I thought, “What if there could be a movie version of Civil War.” The entire concept of a movie based on one of the most epic comic book events ever, pitting hero against hero over an issue that was complex and divisive, gave me enough wonderful geeky thoughts for the rest of the way home from the theater. Only once I arrived at my house I had a sad realization, there will be no Civil War.
To explain why, we’ll dig into Marvel’s history and Intellectual Property Rights.
During the 80s Marvel desperately sought movie studios and licensed their characters with reckless abandon. In 1989, New World Pictures released The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren as Frank Castle, the morally ambiguous vigilante of the Marvel universe who kills his opponents rather than merely defeating them. The movie flopped and New World Pictures eventually collapsed, with the movie rights for The Punisher reverting back to Marvel.
Throughout the 90s, Marvel struggled with bankruptcy and still hadn’t found a solid movie studio. During this period, the company had to actually go to court to prove that they owned the name Spider-Man. Morale must have been pretty low when Marvel was engaged in legal disputes with Stan Lee, the creator of most of the Marvel heroes and former President and Chairman of the company. Needless to say, their movies suffered. In early 1998, Marvel released Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., with David “Fucking” Hasselhoff playing the lead. It might be the worst superhero movie ever made. In comparison, 1997’s Batman and Robin appears to have been a well-made movie devoid of cocaine-fueled production. It’s even worse than The Phantom. Didn’t see that one? Don’t.
Later in 1998, New Line Cinema released Blade, a movie based on Marvel’s vampire hunter. Blade grossed $131 million, making it a major success. This success of an obscure Marvel character spurred the company to greater things. Afterward, Marvel thought bigger, and dared to dream about what could happen if they put a serious budget behind their most lucrative franchise.
In 2000, 20th Century Fox released X-Men starring Patrick Stewart (Professor X), Ian McKellen (Magneto), Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Halle Berry (Storm) and a few other very talented actors who succeeded in bringing my childhood fantasy to reality by making one of the best superhero movies out of my favorite comic books. The film made about $296 million at the box office. This set the standard for the future. From this point forward, Marvel strove to churn out summer blockbusters year after year.
In 2002, Columbia Pictures (Sony) released Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire as the lead with Kirstin Dunst as Mary Jane. Willem Dafoe played Norman Osborn as the the Green Goblin and James Franco as Harry Osborn. When all the money had been counted the movie brought in a whopping $821 million. Marvel was ecstatic.
After the success of X-Men and Spider-Man, Marvel was passing out the rights to their characters as fast as they could. Daredevil and The Fantastic Four went to 20th Century Fox. With the rights to The Punisher going back to Marvel, Lionsgate picked up the violent anti-hero for one of my favorite movies ever, The Punisher in 2004 starring one of my favorite actors, Tom Jane, who trained with Navy Seals to prepare for the role. Ghost Rider went to Columbia, where they got Nicolas Cage to Nicholas-Cage his way around the screen. Universal Studios picked up Hulk and did something with that, not something wonderful, but at least the hulked-out poodle fight was far better than it had any right to be.
A really interesting thing happened in 2004 when Marvel started putting real effort into trying to re-secure the rights that it had previously licensed with the intention of financing their own movies and controlling the production through their growing Marvel Studios. They quickly seized their unused rights back, such as Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, Nick Fury and Hawkeye. In 2005 Marvel re-secured the rights to Iron Man, which had been floating around in development hell since the 90s. Marvel was even able to retake the Hulk and work in conjunction with Universal Studios.
With Marvel’s IP rights falling back into their own hands, Marvel finally began assembling a series of movies that eventually became The Avengers. Unfortunately for us all, there were a few rights that continued to rest in the hands of various studios.
This is where everything starts to suck. Marvel hasn’t re-secured the rights for Spider-Man and unless Columbia/Sony stops using the rights, they probably won’t. That’s how movie rights work. Columbia/Sony basically holds all the rights to Spider-Man and all Spider-Man related characters and concepts unless they stop using them for a few years. Has anyone seen the terrible looking trailer for the new low budget Spider-Man reboot? That’s why that thing is around.
The same thing goes for the X-Men. 20th Century Fox holds all those rights as well and since they are still making X-Men movies such as X-Men: First Class and another one about Wolverine, then they can keep going.
My other favorite series out there got a terrible reboot a few years back, Punisher: War Zone, which was sad for me as a fan. Jane, The Punisher in 2004, walked after he said the script was terrible, which it was, so the leading role landed on Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo from HBO’s Rome), an excellent and dedicated actor. Stevenson went so far as to train with Recon Marines to prepare for the role, but no amount of training could make up for the terrible script.
Columbia is bringing back Nicholas Cage to drive Ghost Rider further into the ground. Hey, they know he needs the money and they need to use the rights. 20th Century Fox recently remembered that it owns the rights to Daredevil and is trying to monetize that property as well. Blade is probably owned by Warner Bros. since New Line Cinema merged with them a few years ago, but I haven’t heard much since Wesley Snipes got put in prison and won’t be out until next year.
Now we get to some strange territory since the Marvel Universe is known for having closely-related characters and repeating concepts, we are going to see some really weird stuff happen. 20th Century Fox owns all the X-Men and X-Men characters, but they also own all the rights to X-Men concepts like mutants and adamantium. Can anyone remember what Captain America’s shield was made out of? It’s really confusing since sometimes it’s vibranium and sometimes it’s adamantium or a composite of both. The important thing is that adamantium is what Wolverine’s claws are made out of and now 20th Century Fox has it. Did you know that Magneto’s son and daughter, Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver were frequently part of The Avengers, but are actually mutants? Now how would that work out? Ms. Marvel was also originally with the Avengers, but after one of the strangest plots ever conceived involving brainwashing, rape, pregnancy and maybe incest, she left to go hang out with the X-Men. Who wouldn’t after that strange debacle? Wolverine becomes part of the Avengers later in the series. The Fantastic Four is also owned by 20th Century Fox, which includes the Silver Surfer and Galactus, so there can’t be any plots that use those characters. For a really obscure reference, Michael Morbius, the vampire, actually originated with Spider-Man where he played a few major parts, but became a huge character in Blade. He was so influential there was the possibility of him being in the movie series. The Blade crew even shot the sequence of him hanging out on a roof in the background, but later removed it.
So could there actually be a movie version of the popular Marvel event, Civil War or even something like the more recent Avengers vs. X-Men? It’s possible. Marvel is owned by Disney now, which kind of scares me, but they could throw enough money at 20th Century Fox to get a few of their rights back. Chris Evans would have to decide whether he would like to be Captain America or the Human Torch, since he plays both. I’m betting he would keep with the stars and stripes. The idea of a Civil War movie sounds awesome, but it’s going to take a few years and lots of legal wrangling to say the least. And I don’t even want to think about establishing everybody’s backstories, but maybe by the time they’ve done all those movies to fill us in on everyone else who took part in Civil War, Marvel will have the rights to all their characters again, but Chris Evans will probably be looking at retirement by then.