Comic book adaptations are currently experiencing an unquestionable rise of popularity in pop culture. Starting next year, at least six major comic book films will be hitting theaters, continuing until 2019–in which only five movies are currently scheduled. On television, there are even more comic book properties being brought to life across a multitude of networks.
But, with this sudden influx of superheroes on screen, there have been a number of confusion-inducing occurrences. Have you ever wondered why the X-Men can fight alongside the Avengers and Spider-Man in Marvel Comics but not on the big screen? Or how Quicksilver can appear as a 1970s teenager in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but a modern day powered individual in Avengers: Age of Ultron? Or, why the planned Flash movie–currently scheduled for release in 2018–isn’t connected to the TV show on The CW?
The simple answer to these questions is: copyrights. (For the sake of this article, I’ll be focusing on Marvel and DC comic book characters, though there are a number of other publishers that are making the jump from page to screen by selling the rights to their characters to film studios).
Warner Bros. owns the entirety of DC Comics, which includes the movie rights to their characters, allowing the studio to dictate when and in what form DC heroes appear on film or on TV. So, while the TV and movie versions of the The Flash aren’t connected on screen, they are both produced by DC and Warner Bros.
However, the downside of this model–at least for DC fans–is that it can be restricting. For example, The CW’s shared DC Comics universe (that includes Arrow, The Flash, and the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow) have stayed away from using fan-favorite villain Harley Quinn as well as the hero Booster Gold. Although show creators have shied away from directly stating this is because of Warner Bros.’ influence, it should be noted that Harley Quinn will play a significant role in next year’s Suicide Squad and Booster Gold has been hinted at “being groomed for bigger things.”
So, while there are some downsides to the DC/WB setup, it at least is much less confusing (behind the scenes, anyway) than Marvel Comics characters. Marvel Studios found popularity in their shared universe design leading up to Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow teaming up in The Avengers. However, fans were left with the question of why Wolverine and Spider-Man weren’t included when they had been major parts of the superhero team in the comics.
The reason behind this is that the rights to those characters belonged to different studios. Twentieth Century Fox owned the rights the the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, and mutants in general, while Sony Pictures owned the rights to Spider-Man, which included a number of other characters like Green Goblin and Gwen Stacy.
There is a small overlap between Fox and Marvel since both studios own the rights to Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, which explains why there have been two versions of the Quicksilver character on screen in the past two years–they don’t exist in the same universe. These rights also explain Quicksilver’s origin in Age of Ultron, which doesn’t directly mention the word “mutant,” but states rather that his powers were the result of a scientific experiment.
Given the rise in popularity of superheroes and comic book adaptations, it seemed in 2014 prior to the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that these studios were going to hold on to their respective rights and refuse to allow any overlap between Marvel, Sony, and Fox. However, when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 failed to impress critics or become a smash hit at the box office, Sony had to rethink the shared universe they had already begun planning.
Earlier this year, Marvel and Sony announced plans to bring Spider-Man into the already-established Marvel Cinematic Universe while Sony retained the right to co-produce a live-action film. As such, Spider-Man will appear in next year’s Captain America: Civil War before going on to star in his own film in 2017. The deal was met with plenty of excitement from fans who had hoped to see Spider-Man fight alongside Iron Man and Captain America, though others were doubtful of a third Spider-Man reboot 15 years.
Still, the benefit of Marvel Studios breaking up the rights to their characters is that it forces the studios to develop and bring heroes to life that may not have made it to live-action otherwise. For instance, would Marvel Studios have adapted Guardians of the Galaxy, a lesser-known property, if the studio had still owned the rights to Spider-Man and X-Men? Similarly, would there be a Deadpool move slated for release next year if all the Marvel characters were under the banner of a single studio? It’s difficult to give definite answers to these questions, but DC and Warner Bros.’ focus on its main heroes may offer a hint.
That being said, the deal between Marvel and Sony has proven studios are capable of working together–albeit under duress in Sony’s case given the failure of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Whether that means we’ll eventually see all the studios unite for a gigantic event film featuring the Justice League and Avengers remains to be seen (and is a long way off even if it does happen), but it’s certainly a step forward for the shared universe model of comic book movies.
Featured Photo courtesy of Sam Howzit.