Marvel buying back the film rights to the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Deadpool was once only the stuff of nerd dreams, but now that those dreams have become reality, we should really consider just what this reunion might entail. We may very well see an Avengers vs. X-Men film one day, but that might not be a good thing.
Long before Marvel Studios became the box office juggernaut it is today, Marvel Comics had fallen on incredibly hard times that eventually led them to filing for bankruptcy in 1996. At the time, Marvel was operating at a loss in the midst of an industry-wide slump and the company had debts to the tune of millions of dollars. The bankruptcy came after Marvel had attempted pursuing a number of other new revenue streams like computer games and restaurants, but of all the solutions the comics giant tried, only one really paid off: licensing.
All throughout the ‘90s, Marvel sold off the film rights to a whole host of its most popular characters like the X-Men and Spider-Man in order to pay off some of its debts and those deals resulted in fantastic animated TV shows and films ranging from Blade and the Ben Affleck-starring Daredevil to the much more successful Spider-Man movies at Sony, and the X-Men films at Fox. The problem with these deal, though, was that Marvel only made money from the initial sale of those rights, meaning that after other companies like Fox and Sony paid a flat fee, none of the profits from these “Marvel” movies and shows ever actually came back to the House of Ideas.
An acquisition by Toy Biz in 1997 ultimately saved Marvel Entertainment Group from bankruptcy, but that still left the company in a rather tough position. As Fox and Sony’s X-Men and Spider-Man films began the modern age of superhero cinema, Marvel was faced with the daunting task of getting its comics arm back on its feet and figuring out how to play catchup to a quickly-changing industry threatening to leave it behind.
Slowly, but surely, Marvel began to rehabilitate itself with new initiatives like its MAX imprint and the launch of its Ultimate universe which allowed the company to introduce a whole new generation of readers to characters like the Avengers. While all of this was happening, the rights to a number of characters Marvel had sold off, like Iron Man and Thor, began to revert to the company. Even though it was comparatively late to the modern superhero movie game, Marvel was gaining back the building blocks to what would eventually become its Cinematic Universe.
While there have always been Iron Man and Thor fans, these characters were never massively popular outside the world of comic book fans and, looking back at the early days of the MCU, Marvel understood that. But rather than trying to rely on pre-existing popularity, the nascent Marvel Studios put time and energy into cultivating those characters in order to make them attractive to mainstream audiences. People might not have known Tony Stark, but they definitely knew Robert Downey Jr.—a reformed Hollywood enfant terrible who, if we’re being honest, seems to be playing a slightly different version of himself in the Iron Man movies. Similarly, Marvel’s Thor might not have been a household name before, but Marvel carefully teased the character in the end credits of Iron Man 2, and then used Thor as a tantalizing tease as to what else the MCU had in store for audiences.
Basically, it was a scarcity of resources and broad brand recognition that forced Marvel to be careful and smart in the way it pieced together the beginning of its movie empire. That approach has clearly paid off.
Interestingly, limitations are also what ended up making Fox’s superhero movies fantastic as well, though the studio’s path to success was also marked by a certain degree of difficulty. While Blade was the first Marvel movie of the ‘90s to become a massive box office success, it was X-Men that proved to studios and audiences that a film very directly pulled from comic books could be a force to be reckoned with.
But early success proved to be something of a double-edged sword for the X-Men franchise. X2: X-Men United was solid, X-Men: The Last Stand was bad and the very first Wolverine movie was... ludicrously awful (almost as bad as the studio’s Fantastic 4 films, but not quite). But because Fox only had the film rights to the X-Men and characters closely related to them like Deadpool and Domino, it was left with no real other options than to go back to the drawing board and try again.
Though they still don’t have as solid a track record as Marvel, Fox’s X-Men movies have become consistently better since its soft reboot with First Class. A new generation of actors have been given the opportunity to tell stories that, technologically speaking, would have been near impossible to produce 20 years ago. More importantly, though, Fox’s movies have recently begun to fulfill a promise that Marvel’s never quite managed to: its superhero movies are finally to evolve just what all this genre can be.
Logan and Deadpool are bloody, R-rated movies that don’t involve huge set pieces or the destruction of the world and yet both movies have punched well above their weight at the box office in a way that industry analysts never thought was possible. Logan, a moody Western, is a somber reflection on the end of a man’s life, while Deadpool went out of its way to poke fun at the way that cape films have become complacent with a rather predictable formula for storytelling. What’s more, both films were produced on relatively cheap budgets compared to other major action films. Looking forward, Fox’s The New Mutants looks to be an honest-to-goodness horror movie—another first for the superhero genre—something that no other studio’s attempted to put out.
For both Marvel and Fox, necessity was the mother of invention and both studios used their limitations to ultimately build impressive franchises that have matured wonderfully.
Which makes Marvel’s reacquisition of its characters movie rights from 20th Century Fox somewhat concerning. Now that Marvel has nearly all of its toys back the logical thing for them to do would be to incorporate those characters into the MCU. But the MCU is a rather formulaic place that doesn’t immediately present itself as a good place for the X-Men (though the Fantastic Four might do well.)
The recent freshness of Fox’s take on Marvel’s mutants has been a much-needed counterbalance to the rest of Hollywood’s rather by-the-numbers approach to the superhero movie genre. Now that the X-Men have returned to Marvel thanks to the power cosmic that is Disney, we can and probably will have the thrill of seeing both of super-teams on the same movie screen together. But for Disney to kill all the innovation Fox had so recently been bringing to its Mutant entertainment just to shove Wolverine, Professor X, Jean Grey and the rest into the same old Marvel Cinematic Universe formula would be an absolute shame.