Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Marvel Movie Team-Ups: Intellectual Property Factions

One of the most exciting developments of the past several years – for nerds – has been watching Marvel link their superhero movies into a single fictional universe.  But not just any character can meet just any other character – because of which characters are contracted to which film companies. 

You’re likely to see only intra-film-company rather than inter-film-company assemblages and confrontations, which last I knew meant something like so (and I’m totally glossing over distinctions between production rights, distribution rights, and six million other nuances, just keep tracking of what I think are the creative “bailiwicks,” to put it in terms about as technical as befits my level of legal expertise – don’t plan your investment portfolio around this or sue me if someone in an alley tries to sell you Doctor Octopus):

X-Men + Fantastic Four + Daredevil: Fox
Spider-Man: Sony (later Columbia)
Avengers + (now in development) Inhumans: Disney
(Punisher, for what it's worth: Lions Gate/Columbia)

Disney now owns Marvel, so most future characters will likely emerge there, I’d imagine, and potentially be Avengers-tied if tied to anything.  

I notice it would be especially tricky to do a film adaptation of the mid-00s series New Avengers comic book, which featured a team composed (at one point) of Wolverine, Spider-Man, and a few old-school Avengers.  That will disappoint the youngest fans.  And it means you shouldn’t expect to see post-credits sequences on next year’s scheduled Spider-Man and Wolverine movies in which Luke Cage recruits them to join a team that will be a more “street” version of Nick Fury’s Avengers, much as I would enjoy that.

One thing that could legally happen that I wouldn’t mind seeing, though, is the X-Men’s Prof. X bumping into the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards one day.  They both have mutant children to exchange advice about.  And Daredevil chatting with the FF’s Ben Grimm would go a long way toward capturing the feel in the comics that all these characters are neighbors in New York City (always appealing to me as a kid – could that have subconsciously influenced my eventual choice of habitat?).

To me, from a purely legal/strategic point of view, the most interesting question, though, is whether we’ll ever see Magneto’s children, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who were members of the Avengers.  I haven’t checked, but I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that they were listed in the briefly-glimpsed files about mutants stolen by Mystique in X-Men 2, thus placing them in the Fox bailiwick – but Quicksilver is both an Avenger and the husband of an Inhuman, so the creative potential if he were kept at Disney is significant.

(Oddly enough, I think the studio that made the Marvel superhero movie Blade is now part of Warner Bros., which, as parent to DC Comics, might be disinclined ever to do another movie with Marvel characters.  DC films are all Warner, of course: Batman, Superman, soon Green Lantern, etc.  Much easier to do DC Universe references on Smallville.)

Beyond the legal concerns, next year may be a pivotal one for determining
whether filmmakers keep moving in the direction of crossover and ensemble superhero films, since Joss Whedon’s Avengers will test the limits on May 4, 2012, putting Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Hawkeye all in the same story.  I trust Whedon to make ensembles work – and he’s written comics, based on his own characters and on Avengers-related and X-Men characters – but if it bombs, chronically risk-averse studios may go back to the one-character-per-film model. 

It was because that model seemed safer that no one ever really worried about legally fragmenting their fictional universes until now: You pitched, say, Daredevil, not six dozen characters from four different teams who might meet up five films later, which would have seemed absurdly optimistic and over-ambitious.  They basically just sold each character as an individual pitch: guy who was bitten by a spider, blind guy who fights crime, half-vampire who fights other vampires, etc.  No one really expected crossovers until Samuel L. Jackson uttered the magic words “Avengers Initiative” after the credits of Iron Man.  (The X-Men characters were never really solo in the comics, so you’d expect they’d be sold as a single pitch, etc., etc.)

The closest precedents to the current crossovers, in a way, are things like Universal pitting the Wolfman against Dracula – but those were public domain – or Toho pitting their monsters against each other, but that’s all within one film company.  Marvel’s projects, pre-Avengers (prior to which time they didn’t really have an in-house movie preproduction arm, just comics people), were in some sense more akin to, say, Random House trying to get films made of its novels, one novel at a time, as opposed to trying to get all their novels turned en masse into a single film series.

Schedulewise, the tonal after-effects of the Whedon Avengers experiment will likely be felt first in the only superhero movie due in 2013 of which I’m aware: Iron Man 3.  I would imagine that during the year before it comes out, they would have time to choose either to (A) make it fully stand-alone or (B) throw in a tie to the other Avengers, perhaps even a strong one, depending on how Avengers had fared. 

I predict Avengers will do very well in 2012 – but then, so, in all likelihood, will the solo DC movie The Dark Knight Rises.  I make no promises regarding 2012’s Amazing Spider-Man, nor am I even confident the solo film The Wolverine will happen on schedule next year (but more about that later in this “Month of Heroes”).  If Avengers kicks box office ass next spring, anticipate a subtitle slapped on that third Iron Man movie a year later declaring it something like Iron Man: Metal Avenger.

And some might be tempted to say in response to all this that the world would be better off if we didn’t even have intellectual property rights, and anyone who wanted to could make an Iron Man movie or put Spider-Man in the next Star Wars film, but then, most of these franchises probably wouldn’t exist in the first place without intellectual property rights, and to that huge moral and legal conundrum, I have never pretended to have a satisfactory answer.  (If you reprint this blog post, though, do please give me credit.)


Todd Seavey said...

UPDATE: Now I have checked the list Mystique stole in _X-Men 2_, and it cheats the Scarlet Witch/Quicksilver issue in a way that may well be related to what I was saying (and in a worst-case scenario could give the lawyers something to fight about): the list didn't name those two heroes -- nor give their full civilian-identity names -- but it did refer to a "Maximoff 1" and "Maximoff 2," using one of their surnames. Hmmm.

Similarly, the organization Hydra is more closely tied to Capt. America (as suggested by the Hydra symbol on the villainous Red Skull's belt buckle in the upcoming Cap movie), but Hydra leader Baron Von Strucker's mutant children, who form the evil duo called Fenris, _are_ named in the Mystique file. Grey areas.

Ali T. Kokmen said...

"No one really expected crossovers until Samuel L. Jackson uttered the magic words 'Avengers Initiative' after the credits of Iron Man."

To nitpick, there was a brief time in the early 2000s where Warner Bros. seemed to be heading toward actually making a Batman vs. Superman movie, instead of proceeding to restart both film series separately. That plan was, for a time, as credible as anything, so I'm sure there were a few who could be said to have really expected a comics crossover movie earlier than the Samuel L. Jackson's pronouncement in the coda to Iron Man.

Todd Seavey said...

The truth is, in my heart, I _never_ believed the Superman/Batman movie would actually happen. I confess I still don't (except animated, of course). As Nybakken once said of the Star Wars prequels: I'll believe it when I'm sitting in the theatre looking at it on the screen (and of course, that day rightly ended with your wife crying after having taken a floating religious holiday from work, but that's a whole different story of pain and disillusionment).