While Marvel Studios have had great success with building a cohesive cinematic universe with the comic book properties to which they own the film rights, there are still a number of key characters that the studio doesn’t have access to rather generous film rights agreements the studio made back in the 1990s when their parent company, Marvel Comics, was strapped for cash.
It doesn’t really take this past week’s news story that Marvel was looking to trade the rights to certain characters that Twentieth Century Fox had control of in return to extending their option on another to know that ultimately Marvel would like to get them all back under their roof. But until that happens, we’ve assembled a guide as to what characters currently reside at which studios.
Fantastic Four - The Fantastic Four are one of the cornerstones of the Marvel Comics universe, but their movie rights rest with 20th Century Fox, who picked them up in the mid-90s. According to most reports, the rights deal that Marvel initially struck with Neu Constantin (Roger Corman’s production company) and presumably transferred to Fox allowed for usage of all original concepts introduced in Fantastic Four issues 1 through 100.
Thanks to the two films Fox has already produced, we know that in addition to the team itself, Fox also owns the rights to ally Silver Surfer, villains Doctor Doom and Galactus and supporting characters postman Willy Lumpkin, Frankie Raye (although she first appeared in FF #164) and Alicia Masters. Frankie Raye’s appearance in Rise Of The Silver Surfer suggest that her heroic persona of Nova, a herald of Galactus, is also included. And while it is probably safe to assume that most of the FF’s rogue’s gallery are a apart of the rights package, the inclusion of Masters seems to definitely confirm the presence of her father, the villain known as the Puppet Master.
Although the FF have encountered many alien races over the course of their adventures, none more memorable than the shape-shifting Skrulls. Fittingly, the rights situation surrounding the aliens are as amorphous as they are. During an interview promoting the European premiere of The Avengers, Marvel Studio chief Kevin Feige stated that rights to the Skrulls are owned by both Fox and Marvel, and either studio could use them in their films. Although he did not say so, it would not be unreasonable to believe that the Skrulls centuries-old enemies the Kree, who also factored heavily in many Fantastic Four and Avengers storylines, were under the same shared agreement. Furthermore, Feige did not clarify the status of one particular Skrull character, the so-called Super Skrull, who has all the powers of the Fantastic Four in addition to his native shape changing ability, though it is generally believed that the rights lie solely with Twentieth Century Fox.
Reports on J Michael Straczynski’s script for a Silver Surfer spin-off film stated that it would involve the character returning to his home world of Zenn-La. Presumably, many of the characters created in various comics stories for that portion of the Silver Surfer’s backstory including his lover Shalla-Bal fall under the Fantastic Four rights.
Although the superpowered evolutionary offshoot of heroes known as The Inhumans first appeared in the pages of Fantastic Four #45 (December 1965), their film rights are still controlled by Marvel Studios as evidenced by statements made by Feige that a film based on the characters was in development. Likewise, Black Panther, ruler of the fictional nation of Wakanda, debuted in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), but his rights are also back at Marvel Studios around who they have been developing a film.
Another character who is often strongly associated with the Fantastic Four is Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. However, the Atlantean monarch’s rights are separate from what Fox owns. Back in September 2006, Universal Pictures had announced a Sub-Mariner movie with Jonathan Mostow signed to direct and rewrite a screenplay by David Self. However, as of May 2012 Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has stated that “to the best of his knowledge” the rights to Namor, the Sub-Mariner currently resides with Marvel. Further evidence that Namor has reverted back to Marvel can be found at the end of Iron Man 2 in the scene where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is debriefed by Nick Fury of SHIELD. On a computer screen in the background a world map noting several areas that the spy organization is monitoring we can see one area in the Atlantic Ocean marked, supposedly the location of Namor’s undersea kingdom of Atlantis.
Daredevil/Elektra – Based on who we see in New Regency/Fox’s 2003 Daredevil film and its spinoff Elektra, we can get a pretty good list of characters that are included in the rights package. (Twentieth Century Fox is the production company’s distributor.) This gives us Matt Murdock/Daredevil, his father Jack Murdock, Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, love interest Elektra Natchios, her father Nikolas Natchios, crime lord Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin,” villain Bullseye, reporter Ben Urich, Karen Page, Typhoid Mary, martial arts master Stick, the evil ninja clan known as The Hand headed by assassin Kirigi, Hand members Stone and Tattoo and the Chaste, the Hand’s secluded base of training and operations.
Furthermore, sequel discussions at the time of Daredevil’s release mentioned Mister Fear as a possible villain for a second film indicate that he is included. Other villains that are included in the Daredevil rights package probably include the Owl, Stilt-Man, Gladiator, Death-Stalker, Cobra and Mr. Hyde and Man-Bull, though no mention has been made of any of them specifically.
One Daredevil villain, the Purple Man, has an important role in the backstory of Jessica Jones, lead character in the recent comics series Alias. Marvel is currently developing a television series based on Alias, but it is unknown if the Purple Man is available to be included in the show or if his rights are still under the Daredevil agreement. Of course, if Fox doesn’t have cameras rolling on a new Daredevil film by the contractual rights reversion date of October 10 then the question as to who owns the rights to the villain becomes moot.
One thing that that Fox’s Daredevil rights doesn’t include is the right to use the Marvel Comics universe’s paper of record, The Daily Bugle. The rights for the Bugle are part and parcel of the Spider-Man rights over at Sony/Universal, leaving Fox to make the real-life tabloid The New York Post Daredevil supporting character reporter Ben Urich’s employer.
Ghost Rider – Universal has not had much luck at the box office with their two attempts to brong the supernatural character Ghost Rider to the big screen. With the casting the Norse gods of the Thor movies as humanoid aliens with technology so advanced that it appears to be magic, these movies are the only ones that explore the supernatural side of Marvel Comics. Judging from the two films starring Nick Cage, in addition to the characters of Johnny Blaze and his demonic counterpart Zarathos, the studio appears to have the film rights to the characters Blackout, Mephistopheles, Carter Slade/the Phantom Rider and Blackheart. However, if Marvel goes ahead with the previously talked about Doctor Strange film that would explore Marvel’s mystical side, none of these characters would be considered necessary for it as Marvel’s mystical roster is fairly deep and most of them probably reside outside of the Ghost Rider rights.
Spider-Man – Spider-Man has one of the most interesting supporting casts and one of the most dynamic rogues galleries in comics. And Sony most likely owns the rights to all of them.
The Amazing Spider-Man has shown that Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Aunt May, Uncle Ben, Richard and Mary Parker, Gwen Stacy, George Stacy, Flash Thompson, Curt Connors/Lizard, Norman Osborn/Green Goblin and the Daily Bugle are actively being used in the reboot franchise. Since most of these characters have appeared in some form in the Sam Raimi pre-reboot trilogy, it’s highly likely that Sony still owns all the characters from that series as well, meaning we might see Harry Osborn, Mary Jane Watson, Mendel Strom, the Daily Bugle staff (J. Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson, Betty Brant, et al), John Jameson, Doctor Octopus, Sandman and Venom in the future installments of the reboot.
And, since there have been so many aborted tries at getting various Spider-Man films on the screen, we have a good idea at what other Spider-Man characters Sony owns rights to. James Cameron’s script treatment that he did while the Spider-Man rights were at Cannon/Carolco featured Electro as one of the villains, so that character has to be included in the film rights. Sam Raimi was developing a fourth film of his franchise, one that would have had the Vulture and Felicia Hardy (who may or may not have been her comic book identity, the Black Cat, in this film). Rumor has it that one of the reason Raimi left the franchise was because the producers were trying to force the director to use latter day Spidey villain, Carnage. If so, that’s another character they could use.
Outside of that, it’s fair to say that Sony has rights to Spider-Man villains such as Hobgoblin and Demogoblin (both of which tie into the Green Goblin character), Chameleon, Jackal, Kraven the Hunter, Molten Man and Tombstone, all of whom are pretty much exclusively Spider-Man villains. They might also have rights to foes such as Scorpion, Mysterio and Rhino, a trio who started off as Spidey bad guys yet have fought other Marvel heroes. When you get to villains such as the Beetle and Boomerang, the rights issue gets murkier, because those characters have appeared in enough of other character’s books that they aren’t considered true Spider-Man villains, therefore probably not included in the rights Sony owns.
Several Spider-Man characters that Sony definitely does not own are Cloak and Dagger, who Marvel is developing a TV show for the ABC Family Channel with, Kingpin, who Fox owns rights to due to his connection to the Daredevil universe, and Morbius, whose rights were owned by New Line through their agreement to make a Blade film (he was meant to be the villain for a potential sequel), and whose rights reverted back to Marvel with Blade’s.
X-Men: – Conventional wisdom states that the agreement made between Marvel Comics and Fox for the X-Men film gives rights to all Marvel’s mutant characters to the studio. This makes sense because there are literally hundreds of mutants created in Marvel X-Men family of books. And the conventional wisdom does seem true because Fox has packed numerous mutants into the X-Men films, even including such obscure characters as Phat and Glob Herman. And given the number of X-books Marvel publishes in any given month, Fox has not really begun to scratch beyond the surface of what they can exploit.
But where this becomes problematic is that mutants have spread to pretty much all aspects of Marvel’s comic book output. For instance, Cloak and Dagger and Sub-Mariner are mutants and former members of the X-Men, yet their rights are held by Marvel. Franklin Richards, son or the Fantastic Four’s Reed and Susan Richards, is a mutant (not really a problem for Fox as they own the rights to the character regardless). And then there’s Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch.
Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch first appeared as members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants way back in 1964′s X-Men #4. They were later revealed to be the son and daughter of X-Men villain Magneto. However, a large part of their comic book career was spent in the Avengers books, and both have contributed to many notable storylines in that title. Both also were members of the Ultimates, the version of the Avengers created for Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics, the universe where much of the feel and plot points for Marvel’s film universe is taken.
So, who owns the rights to these characters: Fox or Marvel? The answer is yes.
Kevin Feige, during an interview promoting the European premiere of The Avengers, stated that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are owned by both Fox and Marvel, and either studio could use them in their films much like the arrangement for the right to the Fantastic Four villains, the Skrulls.
Of course, the rights situations for any of these characters could change at any time, depending on the terms of each individual contract. Though we would suspect that over time Marvel Studio will eventually see most, if not all of their characters come home to live under the same corporate roof again.
-Rich Drees and William Gatevackes contributed to this article.