Is That Really a Marvel Movie? On the Confusing State of Comic Book Films and Shared Universes

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Deadpool is a monster hit. It has shattered records and proven that an R-rated superhero film can not only work, but be a massive success. In everything I’ve read and heard, it keeps getting repeated that Deadpool is a Marvel film.

And that’s true…but it’s also false.

Huh?

The same goes for Fantastic Four and Wolverine. Have you ever wondered why they keep making X-Men and Spider-Man films? It’s so the film rights don’t revert back to their original owner.

They’re Marvel characters, but not part of the Marvel film world.

Confused?

To understand how this works, we have to go back to the beginning, because while DC and Marvel have become the two major comic book publishers and we live in a world dominated by superhero flicks, both have gone through a number of changes and iterations over the years.


In 1969, National Comics merged with Warner Bros./7 Arts. Eight years later, National Comics officially became DC Comics. Warner has owned DC since then, but did not begin making comic book films until Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. Prior to that, the rights to the DC characters that had been brought to screen – Superman (played by George Reeves in the ’50s and Christopher Reeve in the ’70s and ’80s), Batman (played by Adam West in 1966), Supergirl, and Swamp Thing – had been produced by other movie studios.

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Warner Bros. still owns DC, so every film based on characters from DC Comics since Batman has been a WB production, either wholly or as part of a joint deal. So the good – Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – the bad – Halle Berry’s Catwoman – and the ugly – Ryan Reynolds’s Green Lantern – are all Warner Bros. properties. The same is true of DC’s upcoming films and its recent television work like Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, etc.

This means that these characters can move between shows and films, as they are all (generally) under the same banner.

Marvel’s situation is not so clear.


When it started in 1939, it began as Timely Publications, then became known as Atlas Comics until, finally, in 1961, it became Marvel. Unlike DC with Warner Bros., Marvel was not owned by or connected to any movie studio, so each property was available to any company that wanted to make movies. In the mid-1990s, Marvel was facing bankruptcy, so it began selling off the rights to its biggest characters. As a result, the Marvel characters were spread out – Blade went to New Line Cinema (now, ironically, a subsidiary of Warner Bros.), Spider-Man and Ghost Rider went to Columbia Pictures (a division of Sony), and X-MenDaredevil, and Fantastic Four all went to 20th Century Fox. Each created their own stories separate of one another.

It wasn’t until 2005 that Marvel finally decided to create its own studio, the first major independent studio since DreamWorks. It used the film rights it still owned as collateral and, two years later, named 33-year-old Kevin Feige as the head of the studio.

Feige had big plans. He wanted to create a world of multiple superheroes with shared and overlapping storylines, but he couldn’t bring together Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic Four because they were owned by other studios. So what could he do?

All Marvel had left was a cast of lesser costume heroes such as Captain America, whose popularity peaked when he was pummeling Nazis during World War II; Thor, a golden-haired Norse god who spoke in a puzzling Shakespearean dialect; and Ant-Man, a hero who wore a large helmet and could shrink down to the size of an insect.

Thus, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was born.

Since 2008, there have been 12 films in the MCU – three Iron Mans, two Captain Americas, two Thors, two Avengers, an Incredible Hulk, a Guardians of the Galaxy, and an Ant-Man and they have grossed a combined $9 billion globally as well as a host of TV shows including Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Agent CarterDaredevil, and Jessica Jones. Even more importantly, they have introduced the concept of a shared universe, something that every studio is working hard to replicate, most notably WB’s own attempt at its own version of The Avengers with a Justice League universe, beginning with the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice followed by Suicide Squad.

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A major reason for the MCU’s success is that Feige did one thing that most of the other previous superhero films had not done. It was so monumental that it has transformed all of Hollywood. He formed a committee of six individuals, all of whom knew their comics, and made a vow that MCU films would focus on the die-hard comic fans first and follow the source material:

As Feige consumed stacks of Marvel comics, he wondered why others working on X-Men didn’t do the same. “I would hear people, other executives, struggling over a character point, or struggling over how to make a connection, or struggling over how to give even surface-level depth to an action scene or to a character,” Feige recalls. “I’d be sitting there reading the comics going, ‘Look at this. Just do this. This is incredible.’ ”

In 2009, Disney bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion.

Feige had cracked the code. He hired smart, talented people and gave them some direction (maybe too much at times) and ensured that every story was able to stand on its own while also incorporating things from other films, even if it is simply a joke or visual reference.

Which brings us to today.

Other studios have attempted to follow Feige’s lead. Some of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men films have been good, others have not. Last summer’s Fantastic Four was supposed to kick start its own run of films for Fox, but was a massive flop.

Sony has produced five Spider-Man films since 2002, but none were all that memorable, so rather than compete, they have decided on a joint venture with Marvel, bringing Spider-Man into the world of Iron-Man and Black Widow for the first time. He will appear in this spring’s Captain America: Civil War and will have his own MCU film in 2017.

20th Century Fox is still holding out, stubbornly determined to go at it alone, a decision that appeared unwise until Deadpool‘s record-shattering performance. Still, Marvel is not playing around. In an amazing reversal of fortune, X-Men and Fantastic Four, once the top names for Marvel, are being phased out of the comics because of Fox’s ownership of their film rights.

It appears that Marvel is planning on a future without them.


If you’re fatigued by comic book films, I have bad news for you. There are two DC films coming out this year, eight more currently in various stages of production, and even more planned after that. There is even a rumor that a new Batman trilogy is also in the works.

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On the Marvel side, there are two films entering the MCU in 2016 with nine more slated in the coming years.

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And that doesn’t even count Deadpool or the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse, let alone characters not connected to either Marvel or DC like Spawn or Conan the Barbarian. Every studio is now trying to create an expanded, interconnected universe, from Call of Duty to Ghostbusters to classic horror monsters, so you better know your MCU.

Let’s recap:

  • Avengers, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Captain Marvel: all connected as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • X-Men, Deadpool, Fantastic Four: not part of the MCU and some are possibly being phased out.
  • Spider-Man: was not part of the MCU previously, but will be going forward.

Got all that? Good. Have fun explaining it to your older relatives.


Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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