Caped Crusader Copyright Complications

How Copyright and Character Licensing Agreements Shape the Storylines of Superheroes in the Entertainment Industry
November 7, 2016

If you are anything like me (and hopefully not), you spend an unacceptable amount of time trying to discover the “truth” behind every superhero you see on screen. Considering the current state of the entertainment industry, that leaves a lot of truth to uncover.

In so doing, you undoubtedly uncovered variations between the superheroes’ latest incarnations and their comic book counterparts. Some differences are attributable to artistic integrity or translation across mediums, but more often than not copyright and licensing agreements are the real villains pulling the puppet strings of plotlines and crossovers.

Marvel’s library includes Iron Man and the Avengers, the X-Men, Spider-Man, and more than 8,000 other characters.[1] While both the band of mutants and the web slinger have at times been a part of the rotating cast of Avengers,[2] the power to produce them all in one film together remains exceedingly elusive, if not impossible. With so much superhero saturation these days, and much more[3] still to come, this topic can be unwieldy and overwhelming, if not already overanalyzed.[4]  Thus, I’ve chosen to highlight just a few recent examples of superhero storylines shaped by character licensing. First, a quick origin story:

In 1993, Fox obtained the exclusive movie rights to the “X-Men Property” from Marvel Studios’ comic book publisher predecessor.[5] The result has been nine X-Men movies, with a tenth confirmed for release and others in development.[6] The movie rights to Spider-Man, after much legal and financial entanglement,[7] landed in the web of Sony Pictures in 1999, culminating in five films under their exclusive control.[8]

Marvel Studios would eventually reacquire most of the other rights it licensed off during these tumultuous times, mostly thanks to reversion clauses that periodically required new movies or resulted in forfeiture of the characters’ rights back to Marvel.[9] Then in 2008, a year before the Mouse’s acquisition of the Studio, Marvel independently produced Iron Man, but distributed the film through Paramount, officially launching the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).[10] Doctor Strange, released on November 4, 2016, is their fourteenth movie in this unprecedented cinema venture.[11]

 

Logan’s Last Licks:

Hugh Jackman will don the claws for his ninth and final time in Logan, the tenth X-Men movie, slated for release on March 3, 2017.[12] The plot is said to be loosely based on the “Old Man Logan” plotline from the comics,[13] with loosely being the operative word, thanks to copyright complications.

In the comics, an elderly Logan is living in a United States territorially divided amongst supervillains.[14] Unfortunately, the movie licensing rights for many of the story’s antagonists are currently dispersed across multiple studios. For example, while the Abomination (from the Incredible Hulk) and the Red Skull (from Captain America) are Marvel-owned, Magneto (the evil leader of the X-Men) and Dr. Doom (a supervillain from The Fantastic Four franchise) remain with Fox, and Kingpin (a Spider-Man villain) is stuck somewhere between Disney and Sony.[15]

The printed tale takes Logan and Hawkeye (a current Marvel-movie Avenger) on an adventure laden with many references to more Avengers in key plot points (like Logan’s use of Captain America’s shield or Iron Man’s suit).[16] So while some base elements of that story will remain the same, such as Logan renouncing the title of Wolverine in his weakened older age (only to be awesomely forced back into his old ways), the film adaptation stands to be drastically different from the comics since none of the integral pieces of the Avengers are available for Fox’s use.[17] But these studios can play nice somewhere, right?

 

The Deadpool Dilemma (That Worked!):

Ryan Reynolds first debuted as the “Merc with a Mouth” in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine – a role that did not garner much success for the Fox franchise’s antihero.[18] Yet persistence and passion were key, as Reynolds would reprise the role as lead in the 2016 self-titled theatrical release, produced by Marvel Studios, but ultimately budgeted and controlled by distributor and movie rights-owner Fox.[19]

Since Deadpool is known for breaking the fourth wall, the licensing restrictions provided much fodder for the script in the form of self-deprecating humor.[20] Commenting on the lack of X-Men appearing in the movie thanks to the multi-studio arrangement, Deadpool continuously says things like, “Wow, this is such a big house, but I only ever see the two of you here. It’s like the studio didn’t have enough money for any more X-Men.”[21] As a glaring example, this is the only installment of the X-Men movie franchise in which Wolverine does not make an appearance.[22]

So sadly, while Deadpool can’t have any friends, the Avengers recently reunited with an old one.

 

Spider-Man Swings Back into the Avengers:

Captain America 3: Civil War marked the web slinger’s return to his rightful place as one of the Avengers,[23] but he hasn’t completely migrated back to Marvel just yet. The crossover happened thanks to a new licensing agreement and collaborative effort between Sony and Marvel, whereby Spider-Man gets to join the MCU, but Sony maintains final creative control of the franchise’s third cinematic incarnation. [24] Thus, Spider-Man: Homecoming (Spidey’s next solo film set for release in 2017), will be controlled and distributed by Sony, but produced collaboratively with Marvel Studios.[25]

While this deal’s structure for the future remains largely unknown, this opens up the floodgates for crossovers as the comic book canon originally intended. So will the Avengers appear in Sony’s Spidey stand-alone? Perhaps – but at least for the first time in a long time, fans of the franchise can have some real hope for what the future may bring.

 

Conclusion

These examples are only a small fraction of the ways in which copyright and character licensing agreements impact how fans experience some of their most beloved heroes today. Perhaps most disturbing of all is that the comics themselves are now being affected by the fallout from these licensing agreements. Marvel has been altering storylines, refusing to adapt new characters, and reducing the overall prominence of the X-Men and Fantastic Four in print and merchandise in an attempt to starve Fox of new content and free movie marketing.[26] The people who feel the impact the most from these spiteful tactics, however, are the fans and consumers.

So while it is very sad knowing that Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine will never battle alongside Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, it is interesting to see how today’s creators are forced to alter their productions thanks to the mess created by Marvel’s era of licensing. As superheroes continue to dominate the big screen, the small screen,[27] and our computer screens,[28] it will be fascinating to watch these characters and universes evolve as shaped by the copyright and licensing complications that are part of every heroes’ origin.


[1] See About Marvel: Corporate Information, Marvel, http://marvel.com/corporate/about (last visited Oct. 20, 2016).

[2] See Avengers, Marvel: Marvel Universe Wiki, http://marvel.com/universe/Avengers (last visited Oct. 20, 2016).

[3] See Andrew Wheeler, Your Supermovie Timeline [Infographic], Comics Alliance, http://comicsalliance.com/your-supermovie-timeline-updated-with-marvel-studios-phase-three-releases-infographic/ (last updated Mar. 1, 2016).

[4] See Don Kaye, From Avengers to X-Men: A Brief History of Superhero Movies, Rolling Stone(Apr. 22, 2015), http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/from-avengers-to-x-men-a-brief-history-of-superhero-movies-20150422?page=4.

[5] See Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. v. Marvel Enters., 155 F. Supp. 2d 1, 7-8 (S.D.N.Y. 2001) (outlining the details of the 1993 Agreement between Fox and Marvel for the X-Men franchise).

[6] See George Simpson, Confused By the Crazy X-Men Movie Timeline? Our X-pert Explains Everything, Express: Films (May 20, 2016, 6:20 PM), http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/672337/X-Men-movie-timeline-explained-X-Men-Apocalypse-Essex-Corp (last updated May 23, 2016, 3:33 PM).

[7] See Ronald Grover, Unraveling Spider-Man’s Tangled Web, Bloomberg (Apr. 15, 2002, 12:00 AM), http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2002-04-14/unraveling-spider-mans-tangled-web.

[8] See Spider-Man Movies in Order, MoviesOrder.com, https://moviesorder.com/spiderman/ (last visited Oct. 24, 2016).

[9] See Laura Rosenfeld, Your Guide to Which Movie Studios Own Marvel Characters, Tech Times (Aug. 5, 2015, 1:34 PM), http://www.techtimes.com/articles/74172/20150805/your-guide-to-which-movie-studios-own-marvel-characters.htm.

[10] See id.

[11] Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Marvel, http://marvel.com/doctorstrangepremiere (last visited Oct. 20, 2016).

[12] Logan, Twentieth Century Fox: Coming Soon, http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/logan (last visited Oct. 20, 2016).

[13] See Jamie Lovett, The Wolverine Sequel Budget Revealed, Comicbook.com (May 31, 2016), http://comicbook.com/2016/05/31/the-wolverine-sequel-budget-revealed/.

[14] See Wolverine: Old Man Logan – The Complete Story, Comic Island, http://comicisland.org/wolverine-old-man-logan-the-complete-story/ (last visited Oct. 20, 2016).

[15] See Rosenfeld, supra note 9.

[16] See Wolverine: Old Man Logan – The Complete Story, supra note 13.

[17] See Rosenfeld, supra n.9.

[18] See Josh Rottenberg, Ryan Reynolds on Putting Blood, Sweat, and 10 Years of His Life into ‘Deadpool’, L.A. Times (Feb. 12, 2016, 2:15 PM), http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/herocomplex/la-et-hc-ryan-reynolds-deadpool-20160209-story.html.

[19] See Motley Fool Staff, “Deadpool” Shows How Complicated Character Rights Issues Are, The Motley Fool (Feb. 26, 2016, 10:07 PM), http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2016/02/26/deadpool-shows-how-complicated-character-rights-is.aspx.

[20] See David Clark, “Deadpool” and IP: Copyrights, Character Licensing Rights, and Comic Book Movie Adaptations, Generic Fair Use (Mar. 10, 2016), http://www.genericfairuse.com/2016/03/10/deadpool-and-ip-copyrights/.

[21] See id.

[22] See Adam Holmes, Why Wolverine and Taskmaster Were Removed From the Deadpool Script, Cinema Blend: News (Feb. 2016), http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Why-Wolverine-Taskmaster-Were-Removed-From-Deadpool-Script-112647.html.

[23] See Spider-Man (Peter Parker), Marvel: Marvel Universe Wiki, http://marvel.com/universe/Spider-man (last visited Oct. 20, 2016).

[24] See Sony Pictures Entertainment Brings Marvel Studios into the Amazing World of Spider-Man, Marvel: News (Feb. 9, 2015), http://marvel.com/news/movies/24062/sony_pictures_entertainment_brings_marvel_studios_into_the_amazing_world_of_spider-man.

[25] See id.

[26] See David Gonzales, Marvel is Killing X-Men and Fantastic Four Merchandising, Forbes: Media & Entertainment (May 31, 2015, 7:52 PM), http://www.forbes.com/sites/davegonzales/2015/05/31/marvel-is-killing-x-men-and-fantastic-four-merchandising/#44d2ffbc5857.

[27] See Molly Freeman, The CW Unveils 2016-17 TV Season Schedule, Screen Rant (May 19, 2016), http://screenrant.com/cw-schedule-arrow-flash-supergirl-legends-of-tomorrow/ (detailing the CW Network’s four different DC superhero shows).

[28] See Nick Cannata-Bowman, Your Guide to the Heroes of Marvel’s Netflix Shows, TV CheatSheet: Entertainment (Oct. 6, 2016), http://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/your-guide-to-the-heroes-of-marvels-netflix-shows.html/?a=viewall (describing the series of intertwined Marvel superhero shows on Netflix).