Superhero Movie Rights: Who Really Owns the X-Men?

X-Men in Marvel Comics
X-Men | Marvel Comics

Owning the movie rights to any well-known superhero gives a studio a golden ticket. It opens the door for a nigh infinite series of sequels, spinoffs, and reboots, all typically resulting in massive returns at the box office. But while DC/Warner owns all the rights to every one of its various comic book characters, Marvel’s are divided among a slew of other studios. Back when the idea of a superhero franchise was unheard of, it sold off a handful of characters to make a quick buck: Spider-Man went to Sony, Universal snagged Namor, and 20th Century Fox made out with the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and the X-Men. Daredevil has since reverted back to its original owners at Marvel Studios, but the X-Men (and Fantastic Four) remain firmly in the hands of Fox.

Barring some sort of disaster, the only way Marvel gets the X-Men back is to pry them from Fox’s cold, dead fingers. Still, that doesn’t mean the two studios aren’t actively at war over loopholes in their agreement. From shared characters to hazy requirements for TV rights, there are a series of small battles being fought right now. The first X-Men movie started the whole modern superhero craze back in 2000, and in many ways is the spiritual predecessor to Marvel’s own Cinematic Universe. With this much money at stake, no one’s going to stop asking: Who really owns the X-Men?

1. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch

Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch - Avengers: Age of Ultron
Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in Age of Ultron | Marvel

The most glaring loophole in Fox’s X-Men deal involves shared characters: They have the exclusive rights to any and all mutants from Marvel’s comics, with the exception of characters who were primary members of the Avengers. So because Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver number themselves among some of the original Avengers in the comics, their movie rights belong to both studios.

The caveat: Only 20th Century Fox can use the term “mutant,” meaning Marvel’s version of the characters needed a different origin story. All that is why we have two Quicksilvers, played by Evan Peters in Fox’s X-Men franchise, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Age of Ultron (but doesn’t explain why there’s been no Scarlet Witch yet for X-Men).

2. Marvel’s plan to sabotage Fox’s X-Men movies

X-Men: Apocalypse - 20th Century Fox
X-Men: Apocalypse | 20th Century Fox

Just because Fox has an already-established franchise of movies doesn’t mean Marvel’s ever going to play ball. In fact, it’s actively (or passive aggressively) doing what it can to hamstring all the various X-Men films. The Nerdist podcast got the details a couple years ago from X-Men comic writer Chris Claremont.

Claremont: I have to say, quite honestly as I understand it, now the X department is forbidden to create new characters.

Nerdist: Well… who owns them?

Claremont: All because all new characters become the film property of Fox. There will be no X-Men merchandising for the foreseeable future because, why promote Fox material?

The gist: The movie rights to every new character in the X-Men comics go straight to 20th Century Fox. If Marvel were to continuously stock their comics with new mutants, they’d be providing ammunition for their competition.

It explains why 16 years after the first X-Men movie, we’re still seeing the same seven characters driving the story: Because Fox quite literally doesn’t have new ones at its disposal.

Ultimate X-Men
Wolverine in Ultimate X-Men | Marvel

This strategy of sabotage goes far deeper than limiting the comic material. As Business Insider points out, “Marvel’s shop page includes only three X-Men items in a list of 60 featured-product popular picks,” while “Marvel’s subscriptions page features more than 50 titles, and only four of them star characters from the X-Men.”

This isn’t an unprecedented move. In fact, the studio’s gone a step further in the past, evidenced by its shenanigans with the Fantastic Four comics. A similar “no new character” ban was employed there too, before Marvel straight up cancelled the entire series, citing low sales as the primary factor.

Of course, with Fox clinging to the Fantastic Four movie rights for dear life, it’s not hard to see the link between that and Marvel doing away with the comics entirely.

3. The X-Men TV rights are where things get hazy

Marvel Comics
X-Men | Marvel Comics

Now here’s where it’s not so black and white. Back in 2001, Marvel debuted a TV series call Mutant Xjust a year after Fox released the first X-Men movie. The two eventually went to court over the use of the mutant brand, with Fox arguing that the similarities between the TV show and its own movies were a breach of its agreement with Marvel. A judge eventually allowed the show to premiere, while Fox and Marvel settled out of court two years later. All this did little to clarify who owns what rights when it comes to the realm of television, with things being a little less defined.

No one seems to have any concrete answers as to who owns what regarding the X-Men TV rights. Rumors have been swirling around for a while now about Fox needing Marvel’s permission to green-light its own mutant-based TV series.

According to sources at The Hollywood Reporter, Fox needs Marvel to sign off on any and all television deals regarding the X-Men, something that could likely have been one of the terms of the Mutant X settlement back in 2003. As of now, Fox has two planned shows in the works, Legion and an as-yet-untitled X-Men spinoff series.

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