Superheroes That Marvel Does Not Own the Rights to Anymore

With all the superhero movies coming out nowadays, there’s a lot of money to be madeThe Avengers alone made $1.5 billion worldwide according to IMDb, while franchises like Spider-Man have made a habit of breaking box office records. Way back before they were cash cows though, Marvel saw their various superheroes as commodities to be sold off to make a quick buck. Starting as early as 1985, franchises were offered up to studios like Sony, 20th Century Fox, and more, culminating in a whole mess of reasons why Marvel can’t bring characters they themselves created into the cinematic fold.

Each studio with a Marvel property keeps it jealously guarded, knowing full well the moneymaking potential each respective franchise represents. While it would make sense for the rights to return to their original creators, the current owners have kept an iron grip since they first acquired their various properties.

1. Spider-Man

Owned by: Sony Pictures (and Marvel, sort of)

Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in Spider-Man: Homecoming
Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in Spider-Man: Homecoming | Marvel

Eight years before Marvel Studios even existed, the comic book publishing house sold the rights to Spider-Man and so ensued a series of acquisitions and contracts that eventually landed it at Sony Pictures. They, in turn, raked in over an estimated $800 million at worldwide box offices with their first movie, spawning two more sequels and an eventual series reboot. However, since the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the franchise came to a screeching halt in the wake of sub-par box office returns.

A bargain struck between Marvel and Sony though has blurred the lines of ownership. The agreement reached by both studios goes as follows: Sony retains the standalone movie rights to Spider-Man, Marvel gets creative control over the web-slinger in all formats, and both parties get to walk away rich. Marvel’s already included a recast Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, and can continue to have him appear in future properties. On Sony’s side, 2017’s release of Spider-Man: Homecoming will mark their first collaborative film with Marvel.

2. The Fantastic Four

Owned by: 20th Century Fox

Fantastic Four
Fantastic Four | 20th Century Fox

Back in 2005, 20th Century Fox thought they had the next big movie franchise when they released their Fantastic Four movie. However, after one flop of a sequel, the franchise remained dormant until Fox released a similarly reviled reboot.

The big problem here is that any new character created within this universe by Marvel in the comics automatically becomes the property of Fox. This, in turn, led to speculation that the recent cancellation of the Fantastic Four comic series was a direct response to that. Marvel even reportedly issued an edict where, according to A.V. Club, writers were “forbidden to create new characters,” lest they end up in Fox’s pocket in theaters.

In an even stranger turn of events, rumors flew around that Marvel and Fox had apparently come to an accord over the rights, putting the Fantastic Four firmly back in Marvel’s hands. Both studios soon came out and refuted this, but it still makes us wonder: Is something in the works? Perhaps it was a preliminary deal that has yet to be finalized, or maybe even worse, an agreed-upon deal that fell through at the last second. 

3. X-Men

Owned by: 20th Century Fox (sort of)

X-Men: First Class
X-Men: First Class | 20th Century Fox

Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men film found itself as the first commercial success for a superhero movie, getting the ball rolling for the next decade plus of franchises. But 20th Century Fox’s rights for the X-Men contain some strange loopholes. First and foremost, Fox does still need Marvel to sign off on all television deals regarding the X-Men in any capacity. Second, Fox completely owns the right to the term “mutant,” and by extension any characters who are part of the X-Men in the comic universe.

On the other side of the aisle, Marvel owns the rights to the Avengers and any character who was a primary member of that team in print. Two characters, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, have historically been members of both superhero teams, making it so both Marvel and Fox have the films rights to these characters.

Is your head spinning yet? Because it’s about to get worse. Fox’s ownership of the word “mutant” makes it so the Avengers lose Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s origin stories as Magneto’s offspring (and by extension, mutants), but not the characters themselves. What Marvel’s done instead is claim they were part of experiments by Hydra to create superhumans, integrating them into Avengers: Age of Ultron. The legal rights to each are incredibly twisted and convoluted, but when this much money is on the line it’s always going to be.

4. Deadpool

Owned by: 20th Century Fox

Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool | 20th Century Fox

Back in 2009, we saw our first ever film appearance from Deadpool, the iconic fourth-wall-breaking merc with a mouth, in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He was played by Ryan Reynolds and, in the end, gave us a version of the character that only served to anger fans when he ended up as a mouthless mutant zombie.

However, fans were pleased when the popular character was given a much-needed redemption through his own standalone movie. The positive buzz around the reboot has even led Fox to confirm that a Deadpool sequel is in the works. But as a character at least loosely affiliated with the X-Men, his rights belong solely to Fox for the foreseeable future. Sorry, Marvel.

5.  Namor

Owned by: Universal (maybe?) Marvel

Namor | Marvel

Namor is one of the oldest characters in the Marvel universe, created way back in 1939 when the publishing house was bankrupt and selling off property like candy. Known as “The Sub-Mariner,” he’s the Marvel equivalent to DC’s Aquaman, often finding himself crossing paths with the X-Men and the Avengers. But neither Universal nor Marvel (allegedly) completely own the rights to the character.

In 2014, detailed the long, strange saga, where, despite owning some form of rights to Namor, Marvel still can’t green-light a movie thanks to legal complications with Universal. That same article cites a quote from Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, saying that while they technically retain rights, “there are older contracts that still involve other parties that mean we need to work things out before we move forward on it.”

However, in 2016, Marvel Chief Joe Quesada came out and clarified Marvel’s ownership of the Sub-Mariner, stating that the rights currently belong to Marvel Studios. When pressed on whether Namor would be appearing in the MCU anytime soon, he cryptically teased that he “cannot confirm or deny.”

6. The Silver Surfer

Owned by: 20th Century Fox

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer | 20th Century Fox

We saw the Silver Surfer show up in the second Fantastic Four movie, but since then he hasn’t been seen or heard from again. As an iconic character that really could hold his own franchise, it’s baffling, to say the least, to see him sidelined the way he has been in the cinematic universe. Maybe it’s the fact that Fox doesn’t predict a silver space alien will connect with audiences, or perhaps they intend to reintegrate him back into a Fantastic Four sequel. Whatever the reason, the Surfer has remained curiously absent.

Marvel Studios likely saw the same franchise opportunity. In an alleged proposal by Marvel Studios reported by Collider back in 2012, the studio said they would send the rights to Daredevil over to Fox in exchange for the Silver Surfer. Alas, the trade never came to fruition, leaving the Surfer in the hands of Fox.

7. Galactus

Owned by: 20th Century Fox

Galactus in Marvel Comics
Galactus | Marvel Comics

Galactus is widely recognized as one of Marvel’s biggest, baddest villains, existing right up there with the likes of Thanos. Unfortunately, because 20th Century Fox owns the rights to the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer, that brings Galactus under their umbrella as well. His function as the Fantastic Four’s primary villain puts him firmly in Fox’s camp for the foreseeable future, keeping him absent from the MCU indefinitely.

8. The Incredible Hulk

Owned by: Universal (sort of)

The Incredible Hulk
The Hulk | Universal

This one may come as a bit of a surprise to many fans, especially with the Incredible Hulk having been a key player in both of Marvel’s Avengers movies. The thing is, Marvel’s rights to the character are a tad dicey, to say the least. While they do hold production rights to the Hulk, Universal actually still has distribution rights. That means for any standalone Hulk movie Marvel makes, Universal prints the physical film, they negotiate with individual theaters, and they have the final say on when it releases, as well as the format it goes out on. In short, they’d receive a massive cut of the spoils, which explains why Marvel hasn’t given the character his own film since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. 

9. Wolverine

Owned by: 20th Century Fox

Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins Wolverine
Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: Wolverine | Fox

It stands to reason that ownership of the X-Men and Deadpool gives 20th Century Fox the rights to Wolverine as well, but it’s still worth mentioning all the same. Wolverine has been the central figure in Fox’s mutant saga since it first began in 2000, since spawning three standalone films. We saw Hugh Jackman take his last turn in the role in the film Loganleaving us to wonder whether his days are numbered on-screen.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest.

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