Superhero Rights: The Story So Far

A Tangled Web (ORIGINAL)

In 1986, Marvel Film Studios made a decision that almost ruined them and continues to have a lasting impact to this day- Howard The Duck: The Movie. This live action telling of the anthropomorphic ducks story was so poorly received that Howard wouldn’t be seen again until 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Even then, his return was met with almost unanimous backlash from fans. The biggest blow-back came financially, with the film only making $38 million from its $37 million budget and on top of this, interest in Superheroes was dwindling. In order to save the company from bankruptcy, they would sell the rights of some of their most famous characters to rival studios. X-Men and the Fantastic four as well as Daredevil and Electra made their way to 20th Century Fox while The Incredible Hulk ended up at Universal . Finally, Spider-man and almost all of his character roster went to Sony, which brings us to the 2000s.

In 2002, director Sam Raimi brought Spider-man to the big screen for the first time. Featuring the origin of our titular hero, born Peter Parker, and the Green Goblin, born Norman Osborne, Spider-man was a huge success financially and with fans. Both Mary Jane Watson, his love interest, and J. Jonah Jameson, his boss, would make their appearances. Despite Tobey Maguire clearly being 26 years old playing a teenager, his performance was well received, leading to a sequel in 2004.

Spider-man 2, for the longest time, was the gold standard against which Spider-man films were measured. The film featured Doctor Otto Octavious in a heartbreaking origin story as well as James Franco continuing his story arc as Peters best friend  Harry Osbourne. The film was given more praise than the first leading to the third and final installment in 2007.

Spider-man 3 was not the perfect landing that many had expected. The film featured fan favourites Venom and Sandman as well as The New Goblin, but many decreed that this was too many characters to try and focus on. Though there are those, like myself, who have a softspot for Spider-man 3 it was the last time we would see Tobey Maguire don the suit of the web slinger.

While Spider-man 3 was hitting cinemas across the globe, work was already beginning on Spider-man 4. Sadly, disagreements between Sam Raimi and Sony, as well as the pressure to deliver a perfect film, and various writers being unable to pen a script, Spider-man 4 would never see the light of day. However many of its details, through interviews with Raimi and storyboards, reveal what may have been. Supposedly it would feature The Vulture, The Lizard, Black Cat and Mysterio. As it transpires, each of thee characters had a part to play in Spidey’s future.

In 2012, under a new direction, The Amazing Spider-man hit our screens with Andrew Garfield as the new Peter Parker. Once again we would receive his backstory, but this time featuring Gwen Stacy as his love interest and The Lizard as his villain. It did well enough, garnering mostly positive reviews which praised it for the new direction that the franchise was taking.

The Amazing Spider-man 2 was released in 2014 and was not given its predecessor’s praise. It featured The Green Goblin, Electro and Rhino as well as the death of Gwen Stacey, which was deemed too much by general audiences. It was supposed to be the jumping off point for a cinematic universe, much like the MCU, and the news coverage means that the plans for this universe are not difficult to find. The Sinister Six were to play a huge part going forward but all plans were scrapped and Sony came back to, the now immensely popular, Marvel Studios for help.

By 2015, Sony and Marvel had reached an agreement. Spider-man and all the characters that came with him, would star in Marvel films with Sony having final creative control. There were 2 films still in production at the time of this merger, Venom and Into The Spider-verse, which were both released in 2018, with the latter receiving highly positive reviews.

Meanwhile in the MCU, Tom Holland was cast as Peter Parker and in 2016 made his debut in Captain America: Civil War. This would be followed by Spider-man: Homecoming in 2017 with appearances in both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Rather than re-telling Spideys origin story, Homecoming takes place 5 years later and features The Vulture, with small roles for The Tinkerer and Shocker. With Spider-man: Far From Home introducing Mysterio, only Black Cat remains as an unused character of the cancelled Spider-man 4, for now.

Tales of an X-Franchise (Parts 1 & 2) (ORIGINAL)(ORIGINAL)

In the mid 1990s, 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to the X-Men and several other characters from Marvel Studios. They wasted no time in adapting this popular group to the big screen, but it would come off of the back of a prior outing for them. X-Men: The Animated Series ran from 1992 to 1997 on the Fox Kids network and changed the core lineup from the comics. This cast consisted of Cyclops, Wolverine, Rogue, Storm, Beast, Gambit, Jubilee, Jean Grey, and Professor Charles Xavier. Based on the huge success of this series, Fox greenlit a motion picture in which 6 of these characters would initially make the leap.

Released in 2000, X-Men followed Rogue, a mutant with power-draining abilities, and Wolverine (AKA Logan) as they encounter and eventually join Professor X in the battle against Magneto. The cast boasted some impressive names with Thespian Legends Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian Mackellan both signed on. It did well at the box office and went on to spawn a barrage of sequels.

X2: X-Men United hit our screens in 2003 and saw the titular team facing off with Colonel William Stryker, who is on a path for mutant genocide. There are also hints at his past with Wolverine and the Weapon X Program, as well as hints to a more peaceful future. Again, the film did well at the box office, faring even better than its predecessor.

In 2006, the trilogy would conclude with X-Men: The Last Stand. It was an adaptation of the “Dark Phoenix” arc from the comics that also wrapped up our trilogy arc neatly. Though it was more successful at the box office than the previous films, it was met with mixed reviews. Though it was action packed and featured the best CGI of the series, fans felt it was a poor adaptation of the source material. 

That source material had begun with The X-Men #1 in September of 1963. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the plight of these characters was a representation of the same plight faced by many minorities. This was not specific of one group but inclusive of all groups, whether it be race, religion or sexual orientation. When Sir Ian Mackellan was signed on, he wanted to ensure that this was not lost during the adaptation. The angle was more specifically that of the LGBT group which lead to a poignant scene in X2  where Bobby comes out as a mutant to his parents. Wherever the film franchise may have gone from here, the original X-Men trilogy still stands as a perfect allegory for those struggles.

By 2007, it was clear that the X-Men franchise was not slowing down. On the contrary, they were preparing to expand further. The Origins series was devised and would tell the origin stories for some of the most beloved characters with Wolverine, Magneto and Cyclops to be among the first. Being the most popular character, Wolverine was to go first, and so in 2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine was released. The plot focuses on Logan as he becomes involved with Colonel William Stryker and the mysterious Weapon X Program. It also featured Deadpool, whose solo film had been in development hell for a decade until being officially cancelled in 2003. His portrayal here was met with harsh backlash from fans, as was the use of CGI claws on Wolverine, which resulted in this being dubbed the worst X-Men movie for years to come. The box office earnings were not enough to justify another Origins film, but was enough to keep the franchise afloat. A solo Gambit film was in the pipeline up until very recently, while the plans for Magneto’s film would find their way into the next project.

Acting as a soft reboot of the franchise X-Men: First Class graced our screens in 2011. James Macavoy and Michael Fassbender took over as Xavier and Magneto respectively, in a story that centres around the formation of the X-Men, as well as the Brotherhood of Mutants. The film also reintroduces us to Mystique and Beast, while the Hellfire Club make their debut led by a villain played by Kevin Bacon. First Class was met with positive reviews, being hailed as a return-to-form for the franchise. The grittier tone and improved special effects were especially praised, leading to 2 sequels in what has been dubbed the First Class Timeline. It does not tie directly into the original trilogy but instead acts as an alternate history. This also marks the first cameo appearance by Wolverine- something that would become somewhat of a tradition going forward.

Though Origins:Wolverine was a flop, a sequel had already been greenlit and hit our screens in 2013. The Wolverine follows our titular hero as he travels to Japan to assist an old acquaintance while struggling with a disappearance of his powers and The Yakuza. Not only does it act as a sequels to Origins: Wolverine but also as a sequel to X-Men 3: The Last stand as Logan copes with Jean Greys death. This leads to cameos by her actress in visions that torment Logan, but these are not the only cameos. Both Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian Mackellan return to inform Logan of a new threat to mutant-kind thus teasing the following film. Positive reviews for The Wolverine mainly focused on Hugh Jackmans performance and the accuracy to its source material.

The following year X-Men Days of Future Past was released. It serves as a sequel to The Wolverine and a semi- sequel to First Class as Logan travels into the past to save the future. This film would mark the final appearances for many of the original X-Men characters in a passing-of-the-baton to their younger counterparts making this, in effect, X-Men 4. It also tries to serve as a ret-con so that both the original trilogy and First Class timeline can exist in the same timeline. Reviews were positive with the films dedication to the source material garnering praise, while the complexity of the timeline as well as the amount of subplots were criticised. Rogue was to play a part in this film but her role was cut from the theatrical release, leading to a lengthier version titled The Rogue Cut also being released on DVD. It clocks in at 2hours 48minutes, 17 minutes longer than the theatrical version.

In 2016 the young mutants would return for X-Men: Apocalypse, the official sequel to First Class, which featured the titular villain attempting to wipe out mankind and claim the world as his own. Despite being the main antagonist, Apocalypses lack of character and poor CG effects were heavily criticised though the film itself was moderately well received. The character of Quicksilver was especially praised for his slow motion scenes and well written attitude. A different actor had played the role of Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron the previous year due to a deal between Disney and 20th Century Fox. Quicksilver could appear as part of the Avengers but only if there was no mention of mutants or the X-Men, leading to him being referred to as an Enhanced.

The original run of X-Men films would officially come to an end with 2017’s Logan. The story follows him as he cares for an elderly Professor X and escaped mutant child X-23 while also fighting off a group known as The Reavers. The comic inspiration- Old Man Logan- was high in gore, leading to concern from fans that the film would be toned down for a 12 rating. This turned out not to be the case and Logan was rated R (15) which allowed for more violence, a decision that was met with praise from fans and critics. They were also pleased with the CGI and the performances, especially those of Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart who finally retired their respective characters. The film drew heavy inspiration from western films and to honour this a black and white version of the film titled  Logan: Noir was released. It has been hailed by many as one of the greatest comic book movies of all time.

In December that year, Walt Disney Company would buy 20th Century Fox and all its subsidiaries for around $52.4 million, meaning that almost all the Marvel properties were once again under one roof . At the time there were still two films to be released- X-Men: Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants. After months of re-writes and re-shoots Dark Phoenix was finally released in spring of 2019 to relatively small applause. Meanwhile The New Mutants was due to be released in 2018 but went through more issues in production than Dark Phoenix which has led to its current release date of February 2020. Given the acquisition by Disney and the box office failure of it is unclear if it will ever be released and if it does how much of an audience it will actually get.

Now here we stand, almost 2 decades and 10 films later. There have been definitive highs and lows for Fox’si franchise but one thing is certain- it’s over. This incarnation of the characters will not return and someday soon we will most likely see them in a new form in the MCU.

The Fantastic Pool (ORIGINAL)

When 20th Century Fox bought the rights to the X-Men franchise in the mid 1990s, they did so along with the rights to several individual superheroes. With X-Men being a success at the box office Fox decided to greenlight projects based on their other characters, starting with Daredevil and Elektra. Part of the initial deal, they ended up being bought by Regency Studios in the early 2000s and were only distributed by Fox. This meant that the first official venture outside of X-Men would end up being released in 2005, between the second and third i films.

 Fantastic Four featured a group of scientists who gain powers during a space storm. While Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm use their powers for good, Victor Von Doom does not. Having gone through several re-writes and directors during its lengthy development the response for Fantastic Four was mainly positive but with several criticisms. Many felt that though the character development was good there were too many plot elements making the film feel ill-paced. Nevertheless it made money and an extended cut of the film was released in 2007 to coincide with the release of its sequel.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer focuses on our heroes as the battle the Silver Surfer and his master Galactus: Destroyer of Worlds. It also features a gimmick in which our heroes can switch powers as well as the return of Doctor Doom. Although the opening weekend brought in more money than its predecessor, in the following weeks there was a drop in box office takings. Mixed reviews cited poor acting and directing as well as poor characterisation as the reason for this drop but the special effects garnered praise. All 4 main actors had signed a 3-film deal but after Rise of the Silver Surfer‘s poor performance Fox got cold feet and cancelled any further sequels.

In 2009 it was announced that the Fantastic Four would be returning and after 6 years a reboot of the franchise hit our screens. Fan4stic, as it was stylised, was a different origin story, drawing from the Ultimate run of comic books. This time the team gained their powers from an alternate universe and find themselves assets to the US Military. Reviews were bad. The film was slated for being boring and slow with no joy or character development. It had been hoped by Fox Executives that i would eventually lead to a crossover with X-Men but this films failure meant that this project and any sequels would never come to fruition.

Before speaking about our last two films I would like to provide some context. The character of Deadpool belongs to the X-Men universe, however I do not count his solo films as part of the X-Franchise. They have no correlation to those films in character or from a perspective of the (admittedly broken) X-Men timeline. Many people choose to see his solo films as part of the X-Franchise and that’s fine, but that is my personal take.

After spending 14 years in development hell and 7 years after his critiqued cameo in Origins:Wolverine, Deadpool finally got his own film in 2016. Although it is far from the first superhero film to be rated R(15) (an honour that goes to 1991s The Punisher) it was a first for Fox who were praised by fans for the decision. Deadpool centres around how our titular anti-hero came to have his powers and his horrific scars in a search for the man responsible. Deadpool 2 would be released 2 years later and features the character saving a young mutant from the time travelling soldier known as Cable. Both films were praised by audiences who loved its accuracy to the source material as well as its humour. Deadpool 2 is notable for featuring the first openly gay superheroes in the form of Teenage Negasonic Warhead and her girlfriend Yukio. There have been many queer heroes in comic books but this would be the first time that this diversity was shown on film. Each film made around $784 million for a grand total of $1568 million between them and would be some of the final films released by 20th Century Fox before their acquisition by Walt Disney Studios in 2017. Rumour has it that Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool will be the only character to make the leap into the MCU but that remains to be seen.

DC: The Continuity Joke (Part 1) (ORIGINAL)

At first, there doesn’t seem like enough content exists to fill a piece on the superhero film rights of the CD Universe characters. Warner Brothers Studio owns these rights and has done since March 1989 with the only caveat being the live action Batman TV rights which belong to 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios). What is interesting enough to write a piece about, though is the history of these films and how it culminated in the DC Extended Universe. The first live action feature film starring any of the characters would be 1966’s Batman: The Movie starring the late Adam West, but would be released by 20th Century Fox. Sadly, it would be their only Batman film, though Warner Bros would go on to make two animated movies based on West’s portrayal- Return of the Caped Crusaders and Batman Vs Two-Face. Whilst Fox owned the live action 1966 Batman rights, Warner Brothers still had the right to make his animated adventures. All 3 of these films would be positively received.

Warner Brothers’ first foray into the live action DC universe would be 1978’s Superman and 1980’s Superman II, starring Christopher Reeves as the man of steel. The original gives us baby Kal-El of Krypton (our Superman) as he lands on Earth in his infancy after the destruction of his own planet. Once grown, he learns to control his powers and fight the villainous Lex Luthor. At the time it was the most expensive film ever made, with ground-breaking special effects. It received hugely positive reviews with Roger Ebert awarding it four stars out of five. The sequel sees Kal-El, living human life as Clark Kent, facing off against one of his fellow surviving Kryptonians- The mighty Emperor Zod- as he attempts to take control of the planet. Shot back-to-back with the first Superman, this one again had spectacular effects and a brilliant story. This duology has gone on to become some of the most iconic pieces of Superman media and media in general. If you’re thinking of a theme song for Superman right now, I guarantee it’s this one. Their follow up, Superman III, would not be as well received. It centred on Clark being split into two bodies by synthetic kryptonite.- one good and one evil. The film was criticised for its re-hashed plot points and slapstick comedy. In an attempt to freshen up the franchise, Warner Brothers released a spin off about Clark’s cousin Kara Zor-El in 1984 entitled Supergirl. It sees Kara coming to Earth in the hopes of retrieving a powerful orb that she had lost but having to fend off a witch. The film was panned for having cheesy effects and for being really un-interesting to watch. This would not be enough to defeat the Superman franchise, with that award going to 1987’s Superman V: The Quest for Peacewhich sees the man of steel facing off against Lex Luthor’s newest creation- Radioactive Man. It would be ridiculed for its poor special effects, and inconsistencies, and would go on to be dubbed by many as one of the worst films ever made.

Having tried their hand with one of “the big two” from DC, it was time for Warner Bros to attempt the other- Batman. Released in late 1989, Batman (dubbed Batman ’89[review here]) see the caped crusader facing off against The Joker. The film was mildly criticised for being too dark, but the performances from Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson were lavished with praise. Bruce Timm would use the look of this film in Batman: The Animated Serieswhich is still praised as one of the best cartoons ever made. Three sequels to the Keaton films would follow. 1992’s Batman Returns saw our titular hero facing off against both Catwoman and The Penguin. It was praised as a brilliant sequel by most, but some still felt it was too dark. It would be the final Batman film from director Tim Burton who would be replaced by Joel Schumacher for the remaining two films. 1995’s Batman Foreverstarred Val Kilmer as The Bat and would see him facing off against The Riddler and Two-Face. It was much lighter in tone but would receive mixed reviews for being overly loud and less entertaining that the previous entries. 1997 would see the last Batman film for a whole decade in the form of Batman & Robinwhich starred George Clooney as the hero and Chris O’Donnell as his trusty ward. The film saw them fighting off Mr Freeze, Poison Ivy, and (for a moment) Bane. It was an exclusively child friendly escapade but was deemed frantic, mindless and over the top by many. It is believed to have killed the Bat-franchise, with a follow up titled Batman Unchained being cancelled. The film would have seen Scarecrow using fear toxin to make Batman believe that The Joker had returned from beyond the grave, with Harley Quinn set to appear as Joker’s daughter.

The next 3 films from Warner Brothers/ DC would be solo ventures. 1997’s Steel saw Shaquille O’Neal playing John Henry Irons- a weapons developer- as he suits up to stop terrorists from using the very weapons he designed. Next came Catwoman in 2004, starring Helle Berry in the leading role dealing with corporate conspiracies. Finally came Constantine in 2005 which saw Keanu Reeves in the starring role as a supernatural exorcist helping to prove a policewoman that her sister’s death was not a suicide. All 3 of these films would be mocked for how ridiculous they were, with poor acting and even poorer GCI. Of the 7 films that followed, only 4 of them would be solo ventures. 2006 saw the man of steel return in the appropriately titled Superman Returns, starring Brandon Routh. The film saw Kal-El once again facing off against Lex Luthor in his attempt to take over America. It was received fairly well, but many thought it was just an average flick without anything that really made it special. 2009’s Watchmen would also be received fairly well, becoming a cult classic among CBM fans. It followed a group of former superheroes as one of their colleagues is murdered and the surprises that it awakens. Any criticism took aim at the 3 hour runtime and the complex plotline. the 2010 release Jonah Hex would be less appreciated. Josh Brolin plays a Bounty Hunter who must take out a terrorist who threatens all life in order to gain his freedom, and it would be a box office failure, making back only $10 million of it’s $47 million budget. Then in 2011 came the infamous Green Lantern starring Ryan Reynolds, which has gone down in history as one of the worst movies of all time. It sees Hal Jordan discovering a powerful ring belonging to the Green Lantern Corp when he is suddenly called to save humanity from the world destroying Parallax. It was seen as boring and the CGI costumes were laughed at, which led to the cancellation a sequel which would have presumably seen Sinestro as the main villain.

It may seem like mostly bad news from the mid 200’s to the early 2010’s, but there was a light in the darkness- Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It is, to many people, one of the best film trilogies ever made, and practically dominated superhero movie conversations at the time. 2005’s Batman Begins re-introduced us to Bruce Wayne as he suits up as the caped crusader in order to defend Gotham City from corruption and his former mentor Ra’s Al Ghul. This was followed in 2008 by what is considered by many as the best in the trilogy- The Dark Knight. Once again, Gotham is under threat, this time from a man known only as The Joker who aims only to cause chaos and anarchy. The trilogy concluded in 2012 with my personal favourite- The Dark Knight Rises– which has Bruce crippled in a fight against guerrilla terrorist Bane. Never willing to back down from a fight, The Bat must return and face him one last time with assistance from Catwoman.

Over the course of 34 years, there were many ups and downs for the Warner Brothers DC franchise. Some have gone on to become iconic, while some have been abandoned to the voids of history. With the success of Nolans Dark Knight trilogy, the future was looking bright. It was clear going forwards that their movies would need to be dark, gritty and grounded in reality. Perhaps they should also implement the “shared universe” concept that seemed to be working so well for Marvel Studios.

The Story Continues…

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