(Photo by 20th Century Fox; Walt Disney Pictures)
Updated on 12/14/17.
After months of secret talks and at least six weeks of speculation, the Walt Disney Company announced it will buy most of 21st Century Fox’s media holdings. According to reports, Disney will acquire the 20th Century Fox, National Geographic, and FX cable networks, as well as various international holdings, while 21st Century Fox will spin off Fox Broadcasting network and stations, Fox News, Fox Business, FS1, FS2 and Big Ten Network to its shareholders.
While Disney’s acquisition of the complete distribution rights to the original Star Wars, National Geographic programming, and other properties had Wall Street buzzing, the merger means one important thing for fans of comic book movies and television shows: The return of the X-Men and, presumably, Fantastic Four characters to Marvel Studios.
In the late 1990s, when Marvel was an independent company nearing bankruptcy, Fox bought the film rights to both properties in perpetuity: As long as they made X-Men or Fantastic Four movies every few years, they retained control of those titles and associated characters forever.
But now that Disney is buying the studio, it will mean some of Marvel Comics’ most popular characters can finally appear alongside the stars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and the potential for character crossovers and story line adaptations is staggering. Below are just a few ways fans win if the deal goes through.
Despite Marvel Studio’s attempts to position the Inhumans as their answer to the X-Men, fans desperately want the Merry Mutants to fight alongside (or against) the MCU’s roster of Iron Men, Asgardians, sorcerers, and talking raccoons. In fact, pitting the two groups against each other might be a thrilling way to introduce the X-Men to the MCU. Such a battle took place in 2012’s Avengers vs. X-Men. The story line saw the Phoenix Force return to Earth while the Avengers and the X-Men fought over how best to protect the person destined to bond with the cosmic entity.
There are some pitfalls to adapting the story, as it relies on a lot of shared history between the two groups. Wolverine, for example, is a longtime member of both the Avengers and the X-Men. But without his presence in the MCU, those connections would have to be built anew. Going into the fifth phase of Marvel’s feature film story line, the X-Men would be a completely new element (a possibility with its own set of advantages) unless there was a way to retroactively insert them into MCU history.
The 2015 event series Secret Wars saw Marvel’s mainline universe (referred to as Earth-616) merging with a number of other alternate realities published by Marvel over the years. The story is epic and insanely intricate with Doctor Doom as the supreme ruler of a feudal universe. The end result saw Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales join the main Marvel Universe and the company’s first family (Reed Richards, Sue Storm, and their children) removed entirely.
It is easy to imagine, say, Legion’s David Haller (Dan Stevens) imitating his comic book counterpart – who once ripped apart the Marvel Universe with his awesome power – to create a new MCU where mutants are an established fact.
The pitfall, of course, is the X-Men film series’ own convoluted timeline and half-hearted reboots. Which films would be considered canon? Do you retroactively call X-Men: Days of Future Past an opening shot of the Secret War? Maybe it would be better to have Deadpool laugh it off and just accept that the characters are part of the MCU now. But fans would want some sort of acknowledgement of this monumental change to Marvel’s film universe even as X-Men films suffer from a sense of reboot fatigue.
Perhaps it would be easier for Marvel to start with the comic book concept that never generated a winning film for 20th Century Fox:
As watchers of the comic book industry know, the disappearance of the Richards clan in Secret Wars was more than just a story point; it was an allegedly cynical move in an ongoing battle between Fox and Marvel Entertainment CEO Isaac Perlmutter. Knowing the studio was prepping a new Fantastic Four film – the infamous 2015 reboot directed by Josh Trank – he reportedly ordered the publishing division to cease publication of the title. According to the rumor, Perlmutter allegedly considered a Fantastic Four comic book to be free advertising for a Fantastic Four film Marvel would see little revenue from.
And so, longtime Fantastic Four scribe and Secret Wars writer Jonathan Hickman wrote the family out of the prime universe.
But with all media rights to the Fantastic Four were once again under one roof, Marvel Comics is free to publish the comic once more — and potentially giving fans something they crave: a Marvel Studios–produced Fantastic Four movie.
Imagine, as many fans do, a film set in the 1960s with Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm experiencing their original comic book origin. It could be something hip and poppy, in the vein of A Hard Day’s Night, with a Doctor Doom who looks and sounds the part. It would be easy to explain away their absence in the MCU as a plot of Doom’s to obscure the cursed Richards and his family. It could even make light of all the silly studio politics.
That said, there is one major problem plaguing the Fantastic Four as a film property: It’s already failed twice. Or three times, if you count the infamous and unreleased Fantastic Four produced by Roger Corman. The underlying premise of a science hero family does not sit well with the action-oriented screenwriting tropes of Hollywood studios. Even Marvel itself might have a problem adapting the concept. Perhaps it, and certainly other Marvel properties formerly controlled by Fox, would work better in the realm of television. Additionally, the rights to the Fantastic Four may not be as clear-cut as originally thought.
While the Fantastic Four may make a better television program, one of their supporting characters practically screams for a TV adaptation. The recently concluded run of Silver Surfer by Dan Slott and Mike Allred stars a human character named Dawn Greenwood who is whisked away by the Surfer on a psychedelic trip across the universe. As the two journey among the stars and help people out of jams, Dawn shows the often aloof and spacey Surfer – real name Norrin Radd – the value of consideration and compassion. They also fall in love, but their relationship is challenged when she learns how Norrin became the Silver Surfer.
Like Doctor Who infused with the love story between Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Stevens), this winning TV premise is unlike anything Marvel or Fox has produced with comic book properties so far.
Of course, having most of Marvel in one place could also clear up the way shows like Legion and The Gifted dance around their feature film cousins. Currently, the layers of bureaucracy between Marvel and the web of Fox film and TV production and distribution companies make it difficulty for either show to relate to the established X-Men film series or each other. With Marvel’s television division as the only authority, Professor X could be revealed as David Haller’s father, while Polaris could announce to her friends in the Underground that she is Magneto’s daughter. Imagine if both of these shows suddenly took to heart Marvel’s edict that “it’s all connected.”
But before we consider the potential for character crossovers, let’s go back to the Silver Surfer for a second and his possible place in the MCU. Whether he received his own series or popped up in an Avengers movie, his debut in a Marvel film or television project could herald the MCU’s next big bad.
Since the first Avengers film, Thanos the Mad Titan has been teased as the group’s ultimate cosmic antagonist. But once his defeat comes in the fourth Avengers, who will pose any major threat to them in the MCU’s fifth phase?
How about someone who eats planets for breakfast?
Though the ancient and eternal devourer of worlds known as Galactus appeared in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the film re-imagined him as an amorphous alien death cloud. The character, with his thrilling Jack Kirby–designed head gear, living spaceship, and next-level intelligence, could be the sort of opponent even the combined strengths of Tony Stark, Thor, the Guardians, Captain Marvel, and Ant-Man would find overwhelming.
Alternatively, the Fantastic Four property comes with one villain who may be worth more to Marvel Studios than anyone else in the Fox-controlled library. Imagine the sudden appearance of Latveria on the MCU scene and the arrival of its absolute dictator, Dr. Victor Von Doom. Facing just about every character from Luke Cage to Reed Richards to Squirrel Girl (and in one instance, even Superman), Doctor Doom is very much the ultimate antagonist. Everyone has a bone to pick with him, and every Marvel fan laments his absence in the MCU.
Either would make worthy adversaries of the combined Marvel Studios and Fox libraries. In fact, Doom’s ubiquity as a Marvel Comics villain underscores the most thrilling aspect of the potential Fox sale: the character interactions.
Hulk and Wolverine’s first meeting has never be realized in live action or even cheekily referenced in any film. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver’s real parentage is never discussed because Magneto is a 20th Century Fox property. And then there’s a story line like World War Hulk, which requires the presence of Professor X and Reed Richards to complete a counsel of power characters like Doctor Strange, Tony Stark, and Black Bolt.
Because Marvel Comics has always enjoyed crossing characters over into its various titles, the MCU has always been just a little poorer for lacking the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. A perfect example is Scarlet Witch, who first appeared in early X-Men stories before spending decades in the Avengers ranks. But that emotional tie is blunted in her MCU form. Imagine an Avengers film in which the veil is lifted and she remembers who her father is. Imagine a Secret Wars–style mashup in which she meets her father (in the form of Michael Fassbender or Ian McKellan) and the Evan Peters version of her brother. Imagine the drama and the confusion for a character who has had little to do in the MCU so far.
And that’s only one example. Consider the potential for laughs, should Deadpool and Ryan Reynolds find their way into the MCU. Relish the possibility of Chris Evans and a new Johnny Storm making a wink-and-nod reference to his own Fantastic Four past — Evans even recently joked about playing both characters in a buddy picture. Imagine the connections between Legion, The Gifted, and the upcoming Cloak & Dagger (coming in 2018 to the Disney–ABC Television Group’s Freeform). Then there are Wolverine’s constant guest appearances in every Marvel title clearing the way for him once he’s recast — Hugh Jackman has said about the likelihood of his return to the role, “the ship has sailed” — to venture far and wide to Avengers films and Hulu’s Runaways.
Provided, of course, the merger overcomes any regulatory hurdles. And though it will be sad to see one of Hollywood’s oldest studios disappear under the Disney banner, the return of significant Marvel properties to Marvel is just too exciting for fans of the characters. And now that the merger is on its way, the imaginations of fans can run wild.