As summer blockbuster season ramps up, Hollywood studios foist loud, CGI-choked productions onto the marketplace. Twentieth Century Fox enters the fray this weekend with its latest attempt to rejuvenate its comic-book property, “X-Men: Apocalypse.” All the usual elements are in play, from a widescreen rollout to carpet-bombing ad campaigns and extensive cross-promotion licensing. Hanes, for example, is offering X-men-themed adult foundation garments—in case you desire to have a mutant in your pants.
Despite this onslaught, the marketing blitz is somewhat blunted, because the business entity that created and owns most of the rights to the original property is not playing along. Marvel is not just sitting on the sidelines for this particular release. Over the past year, the corporate comic titan’s involvement has ranged from apathy to hostility to outright refusal to acknowledge the existence of some members of its stable of characters.
Over the past decade, Marvel Studios (and its takeover parent company, Disney) have been incapable of delivering a failed movie product. This has actually led to a bit of rancor. These studios now look forlornly at other comic entities over which they have no cinematic control. When eyeing the X-Men and Fantastic Four property rights that lie with Fox, the Marvel-Disney team sees lost profits, and that creates professional contempt.
Marvel is not only not assisting in the cinematic development of its own characters. The company has gone to the length of devaluing those heroic teams in other platforms.
Comic Book Character Assasination
The latest contretemps have been stewing for some time, but there is only one source to blame. The whole reason Marvel does not possess the film rights to characters it created in the 1960s is decisions from Marvel itself. The past 20 years has seen Marvel blessed by the superpower of the golden box-office touch. This has built up the company to where Disney acquired it to the tune of billions of dollars. But there is a darker fiscal backstory.
As Marvel Studios rides a string of heroically successful movie titles, its chief competitor, DC Comics, has struggled in the same arena. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight franchise and the recent “Superman v Batman” are exceptions, as DC has struggled getting its stable of characters translated onto screen. DC has failed to ignite another franchise, while setting up likely box-office bombs involving Green Lantern, Catwoman, and Jonah Hex.
It may be hard to imagine, but back in the 1980s and 1990s that script was flipped. DC Comics saw repeated success with Superman and Batman franchises. Marvel was flailing financially and took an altogether different approach. It shopped various superhero characters to numerous studios hoping that any films released or TV productions developed would boost Marvel properties in other platforms, such as book sales and licensed products.
During this era Marvel hung a price tag on most of its hero creations. This is how an entity like Spider Man came to be owned by Sony Entertainment, and how Fox obtained film rights to the X-Men. After a bout of bankruptcy in the 1990s, the new era of superhero films saw Marvel’s fortunes reverse. The downside was many cash-cow characters had been auctioned off with open-ended agreements. In the case of Fox, as long as the studio produced films it would retain the rights to those characters.
This means these days Marvel seethes over its own characters it cannot develop as it watches a rival fumble the premise just as often as it succeeds. In response, Marvel has resorted to marketing sabotage of its own characters.
They Who Shall Not Be Named
Last summer XM Studio Collectibles was revealing a new line of collectible superhero products. Not mere action figures, these were highly detailed character statuary and dioramas, based on scenes from iconic comic book releases. Following the announcement, just days after showing off a number of whips (unfinished prototypes) to the public, the company made a stark announcement:
Folks, it’s been a sad day for us… due to reasons we aren’t at liberty to disclose, we have been asked to put a hard stop to all X-Men characters for now. Still, we continue to have faith that this isn’t an indefinite red light forever and you can have our promise we will be back to producing these dream pieces once the coast is clear – no matter how long it takes! No Fantastic 4 too . . . same reason.
Disclosure is not required. Marvel did not pull its entire licensing agreement with XM Studio, it axed the production of specific characters. It’s no coincidence those same characters are governed by Fox, right? This is not the first instance of the comics corporation working to make their characters unavailable, hoping they become as unseen as the character Cipher.
Whether in its own realm or with production partnerships, the X-Men are becoming harder to find. Further, the Fantastic Four has seen its comic production brought to an end. Marvel is willing to cut off its Thing to spite Fox.
The elimination of a figurehead brand from the comics division is not the only step taken. Another move noted by fans was the Marvel 75th anniversary magazine cover, which displayed most of the company’s flagship characters—save for the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. More extensive still, on the Marvel items featuring those teams are no longer offered for sale.
Marketing second-party partners are also under the gag order. Mondo, creator of character posters, has been commanded to stop producing certain prints, and Diamond Select Toys has been told to discontinue productions on X-Men action figures. For a hilarious example of how extensively Marvel takes this desire to turn its mutants into pariahs, a T-shirt company replicating one Marvel cover has been scrubbed. In the printing of a Secret Wars No. 8 book cover onto cotton, we see the X-men and Fantastic Four expunged, with even the title stamp altered to show Matt Murdoch (Daredevil), a character not appearing at all in that storyline.
Some in the Marvel offices have expected Fox may tire of producing expensive franchise endeavors that lead to modest profits. After years of rushing scripts before the cameras for the sole purpose of retaining rights, Marvel hoped Fox would let the rights lapse, as had happened with Universal and The Hulk. This anticipated reverting was stoked by the blatant failure of last fall’s attempted reboot of “The Fantastic Four,” a franchise that had also produced moribund results.
While that may still happen, the two studios are surely at a stalemate regarding the other supergroup. The X-Men franchise has not only had a better success rate, it recently was given a mega-dose of adrenaline. The release of “Deadpool,” an X-Men spinoff character, shattered numerous box office records this past February. To call it lucrative is understatement, as it out-grossed almost every other X-Men title after only one week.
That success indicates X-Men will not be leaving Fox anytime in the near future. The irony is this may lead to X-Men staying away from Marvel in more ways in the coming years.