Comic book movies have had an unusual history. Believe it or not, there was a time where it was nearly impossible to get one made. While DC has been owned by Warner Bros. since 1969, making WB responsible for almost every film and TV incarnation of DC superheroes you've ever seen since that date, it is also why there haven't been a lot of DC-based movie franchises. Almost every single movie they've produced has been related either to Batman or Superman and just about every other franchise they've attempted has failed for one reason or another.
Marvel took a different approach. Since they still had their movie rights, they opted to license those rights to any studio (other than Warner Bros.) who was willing to make movies based on their characters, since at that point in time, they would take anything they could get. This is why Marvel movies came out with much greater frequency and variety, and it's also why Marvel's movie rights are scattered all over the place.
Since Marvel took a bold risk and started up its own studio beginning with the surprise hit "Iron Man", they've been focusing on getting their rights back.
However, now that comic book movies are in again, the studios that have been sitting on those rights are doing everything in their power to turn out new movies quickly to retain those rights.
You see, the way the contract works is that if the studio doesn't start production a movie based on the rights they purchased within a certain amount of time, then Marvel gets the rights back. Additionally, Marvel could theoretically purchase the rights back if the studio no longer wished to keep them. For this reason, Marvel has since reacquired the rights to Blade and the Punisher.
However, some of the rights are still floating around. These are the ones we know about:
- X-Men: 20th Century Fox's most successful comic book franchise. While its popularity has been waning, they still rushed out the film "X-Men: First Class" which was popular with fans and critics and did well enough in the box office. They now have a sequel for that film planned as well as a new "The Wolverine" movie that will likely discard the events of the wretched "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" movie.
- Fantastic Four: Also owned by Fox. This hasn't had a movie since 2007 with "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer", but they've recently landed Josh Trank (the director of "Chronicle") to direct a reboot. It's only been 5 years, so as long as they pull something together within a couple more years, they'll likely keep the rights to this property.
- Daredevil: Also owned by Fox. While it's been nearly 10 years since the last Daredevil movie, it's only been 8 years since "Elektra", which technically is under the Daredevil umbrella. Still, it is believed that Fox needs to start production on their planned reboot this Fall or the rights will revert back, and it was recently reported that the director just jumped ship.
- Spider-Man: Owned by Sony. Now that "Amazing Spider-Man" was an unquestionable success, it's unlikely that Sony is looking to part with the property. However, it is worth noting that "Amazing Spider-Man" is probably going to be the least successful Spider-Man film of all time, not even making back its budget through domestic gross. It will still likely reach $500 million worldwide, but like I said, its profitability is deteriorating.
- Ghost Rider: The other property owned by Sony. They just came out with "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance", which made back its budget worldwide, but failed to do so domestically. Similar to "Amazing Spider-Man", it made about half of what its predecessor made.
So why does this matter? Well, because Marvel has proven that its inter-connected continuity between comic book movies was an overwhelmingly successful idea. Now it's basically guaranteed that every single Marvel Studios film is going to take place within this continuity. Meanwhile, the Marvel movies made by Fox and Sony won't be.
X-Men probably aren't going anywhere. Fox has had way too much success with that property to let it go. On top of that, the X-Men are kind of a major hindrance on the Marvel Universe. They over-complicate things, there's way too many of them, and they often deal with their own problems rather than get involved in the major events in the universe. Honestly, I don't think we need them around in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Fantastic Four would be nice to have around, mostly because they have some of the best villains in the universe, including a lot of cosmic villains, but Fox will probably manage to pull this one together. Josh Trank is on board and he's proven to be a pretty competent director. That said, it IS difficult to put together a team of four recognizable actors, especially given the less-than-stellar reputation of the previous films. On top of that, Josh Trank has been getting a lot of offers since the success of "Chronicle" and it's plausible that scheduling conflicts will cause him to leave the project. On top of that, he's still a bit inexperienced. A lot of things could go wrong, but given that Fox probably has about two years before the rights revert, they'll probably manage to make the deadline. Forgive me if I cross my fingers, though. But if the movie DOES happen as planned, I think Josh Trank is a good choice to direct and hey, maybe they can even tie it in with the X-Men continuity?
Also, of all of the rights that Marvel could conceivably try to just straight-up buy back, this one seems the most likely. Fox will probably manage to meet the deadline on this one and the Fantastic Four have a lot more to offer Marvel Studios than they could offer Fox. It's a gamble. They can either just bite the bullet and make an offer to Fox, or they can wait two years to see if Fox fails to produce a film, getting them the movie rights for free. Seeing as how Marvel already has their line-up planned for the next three years, they probably aren't in enough of a hurry to buy them back, but since they're starting to get involved with the cosmic aspects of the universe, it would be really handy to have Galactus on their villain roster. It's a tough call.
Ghost Rider probably won't get another movie anytime soon. Frankly, though, even if Marvel DID get this property back, they probably wouldn't do anything with it. I figure we won't see Ghost Rider around for a long time. My guess is that the property will revert back and we'll never see another movie using the character, or Sony will just make another terrible movie in a few more years. Either way, not a big deal.
Now on to the two tricky ones.
Daredevil's reboot has been planned for quite some time, but they've had a lot of problems with the script and the director. A while back, they landed David Slade as the director, but he kept getting distracted by other projects, they decided to have the entire script rewritten this year, Slade didn't want to movie to come out in 3D, and it was just recently reported that he has officially left the project. While at this point, the new script is done and Fox is supposedly happy with it, they need to find a new director fast.
Here's the thing, though. The new script was likely based on David Slade's vision for the movie. Whatever new director they bring on will have to agree to a lot of less than ideal circumstances.
Let's imagine how Fox would pitch this project to a prospective director.
FOX: "OK, so we have this Daredevil reboot we want you to direct."
DIRECTOR: "Awesome! I love Daredevil! Man, I have the perfect idea for what we could do..."
FOX: "Actually, we already have a script ready."
DIRECTOR: "Oh... well, OK. I'll have one of my writers look at it and see if we can..."
FOX: "Sorry but we don't really have the time for major rewrites. Either we start filming by Fall or we don't make the movie at all."
DIRECTOR: "...But it's July."
FOX: "That's why there's no time for major rewrites. We need you to start pre-production now so we can cast and start shooting."
DIRECTOR: "Wait, you haven't started casting either?"
FOX: "Well we have a few prospects, but we can't cast without a director."
DIRECTOR: "So let me get this straight... you expect me to drop whatever I'm doing right now to rush into production on a film based on a screenplay I can't rewrite and then you expect me to convince at least three other actors to do the same?"
FOX: "Well if you won't do it, we'll just find someone else."
DIRECTOR: "Good luck with that."
And then let's assume they GET a director to sign on. Then they pitch the role of Daredevil to an actor.
FOX: "So we want you to play Daredevil."
ACTOR: "Cool! I would love to be in a comic book movie! Hey does this mean I'll get to be in the next 'Avengers' movie too?"
FOX: "Well... no. You see, Marvel Studios owns the Avengers stuff. We just own Daredevil, Fantastic Four, and X-Men."
ACTOR: "Oh... well, could I maybe be in the next X-Men movie too?"
FOX: "Probably not, sorry. Maybe a Fantastic Four movie, but we can't promise anything."
ACTOR: "Oh... well, whatever, that's fine. The script looks OK. When do you expect to start filming?"
ACTOR: "...As in this year?"
FOX: "As in this month."
ACTOR: "What's the big hurry?"
FOX: "Well, if we don't start production by the end of Fall, the rights go back to Marvel Studios."
ACTOR: "Wait, you mean the guys who made that 'Avengers' movie?"
FOX: "...Yes, but--"
ACTOR: "So what you're saying is that if I cancel all of my plans for this month, I can be Daredevil for like one crappy movie. But if I say no, it's possible that the 'Avengers' guys will ask me to be Daredevil in like 6 other awesome movies?"
FOX: "...Or we could just find someone else."
ACTOR: "Good luck with that."
So out of all the current properties, Daredevil seems like it has a pretty decent chance of actually reverting back to Marvel Studios. Frankly, I'm pretty stoked about this.
A lot of people bring up the possibility that Fox will just force out a terrible movie with a terrible cast just to retain the rights. Here's the thing though... Who cares about Daredevil? OK, obviously I care about Daredevil and so do many comic book fans, but honestly, a GOOD Daredevil movie would probably be about as successful as the recent "Ghost Rider" movie. A bad Daredevil movie would probably be an unmitigated failure and would basically mean any future installments would fail no matter HOW good they were. What good is keeping the license if it doesn't make them money, particularly if keeping the license means wasting money on a half-assed production? My gut tells me that if Fox can't get people who genuinely WANT to make a good Daredevil movie, they won't bother, and given that the deadline is fast-approaching, I find it unlikely that the stars will align in their favor.
As for whether or not Daredevil could fit in with the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, I think it actually offers some interesting potential. As a New York resident, he would have been directly affected by the events in "The Avengers". Perhaps it influences him to start wearing a costume. Regardless, they would have to find SOME reason to explain why he wasn't around during the Chitauri invasion, or retcon it to say that he WAS around, but he just didn't get the same recognition, possibly because he wasn't a known superhero yet. While Daredevil has never been a member of the Avengers proper in the comics, he was a member of the New Avengers, so there's that.
Finally, we have Spider-Man.
Personally, I was kind of hoping "Amazing Spider-Man" would be a complete failure. Sony would lose money on the property, cancel all plans for a sequel, and sell the rights back to Marvel. Sadly, "Amazing Spider-Man" was TECHNICALLY a success.
HOWEVER, it is worth pointing out that just because a film was made with sequels in mind and just because a movie was TECHNICALLY successful, doesn't mean a sequel will happen. The recent "Green Lantern" film is a good example of this.
I imagine that Sony was somewhat underwhelmed with the performance of "Amazing Spider-Man". While it's getting reasonably positive reviews, I don't expect it to make an impact on public opinion. If the planned sequel happens, it will probably have even less success.
But here's the thing. Sony knows that the Spider-Man films would be WAY more popular if they were somehow tied in with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What's more, now that the movie was technically a success, they actually are in a position to bargain with Marvel Studios.
If the movie were a complete failure, they probably would have just sold the rights to Marvel for whatever they could get. However, if the movie were an "Avengers"-level success, then Sony probably wouldn't even consider changing course at all.
Since "Amazing Spider-Man" ended up somewhere in the middle -- not a failure but still not as successful as a Spider-Man film ought to be -- they have an incentive to strike some kind of deal with Marvel Studios but not to sell the rights entirely.
While it's unprecedented for a studio to share rights that they hold for the purposes of shared film continuity, the fact is that shared film continuity is very much a new concept. Who's to say it couldn't be done?
Sony offers Marvel Studios the ability to use Spider-Man properties in Marvel Studios, so long as Sony gets a cut and so long as Sony still gets to make their own Spider-Man movies, which would in turn be subject to Marvel Studios' world-building.
Sure, this would mean that Sony would lose a lot of creative control over Spider-Man, and yes, it would mean that Marvel Studios still wouldn't technically own the movie rights to the character, but this way, everyone wins.
The Marvel movies that include Spider-Man will presumably do better and the Spider-Man movies will probably do better too. Sony gets to keep their only cash cow comic book property, and they prevent the property's popularity from waning any further.
I actually think this deal would be best for all parties involved and has no real down side.
Sure, Marvel could say no, hope that Sony eventually makes a Spider-Man flop, and then get their rights back, but by then, people might be sick of Spider-Man and bringing him into the fold might make a lot less sense.
Sure, Sony could soldier on as they are, but they probably can't ignore the math. They can see the downward trend. Before, people blamed the downward trend on over-exposure of comic book movies, but what has become clear is that it's more that people have higher standards for comic book movies now. People have gotten a taste of continuity and quality storytelling and they want more. If you put out a movie like "Jonah Hex" or "Green Lantern", you'll just fail. And Sony knows that its next Spider-Man movie will probably make even less money, further weakening their current situation. If they make the deal before then, they stand to get the most out of it.
While I'm not sure it will even probably happen, I often find that if something makes sense, it usually has a good chance of happening. In this case, it makes perfect sense that Marvel and Sony would cooperate to get Spider-Man involved in the larger continuity. The only real hitch is that Sony isn't usually known for making bold, unprecedented choices and Disney isn't usually known for sharing their intellectual property. Here's hoping they can see the bigger picture.
So in my opinion, I do think that we could see Daredevil and Spider-Man in a Marvel Studios movie. Daredevil seems far more likely, but I wouldn't completely write off Spider-Man yet. If "Amazing Spider-Man 2" comes out and there are no hints of shared continuity, then at THAT point I would completely write off Spider-Man. But until then, I'll keep my fingers crossed.