That's What's Up: Ways Disney buying Fox would change the MCU forever

Each week, comic book writer Chris Sims answers the burning questions you have about the world of comics and pop culture: what's up with that? If you'd like to ask Chris a question, please send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatsUpChris, or email it to staff@looper.com with the subject line "That's What's Up."

Q: If Disney does end up buying out Fox, what does that mean for the Marvel movies going forward?via email

First things first: I've written a few comics at Marvel, but when it comes to the movie side of things, I have exactly as much information as anybody else. On top of that, while I can rattle off endless bits of obscure trivia, I'm completely at a loss when it comes to the business and legal side of things. Intellectual property law and licensing rights are notoriously thorny subjects, and literally everything I know about them revolves around stuff like whether or not Marvel is legally allowed to reprint that issue of Power Man & Iron Fist that crosses over with ROM: Spaceknight. Which, for the record, they can't. For now.

But ever since the news broke that Disney was having "on-again, off-again talks" about purchasing a big chunk of Fox, there's been a ton of talk about what this could mean for the future of both businesses—and most importantly, whether Wolverine could team up with Captain America on the big screen. So as long as we're all okay with mostly uninformed speculation, let's get to it!

The story so far…

The current state of Marvel's movie rights goes back to a time when the company was basically dead in the water. In 1996, they actually filed for bankruptcy amidst massive layoffs and a lot of uncertainty about whether there'd even be a Marvel by the turn of the century.

Like a lot of pop culture concerns, comics tend to fall into a pretty regular boom-and-bust cycle, and in this case, the bust followed two big boom periods in comics: the massive black-and-white surge of the '80s, when lowered printing costs and the rise of specialty shops gave rise to a slew of new independent comics, and the massive mainstream boom of the early '90s, when superstar creators and ill-fated investments from collectors translated to comics selling in the millions on a regular basis. With a bubble that big, the backlash was always going to be huge. It's just that nobody was prepared for it to be quite that huge.

It's worth noting that while it was pretty devastating for Marvel, it wasn't quite that bad at DC—although not for the reasons you might expect. Unlike Marvel, DC had the safety net of being part of a larger corporation. Warner Bros. purchased the company in 1967, and successful projects like the Superman and Batman movies—and cross-media hits like Batman: The Animated Series—meant that even if the company operated at a loss, they could still justify it by virtue of being a sort of IP farm that provided us with some of the most profitable characters in the entirety of fiction. On top of that, books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were massive mainstream successes that opened the door to getting DC stories into bookstores, followed by more recent titles like Kingdom Come.

Marvel, meanwhile, had never really made a lot of inroads into the paperback market, and even when they did do reprints for new readers, it was often in the form of even more single issues, like the Classic X-Men book that reprinted, well, classic X-Men stories with a little bit of additional content thrown in to hook the existing fans as well. It's one of the reasons for this persistent idea—one I'm asked about pretty often for this column—that Marvel doesn't have "classic" stories like DC. They do, just not the same kind. DC has standalone stories; Marvel has these immense long runs that are set firmly in a shared universe, like Claremont and Byrne's X-Men, Simonson's Thor, Lee and Romita's Spider-Man, Gruenwald's Captain America, and so on, which makes it a lot harder to package them as bite-sized, complete units for the mass market. Books like Squadron Supreme, which are self-contained and are honestly about as good as Watchmen, were few, far between, and frequently out of print or uncollected.

Licensed to kill

Point being, in 1996, Marvel was desperate for cash, and one of the strategies they tried was licensing out their major characters for movies. It might seem obvious, but up to that point, Marvel's big-screen efforts had actually been pretty dismal: a couple of rough attempts at Captain America, an ill-fated Fantastic Four movie from legendary B-movie director Roger Corman that only existed as a bootleg for years, the widely panned Howard the Duck, and the underrated 1989 Punisher movie that was maybe a little too much like the comics of the time for its own good.

At the same time, TV efforts like the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons had proved to be hugely successful—especially in terms of selling action figures—and even the old Incredible Hulk TV show was something of a pop culture touchstone. Clearly, the characters were appealing—which is why they were the ones that Marvel rushed to license. Spider-Man, after a super complicated licensing issue that I'm not even close to fully understanding, wound up at Sony, and the X-Men went to Fox, the company that not coincidentally owned the TV network that aired the cartoon, along with Fantastic Four. But while they were the major ones, there's another one that beat them to success in film: Blade.

That might be the weirdest but most telling thing about Marvel's entire run of movies: it wasn't the big-name franchise players that gave them their first big hit, it was, to put it charitably, a C-list character who'd never really held down his own title, and whose movie didn't even include his own arch-nemesis. But it was proof that filmmakers could make it work with obscure characters that could blend genres into something that felt different, something that seems pretty obvious when you're looking back 20 years later, when we've got two successful, big-budget movies featuring Rocket Racoon.

And hey, if you ever doubt how important the Blade films were to the very idea of the modern comic book movie, just look at what the guy who wrote them is up to these days.

Marvel Studios

Since the licenses were partially meant to bolster the company's finances, it wasn't until 2003 that they decided they could cut out the middleman and produce the movies themselves, relying on studios for distribution. By then, however, Fox's X-Men movies and Sony's Spider-Man series were hits, meaning that the newly formed Marvel Studios were left with what in the late '90s had been some of their least important comics properties. You know, Captain America, the Avengers. Those guys.

That's what's really interesting, as a fan of the comics, about seeing the rise of Marvel Studios. As hard as it is to believe it today, the Avengers have only really been a big deal recently. Don't get me wrong, there are great stories from throughout their history, but while Cap and Thor had great solo stories, they were never the characters that Marvel was built around. In terms of who was a big deal, it was the Fantastic Four from 1961 until the X-Men took over in 1975, and then it was the X-Men for the next 30 years, with Spider-Man running at a close second all the while. The Avengers were always around, but they were never the franchise, and neither were the members' solo adventures.

That's why so many of us were surprised when 2008 rolled around and the Iron Man movie was a) really good, b) quickly positioned as the cornerstone of a sprawling franchise, and c) popular enough to make Tony Stark a household name.

Separation anxiety

So here's where it gets weird. The fact that the Avengers were always part of "…and everything else" actually works in their favor when it comes to movies. Spider-Man had always been better as a solo character, and—as evidenced by the fact that there's like ten movies and a handful of TV shows over the past two decades—the X-Men had been The Biggest Deal long enough that they basically had their own whole universe to work with. With both of the other major pieces of the universe working comfortably as standalone properties, the Avengers movies are free to draw on everything from Captain America to Doctor Strange to weird outer-space stuff lifted from Planet Hulk.

The problem, however, is that the Marvel Universe of the comics is so tightly knit and interconnected that when something can't be included, it winds up feeling notable by its absence. Which we might have never noticed if it wasn't for Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

See, as I understand it, Fox's deal about the X-Men meant that they got the media rights to every mutant, and considering that the entire reason mutants exist in the Marvel Universe was that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby figured it would be easier to create new characters if they didn't have to come up with a different origin every time, that's a lot of people. That's how you end up with jokes like the one above, from Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, who claimed to be a mutant in her first appearance (and a couple times since), but apparently turned out to be fibbing and, purely by chance, will be in a TV show produced by Marvel Studios next year.

Exceptions and rules

The Maximoff kids, though, are a weird special case. They're definitely mutants—they're literally Magneto's kids, which is about as mutant as you can get—but they were also a part of the Avengers as early as 1965, and Wanda is way more identifiable as a part of that team than any version of the X-Men.

Because of that, Quicksilver became the only character to actually appear in movies from both studios, with a reference to his sister cut from one of the X-Men movies and a not-too-surprising death getting him out of the MCU. Even that came with an agreement that the movies just wouldn't talk about each other—which is why the Avengers movies go out of their way to call them anything and everything but "mutants"—and the whole thing just seemed weird.

But what if they didn't have to go through all that trouble? What if, starting right now, they could just talk about all of it and throw whatever they wanted into a movie?

The trouble with mutants

Here's the thing: In at least the case of the X-Men, I'm not sure they'd actually want to. That's not a judgment on the characters, either—the record will show that I like the X-Men a lot. It's about how the universe has been built.

Admittedly, they'd probably figure out a way to get Wolverine in there just because not doing so would leave a ridiculous amount of money on the table—and honestly, I pity the poor guy who has to step into the role after 17 years of Hugh Jackman—but when it comes to the larger world of the X-Men, I'm not so sure. They have, after all, spent the last decade studiously building a shared universe that specifically avoided the very concept of mutants.

That makes the X-Men a really tough group to wedge into a world that already exists to the extent that the MCU does, even without the part where they've been studiously excluded. It's not just a matter of introducing a single character. That's relatively easy, even when it brings something big with it—the magical world of Doctor Strange and the nation of Wakanda in Black Panther, for instance, are meant to be things people don't know about, giving us a reason why we as the audience are only hearing about them after ten years and a dozen films. Mutants, though? They're meant to be everywhere.

That's the entire idea of the way people react to them, something that's absolutely essential to the central metaphor of the X-Men and how they work. And since we've already seen Senate hearings about superpowers (in Iron Man 2) and a Registration Act (in Captain America: Civil War), two classic plot elements strongly tied to the X-Men, without a single mention of teenagers with laser beams shooting out of their faces, the fact that it hasn't come up before would be weird.

Putting it all back together

Of course that doesn't mean they can't do it. One of the biggest things to hit those movies in a long while was, after all, Marvel Studios hammering out a deal with Sony to bring Spider-Man into the fold. Spider-Man, however, has a lot of advantages the X-Men don't. For one thing, as mentioned above, he's traditionally a solo hero, and for another, the fact that he was defined as a young adult means it actually makes a lot of sense that he'd be showing up a little later.

But at the same time, they definitely didn't take the easy way out with Homecoming. No matter how you feel about that movie—and it's my favorite of the whole bunch—you have to hand it to them for tying it into the larger MCU on pretty much every level. Iron Man serving as a mentor figure (and providing the blueprint for a plot that has echoes of his character arc over the course of the movies), the Vulture's plot being entirely built around the events of the first Avengers movie, even Captain America's PSAs and the gym coach's confusion over whether he's a war criminal now thanks to the events of Civil War. If that's not the closest the Marvel movies have ever gotten to a comic book style footnote, I don't know what is.

So while I'm sure it would be difficult, it's not like those movies have been leery of facing the challenges inherent inherent in bringing comics to the screen. Heck, the last one had an appearance by friggin' Bi-Beast, and I don't think any of us saw that one coming.

Crisis on Infinite Cinematic Universes

If we're being completely real with each other here, all they really need to do to get the X-Men there is just have 'em show up and let the audience deal with it, and there are plenty of weird comics ways to do it. Stray radiation from the Infinity Gems, for example, could spark a new wave of mutations among the population, explaining why there are so many now when they had been rare enough that Charles Xavier and his students had been operating in secret and went unnoticed. And that's just the first thing I thought of off the top of my head.

I think the biggest problem would be getting the audience to buy it, but I'm not really sure that's insurmountable either. On one hand, comics audiences are far more familiar with stray universes being combined with each other and everyone just being fine with it—Marvel just did that last year, and it's kind of DC's go-to move—but on the other, I'm not sure anyone would actually care if it meant they got to see Wolverine fight the Hulk in a movie. And at this point, you could probably just have Deadpool show up and tell the audience directly that they finally sorted out the licensing rights.

With all that said, though, the X-Men aren't actually the ones I'd like to see brought into the MCU. The ones I want are the Fantastic Four. The Marvel movies have always been their best when they embrace the Jack Kirby influence of the comics, and FF is arguably the Jack Kirbiest comic Marvel's ever had. After so many underwhelming attempts, the chance of seeing that team done right is honestly the most exciting thing that Marvel getting those rights back could bring. They could even do it as a period piece set in the '60s, like so many people have suggested before—The First Avenger and Agent Carter have shown us they can do it, and it might end up being the easiest way to work them into the history of the MCU.

But it's not the heroes that I really want to see from the Fantastic Four coming to that universe. There's someone I want way more, someone even more important than the ever-lovin' Blue-Eyed Thing.

Doctor Doom

Seriously, forget about Thanos. Doctor Doom could be the villain in any Marvel movie.

Heck, he could be the villain in all of them.

Each week, comic book writer Chris Sims answers the burning questions you have about the world of comics and pop culture: what's up with that? If you'd like to ask Chris a question, please send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatsUpChris, or email it to staff@looper.com with the subject line "That's What's Up."