The comic book battles behind the big screen

Sally Herships Mar 20, 2015

The comic book battles behind the big screen

Sally Herships Mar 20, 2015

Time to get geeky.

A new X-Men TV show  is on the way — maybe. That’s if Marvel, which created the X-Men, agrees.

Like the plot of any good comic book, this story is a complicated one. In the ’80s and ’90s Marvel was struggling financially and was on the verge of bankruptcy. To raise much-needed funds, the company made what seemed at the time like a super heroic move: It sold the movie rights to some of its characters like the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. Back then, on the heels of comic book adaptations like “Batman and Robin” and “Mystery Men,” no one imagined a movie about comic book characters could make truly big money, says comic book historian and geek consultant Alan Kistler.

“You didn’t know what was going to happen with the X-Men. Was Magneto going to look stupid? How were you going to get someone who could really pull off Wolverine’s hair? No one knew,” he says.

But Fox figured it out in 2000 with its “X-Men” movie.  Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine got high marks for his hair, and the movie grossed almost $300 million worldwide.

“Doing that first X-Men movie was proof that you could do decent superhero movies,” Kistler says.

Then Marvel decided it wanted a piece of the action, and the company came up with a plan to buy back its characters and to make its own movies. But there was a wrinkle. While Marvel got Iron Man back from Paramount and Sony gave up Ghost Rider, Twentieth Century Fox refused to sell back the rights to the Fantastic Four or the X-Men.

That’s when the arguing, and ultimately the lawsuits, began. Marvel created a TV show, “Mutant X”, and Fox sued accusing the company of trademark infringement, claiming the show was nothing more than a thinly veiled copy of the X-Men. The relationship between the two companies deteriorated from there.

A few months after news broke in late 2013  that Fox was making their eighth “X-Men” movie, Marvel announced it was killing off Wolverine. He’s one of the most popular X-Men, and comic book fans quickly grew suspicious.

“I get it from a business standpoint,” says Patrick Hellen, a tech company employee by day and super-Wolverine fan by night, “But at the same time you have fans that have been collecting ‘Fantastic Four’ [comics] since the ’60s that don’t understand why these people they identify with and they enjoy to read are going to go away because of a business deal.”

Fans like Hellen believe that Marvel is willing to sacrifice its comics for the future of its films. That in an effort to thwart Fox’s success on the back of characters it created, the company will change its plots and even kill off its characters — in short, it wants Fox to fail.

Check the message boards and fan forums and this is the buzz you’ll hear Other rumors are circulating too: that Marvel has also told writers to stop creating new X-Men characters and that one of its classic comics “Fantastic Four” is being cancelled to derail Fox’s new movie.

Translated from the world of comic book to popular culture as a whole: Marvel’s doing away with the Fantastic Four would be like the record label EMI taking a hit out on the Beatles.

But it’s fans like Hellen, who are avidly following all of these corporate ins-and-outs,  that are one of the biggest reasons Fox doesn’t want to sell its movie rights back to Marvel.

“There’s a built-in audience, a proven audience,” says Jonathan Handel, an entertainment and tech lawyer with the law firm of TroyGould in Los Angeles.

When it comes to making movies, says Handel, knowing you’ve got ticket buyers takes a lot of the risk out. Think about movie series that have done well recently: The “X-Men” series, “The Hunger Games,” “Harry Potter” and all the interconnected films under the “Avengers” umbrella.

“What all of those have in common is that before there was a movie, there was something else. A comic book, a book, a character,” Handel says.

And it’s those characters, the Wolverines, the Fantastic Fours and so on, that are the root of the problem. There’s a lot of money at stake. For Fox, for Marvel and more recently another player.

“Disney is now much more powerful than these other studios,” says Sean Howe, author of “Marvel Comics: the Untold Story.”

Disney bought Marvel in 2009, and Howe says the Mouse House can afford to play tough. He acknowledges that if Marvel manages to win the film licenses for its characters back, the company stands to make a lot of money, but he says the whole scenario is surprising.

“It just seems implausible that Marvel would stomp on the graves of its beloved 50 year old characters,” he says.

But he doesn’t have another explanation for why the company would want to off Wolverine. And if Marvel or Fox have any other motive, no one knows, because the companies aren’t talking. How says that’s not surprising. 

“That’s another big part of the way Marvel works in the 21st century: silence and hardball,” he says.

Is that superheroic?

“Sometimes it seems like super villainy,” he says.

But if you’re worried about Wolverine or any other character, know that in the world of comics — of parallel universes and crime-solving talking ducks — anything is possible. Dying in a comic book doesn’t mean you’re dead.

“Captain America died for a while, but then he got better. So it happens,” Hellen says.

And just this once let’s let fans write the end of a story. If customers are willing to buy comic books or movie tickets, companies should  give them what they want.

“If a customer wants to see a sketchy dude with claws going up against a guy dressed in red, white and blue and carrying a shield, then figure it out guys,” Hellen says. “Find a way to make it work.”

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