Why doesn’t Marvel own the rights to all its characters? How does this impact the MCU?

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a huge success, in spite of the fact that it's missing several major players

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Avengers: Endgame had a huge ensemble cast consisting of super heroes from all over the universe, but even still it reflects only a small selection of characters from the original Marvel comic books.

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Moving forward into its next phase, the company still has a wealth of material to mine from… including the addition of hugely popular characters that they have only recently regained access to.

Here’s everything you need to know about why these iconic heroes are only now coming into the fray and which famous faces are still off limits…

Why don’t Marvel own the rights to all of its characters?

Mark Ruffalo's Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok (Marvel, HF)
Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Marvel was in serious financial trouble, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1996.

The move came during a tumultuous time for the comic book industry as a whole, which was struggling with a crash caused largely by a glut of “collector’s editions” that were expected to become valuable, but in reality were almost completely worthless.

Marvel was purchased by a toy manufacturer called Toy Biz and in an effort to pay off its debts, the company auctioned off its film rights to several major Hollywood studios.

Which characters did Marvel sell to other studios?

Andrew Garfield in 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man (Sony)
Andrew Garfield in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man

The characters that Marvel lost in these deals were from its most popular comic books at the time.

Spider-Man was purchased by Sony, who went on to produce a trilogy with Tobey Maguire and two films with Andrew Garfield, before collaborating with Disney to fold the character into the MCU.

The studio also bought Ghost Rider and had two stabs at adapting the edgy property, both times with Nicolas Cage in the title role.

20th Century Fox also saw great success, purchasing the rights to the X-Men characters and launching a long-running franchise led by Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.

The studio made other notable Marvel investments, taking the rights to blind vigilante Daredevil and associated characters like Elektra, allowing them to make the film adaptations starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner.

Finally, they also bought the rights to the Fantastic Four, releasing two films starring Chris Evans and Jessica Alba, as well as an unsuccessful 2015 reboot.

New Line Cinema, now owned by DC Comics studio Warner Bros, bought the rights to vampire hunter Blade and made a trilogy with Wesley Snipes.

Universal became home to the incredible Hulk and are responsible for both the 2003 film directed by Ang Lee and 2008’s soft reboot which is technically part of the MCU.

What impact has this had on the MCU?

X-Men 2
Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in X-Men 2

The main impact that these business deals had on the MCU is that they necessitated putting some of Marvel’s less popular characters front and centre.

Back in 2007, when the first Iron Man film was yet to hit cinemas, the Avengers team and its individual members were practically unknown to much of the general public.

As a result, Robert Downey Jr’s first outing as Tony Stark was viewed as a huge gamble that could well have ended in disaster.

The likes of Thor and Captain America were similarly unknown quantities back then, but over the course of their respective movies have become firmly established brands.

The most glaring omission from the MCU thus far has been the lack of mutants, as the X-Men regularly crossover with the Avengers characters in the comic books.

Do Marvel have all the rights back to its characters now?

Marvel's Daredevil
Charlie Cox in Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix

Almost, but not quite. When a studio purchased the rights to a Marvel character, part of the agreement was that if they didn’t make any films about them for a certain number of years, the rights would revert back to Marvel itself.

This is exactly what happened to Daredevil and Ghost Rider after they proved to be box office disappointments, as well as for Blade, a popular franchise which went dormant after the critically panned third entry.

As a result, Marvel were able to make the Daredevil Netflix series, feature Ghost Rider in Agents of SHIELD, and are currently working on a Blade reboot with Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali.

Marvel took a big step towards making their universe whole again when Disney merged with 20th Century Fox last year, the owners of the X-Men and Fantastic Four. Both major properties are now looking at MCU incarnations sometime in the next few years.

The big holdout right now is Spider-Man as the character is still owned by Sony Pictures and this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Right now, the character is able to appear in the MCU due to an agreement between Sony and Disney, but as the events of last summer proved that may not always be the case.

This ownership also means that other characters who are central to the Spider-Man mythos, most notably villains Venom and Carnage, are also owned by Sony and currently contained in a franchise believed to be separate to the MCU.

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In addition, Universal still owns the rights to a solo Hulk movie, which some have speculated as the reason why Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner hasn’t branched out into his own franchise, as well as rights to the character of Namor the Sub-Mariner – Marvel’s equivalent to DC’s Aquaman.