Fans have always been fascinated by the relationship between #Marvel and Fox, two rival studios who both produce movies based on Marvel characters. In the 1990s, Fox purchased the rights to Marvel's #XMen and Fantastic Four ranges; although they haven't really seen success with the Fantastic Four, the X-Men have proved themselves one of Fox's most powerful properties.
But how does the relationship work out in practice? As I discussed in a previous post, the Sony hack back in 2014 gave us an idea of how Licensing Agreements between Marvel and another studio are actually structured. The Licensing Agreements are split into multiple sections: the first, characters exclusively owned by Fox; the second, characters available to both parties; and the third, characters who are specifically named exceptions, usually mash-ups. This structure makes sense of conflicting comments from Marvel and Fox, and strange anomalies such as the doubling-up of Quicksilver back in 2014 / 2015.
Now, though, in an unexpected twist, we may have just gotten a glimpse at how the Fantastic Four Licensing Agreement works...
Here's What Happened
Bleeding Cool has long been fanning the flames of controversy, enjoying weaving a narrative of outright war between Marvel and Fox. Personally, I've never found their narrative persuasive; any conflict between the two parties has seemed more based in the realms of marketing and merchandising than anything else. That said, back in 2014, Bleeding Cool broke an interesting exclusive; Marvel had sent instructions to trading card artists not to sketch the Fantastic Four. In an update, Bleeding Cool has just learned that Marvel amended their instruction back in early 2016. They provided a list of some 441 Fantastic-Four-related characters who sketch card artists were to avoid.
And here's where it's interesting; the list is clearly copy-pasted from another document. It's split into two sections; the first is an alphabetical list of 425 characters who are strongly associated with the Fantastic Four. The second is a far shorter list (just 16 characters), again in alphabetical order, pasted in straight at the end. As with the Sony Licensing Agreement, the whole list is all in caps.
Could this list be copied from the Fantastic Four Licensing Agreement? The formatting definitely matches — so let's look at the contents.
What Do We Learn?
This is just the beginning of the first section, and let's face it, these are mainly characters, races and groups most movie fans haven't heard of. Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll be able to confirm that they're all strongly associated with the Fantastic Four. Take Adamantine, for example, who's actually the leader of a French superteam that the Thing briefly joined back in the early 2000s. You can check out the full list on Bleeding Cool, but it's largely what we'd expect. Notice that Namor isn't included — his rights are known to be separate from the Fantastic Four franchise.
There are, however, two anomalies in among the 400-odd character list. The first is Brigadier Alysande Stuart, a character more often associated with the X-Men spin-off team known as Excalibur. She's leader of an organization known as the Weird Happenings Organization, responsible for investigating unusual events in the United Kingdom. I can see no reason she'd be mentioned in the Fantastic Four Licensing Agreement, rather than in the X-Men one.
Here's the catch, though; the character is actually a gender-bent version of Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, a major secondary character in Doctor Who. Nowadays, with Doctor Who enjoying international success, I'd be surprised if Marvel wanted to draw attention to this character. Personally, I think Brigadier Alysande Stuart has been added to the list manually, to instruct artists to avoid her.
A Far More Intriguing Anomaly: Mephisto
The second anomaly is the character of Mephisto. Marvel's equivalent of the Devil, Mephisto is a massively important villain across the range — but, significantly, he's played his most notable roles as an adversary to the Silver Surfer. Given other prominent Silver Surfer villains are named in this list, it makes sense for Mephisto to actually be licensed out to Fox.
But didn't Columbia Pictures use the character of Mephisto in their two Ghost Rider movies, suggesting that the rights are (at least) shared? Actually, no; they used the character of Mephistopheles, the Faustian demon who inspired Marvel's demonic super-villain. In fact, they deliberately avoided both the name and the likeness of Mephisto himself. It's an intriguing detail that makes this list far more likely to be accurate.
Given the length of this first section, it's actually pretty remarkable that only two characters stand out as anomalous and require us to dig a little deeper. That, in itself, is suggestive.
The Shared Characters
If I'm right, though, the true test of this list is surely in the second section — which I believe indicate characters who are shared between Marvel and Fox, or whose rights are more complex. They are:
- Aron the Rogue Watcher
- Diablo (Esteban Diablo)
- Kree race
- Paste-Pot Pete
- Red Ghost
- Ruul race
- Scarlet Centurion
- Skruul race
- Uatu the Watcher
The first anomaly is Kang. Back in 2015, James Gunn revealed that the rights to Kang sat with Fox; however, it's worth noting that he said the same thing about the Skrulls, and Kevin Feige has recently confirmed Marvel has the right to use that race. In truth, Kang is likely a complex case — parts of his story are tied to the Fantastic Four (including his real name, Nathaniel Richards), while he's also been a major Avengers villain. It's possible that James Gunn's comment on Facebook was an over-simplification.
The second anomaly are the Kree. We'd all assumed Marvel owned the sole license to use the Kree; after all, the aliens cropped up in Guardians of the Galaxy, and have played a major role in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. However, if their rights were shared, that wouldn't mean Marvel couldn't use the race. It would just mean Fox could use them too — and, so far, Fox has shown little interest in developing a cosmic corner of its universe. What's more, again, this race have strong ties to the Fantastic Four as well as to the wider Marvel Universe, so it would actually make sense for them to be a shared property.
Now, let's be clear; I can't say for certain that this list is copied from the Fantastic Four Licensing Agreement between Marvel and Fox. That said, we can know the following:
- Just as we'd expect, the list is broken down into two alphabetical lists. The first are (with only one exception) characters strongly associated with the Fantastic Four; the second are all demonstrably more complex.
- The formatting and style matches perfectly with the Spider-Man Licensing Agreement we saw leaked back in 2014.
- In a list of 441 characters, we really only have four anomalies, all of which can be explained with relative ease.
At the same time, I would stress that it's pretty much impossible to verify this full list. No way is Marvel going to comment, after all! That said, personally, I really do think we've just gotten a look behind the curtain. I think Bleeding Cool has unwittingly published a list derived from the Fantastic Four Licensing Agreement. It's a possibility that's surely going to fascinate fans.