Note: This article contains minor spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
If there's one thing Marvel fans love, it's a Stan Lee cameo! Given that's the case, fans are sure to adore #GuardiansOfTheGalaxyVol2 — the film gives us the ultimate Stan Lee cameo, one with profound implications for every #Marvel movie ever released. Two wonderful scenes reveal that Stan Lee may have been playing the same person in every Marvel film to date; a mysterious figure who can't resist getting involving in the cinematic universes.
"Stan Lee clearly exists above and apart from the reality of all the films, so the notion that he could be sitting there on a cosmic pit stop during the Jump Gate sequence in 'Guardians' was something very fun.
"[Director] James [Gunn] had that idea and we shot that cameo and loved it so much, you see it a couple of times in the movie. It wasn’t in for a long time and we put it back in towards the end of the process, where he references that time he was a Federal Express agent and we thought it would be fun to keep that in there because that really says, so wait a minute, he’s this same character who’s popped up in all these films as the same person."
As fun as that scene may be, though, it raises an intriguing question; who has the film rights to the Watchers?
The Marvel Cosmic Range Is Divided
You may not have realized it, but vast chunks of Marvel's cosmic range are inaccessible to Marvel Studios. It's well-known that back in the 1990s, Marvel almost went bankrupt; to avert financial disaster, they sold off the film rights for some of their core properties. Most importantly, 20th Century Fox got the rights to the #FantasticFour and their associated characters. Nowadays, Marvel Studios produces its own blockbuster hits, but the rights for many character — including the X-Men and the Fantastic Four — are still owned by Fox. But they didn't only sell these core teams; they sold many supporting characters and concepts as well.
Marvel had a similar deal with Sony, and in 2014, hackers leaked internal files from Sony to give us an idea of how that kind of deal works. One Executive Summary on License Agreements divided characters into three categories:
- Characters that are exclusively available to Sony, including all versions of Spider-Man, a lengthy list of characters, all characters and concepts "Primarily Associated With" the Wall-Crawler, and storylines.
- Specified shared characters and concepts, which could be used by both Sony, Marvel, or even other third parties (the most prominent examples being Kingpin and Jessica Drew).
- Characters that were specifically not available to Sony, mostly mash-ups (e.g. Spider-Hulk, Kitty Pryde's Ultimate Spider-Girl).
We can safely assume that there are similar lists between Marvel and Fox; in fact, that neatly explains why both studios have a Quicksilver character, because presumably, Quicksilver was specified as shared between them.
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 Introduced Some Real Problems
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 introduces us to Peter Quill's father, Ego the Living Planet (played by Kurt Russell). Incredibly though, the character was actually a Fox-only property — thankfully, Fox already wanted to make a trade. As #JamesGunn admitted:
"When I first pitched Ego as Quill’s father, I thought we owned the character. After I had worked out a very elaborate story with Ego the Living Planet as a very important part of the Marvel cosmic universe, I learned that we actually didn’t own the character. I had no back up plan, and it would be nearly impossible to just drop another character in. Thank God Fox came to us and wanted to make a trade."
The trade in question was for Negasonic Teenage Warhead. Fox got to completely redesign the character and powerset for Deadpool, while Marvel got to use Ego the Living Planet.
But here's the thing; I find it astounding that a character like Ego was a Fox property. Although he's had more than a few encounters with the Fantastic Four, he's more commonly associated with Thor (in fact, he was introduced in Thor #132 back in 1966). It really does seem as though vast tracts of the Marvel cosmic universe are specified as Fox properties.
What About The Watchers?
If a character like Ego is a Fox property, why aren't the Watchers? In a surprising twist, Kevin Feige has revealed that the Watchers are actually a shared property, co-owned by Marvel and Fox. Are they working together a little more closely?
Digging A Little Deeper
"I think the early discussions we’ve had with James [Gunn] about '[Guardians] Vol. 3' and beyond with what we’ll call the 'Cosmic Universe' and the Guardian characters is very exciting. Which is why he signed up and we announced that even before 'Guardians Vol. 2' came out."
The success of Guardians of the Galaxy — and the expected success of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — has clearly green-lit a change in approach over at Marvel. The studio is increasingly gearing up to exploit their Cosmic Universe — and rightly so. But the example of Ego proves just how difficult an issue this is going to be; many characters and concepts are likely to be Fox properties. We've literally only had two Cosmic Universe films to date, and already Marvel's been forced to go back to the negotiating table over a character's rights.
Are Marvel And Fox Working Closer Together?
Historically, the relationship between Marvel and Fox has been a difficult one — with Fox even taking Marvel to court over the Mutant X series, which they argued infringed their X-Men rights. Over the last two years, though, fans have noticed that relations between the two studios seem to have calmed down a bit. Marvel Entertainment is even working with Fox Television on two TV shows, hinting at a new attitude of cooperation.
Of course, Marvel Studios is a separate company now, but it's very possible that the spirit of cooperation is running through all three bodies. Now, it's worth noting that I'm not suggesting an explicit deal over, say, the X-Men or the Fantastic Four; after all, just last November Kevin Feige insisted that wasn't going to happen:
"It’s an impossibility at this juncture. We certainly have enough films to keep us busy for a number of lifetimes."
However, Feige was responding to a very specific question about whether or not we'd see a deal between Fox and Marvel that's similar to the current one between Marvel and Sony over Spider-Man. He didn't say that the studios wouldn't become a little more cordial, that they wouldn't start offering one another a little more flexibility on a case-by-case basis. That, it seems to me, explains the decision to include the Watchers in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; it also fits with Feige's confidence over the Cosmic Universe.
All in all, the inclusion of the Watchers isn't just a fun Easter Egg; it's a fascinating hint that Marvel and Fox may well be working more closely together. After all, Fox hasn't exactly seen great success trying to launch the Fantastic Four as a franchise; 2015's Fantastic Four is widely derided, and many of those cosmic concepts are essentially sat on a shelf gathering dust. I can easily see a situation where Marvel begins to offer Fox greater flexibility with the X-Men movies, in return for access to the Cosmic Universe.
It's a very positive sign for the future of the MCU. Because if these two (previously hostile) studios can work things out well enough, perhaps we'll eventually actually see them reach a deal that would bring the Fantastic Four into the MCU completely.
Do you want to see the Fantastic Four enter the MCU?
(Poll Image Credit: Marvel Comics)