Note: This article contains light spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Fans have always been fascinated by the troubled relationship between Marvel and Fox. Back in the '90s, Marvel sold the film rights to a whole slate of their characters to Fox — including both the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. At the time, Marvel was on the verge of bankruptcy and nobody imagined that, 20 years later, Marvel Studios would be a cinematic powerhouse in its own right.
Now we have two rival studios producing movies based on the same comics, and that means things are becoming pretty complicated. How can both studios have access to the character of Quicksilver? Why did Marvel have to make a deal in order to use Ego the Living Planet for #GuardiansOfTheGalaxy2? And did Marvel have to make a similar negotiation to use the Watchers in the same film?
It's time to get some answers.
Here's How The Marvel / Fox Licensing Agreement Works Out
No surprise, the actual Licensing Agreement between Marvel and Fox isn't in the public domain. But that doesn't mean it's a complete mystery; it seems to follow the same pattern we've seen with the historic Spider-Man Licensing Agreement between Marvel and Sony. And that is much less mysterious.
Back in late 2014, Sony were hacked, and a copy of the Spider-Man Licensing Agreement was released to the public. Of course, that's since been superseded — Marvel and Sony reached a new deal in 2015, bringing Spider-Man into the #MCU. Still, it seems clear that the Fox Licensing Agreement is pretty similar.
We'd expect the Licensing Agreement to be split into three categories: characters and concepts that are exclusively available to Fox, shared characters and concepts, and specifically named exceptions. The last category essentially consists of mash-ups such as Spider-Hulk in the deal with Sony, so we can pretty much ignore it in this piece. Let's take a look at the other two categories — and see how they apply to Fox.
1) Characters And Concepts That Are Exclusively Available To Fox
The first category will be characters and concepts who are exclusively available to Fox, and cannot be used by Marvel Studios. You'll have a long, exhaustive list of characters and ideas — including the very word 'mutant' — that are primarily associated with the #XMen and the #FantasticFour. There'll also be some carefully-worded clauses ensuring Fox can use characters Marvel develop going forward, which is why the studio can use characters like Negasonic Teenage Warhead and X-23.
Here's the interesting thing, though. It seems that Fox doesn't have the rights to switch up these characters too much. Fox actually had to approach Marvel and do a deal in order to radically redesign Negasonic Teenage Warhead for Deadpool. In return, Marvel got the rights to a character who was previously held exclusively by Fox — Ego the Living Planet, who played such a major role in #GuardiansOfTheGalaxyVol2.
It's actually pretty surprising to hear that Ego the Living Planet was originally a Fox property; the character is strongly associated with Thor. It seems that, back when Marvel first signed over the license to use the Fantastic Four, they included the rights to a vast chunk of their cosmic range.
2) Specified Shared Characters And Ideas
Now here's where it gets really interesting — certain named characters are shared between Marvel and Fox, the most obvious examples being Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. As far back as 2012, Kevin Feige admitted that these two superheroes were shared properties.
"It’s a little complicated. If they want to use them in the ‘X-Men’ movies they could, if we want to use them in the ‘Avengers’ movie we could."
It didn't take long for the 'ifs' to become a reality. Joss Whedon was already months into work on Avengers: Age of Ultron when Fox switched gears on X-Men: Days of Future Past, replacing Juggernaut with Quicksilver. Ultimately we wound up in the awkward situation of both studios using the character!
It seems the Licensing Agreement with Fox also specifies alien races that are shared between Fox and Marvel. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 introduced us to the Watchers and, clearly, they seem to be shared. As #KevinFeige told SlashFilm:
"There’s joint custody with a number of things. There are certain characters that they have, but races that we share. If that makes sense?"
That cryptic comment likely means that Uatu, a Watcher strongly associated with the Fantastic Four, is signed over to Fox — but the Watchers as a race are available to both studios. Last year, #JamesGunn revealed that the Skrulls are in a similar position:
Surprisingly, though, in the same interview with SlashFilm, Kevin Feige has said something ever-so-slightly different. The interviewer mentioned that Marvel doesn't own the Skrulls — and Feige interrupted him:
"Yeah, we do."
It's an intriguing comment. Feige may just be referring to co-ownership; we saw no evidence that either studio needed to tell the other before planning to use Quicksilver, suggesting both see it as ownership. Or Feige may be hinting that the rights to the Skrulls have changed since July 2016. It's pretty much impossible to know without more information.
Still, this definitely seems to be how the relationship between Marvel and Fox plays out. Some characters are exclusively available to Fox, but others are shared between the two studios. The shared rights complicate the issue, and that's why fans are often getting confused.
Here's the fun thing, though. The Watchers are available to both Fox and Marvel; given that the X-Men franchise is headed in a cosmic direction, I wouldn't be surprised if Fox gave us a glimpse of Uatu in the near-future. Just as in the comics, that would give us a bald-headed race of aliens who transcend different realities, continuing to bind the Marvel-based movie universes together.
And that would be unbelievably cool.