Ever since Samuel L. Jackson stepped out of the shadows at the end of Iron Man and uttered the words "The Avengers Initiative", Marvel Studios has been building toward a singular, cohesive cinematic universe connecting all of their films and crossing over storylines/characters just like the comic books have done for over 60 years. That dream was realized with the release of The Avengers, the culmination of Marvel's "Phase One" slate of films. Since then, the studio has continue their success with further sequels to their stand-alone hero films and they're seeking to up the ante with Avengers: Age of Ultron and the introduction of Ant-Man into their cinematic universe. Unfortunately, as most fans would tell you, Marvel currently does not possess the movie rights to several of their most popular franchises, resulting in their film world that feels mildly out of sync for longtime readers of the comics. For a while, it seemed like this is the way things would be. However, the bursting popularity of the films has ushered in a resurgence of interest in the books, and from the looks of several decisions they've made regarding their properties across all media, it would appear that Marvel is in the midst of a real-world initiative of its own: to reshape their comics to directly and similarly match their cinematic properties.
A Film Universe Divided
Prior to 2008's Iron Man, Marvel's live-action endeavors were developed quite independent of any thought of a cohesive vision. Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. sold options to movie studios to produce films based on Marvel Comics characters in the late 1970s. While many of these never resulted in actual films being made, they did produce such results as a Dr. Strange TV movie, television series The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man, all which aired in 1978. This continued up to the early 1990s, amid looming bankruptcy, which gave rise to a Captain America film by cult director Albert Pyun and an adaption of The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren. Since all of these films were produced by completely different studios, they all existed in their own self-contained universe, with neither existing alongside or referencing the others.
When the Marvel Cinematic Universe was unofficially launched with Iron Man, Marvel had the rights to most of the core Avengers but many of their second and third tier heroes still belonged to other studios. In that time, Marvel has retained all of them with the exception of the X-Men and Fantastic Four franchise of characters at 20th Century Fox and the Spider-Man franchise of characters at Sony/Columbia Pictures. Fox has, for the most part, seen huge success from their X-Men films. Their FF film, not so much and there are nervous feelings surrounding their upcoming reboot. Regardless, an over $3 billion return on their X-Men films ensures that those rights aren't going anywhere. Between Sam Raimi's trilogy and both The Amazing Spider-Man films, Sony has cleared around $3.5 billion. While Marvel's films have earned an estimated $7.16 billion (and that number is expected to rise exponentially in the coming years) they're still losing out on another $6 billion from characters that they created, essentially. It seems that their plans for a cohesive universe is being poised to launch across all platforms, and Fox and Sony seem to be the last obstacles in the way of this. In the past few years, Marvel has made some changes both to their film world and comic properties to bring this more in line and some of them also seem to be outright malicious toward the controlling film companies.
Nick Fury And Phil Coulson: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
When Marvel began publication of their Ultimates brand, it was clear that the entire line would take queues from and be inspired by current films, both Marvel and otherwise. The character of Nick Fury was reinterpreted as an African American but remained relatively unchanged from his mainstream counterpart until he resurfaced in The Ultimates #1, where he had been redesigned to look like actor Samuel L. Jackson by artist Bryan Hitch. The similarity is even noted within the comic itself, when the heroes discuss who they think should play them in a hypothetical movie. Fury's answer for himself is "Mr. Samuel L. Jackson, of course, no discussion." This is ultimately what led to Jackson actually playing the character in the stinger for Iron Man.
Another character from that film that became hugely popular with the fanbase was Agent Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg. As a film universe character, he did not exist in the established mainstream comic book canon at the time, and neither did "the black Nick Fury" who had become even more popular. Marvel decided to change that with the "Battle Scars" mini-series which introduced a character named Marcus Johnson, an African American serviceman who returns home with his fellow Army Ranger nicknamed "Cheese" after his mother is murdered and becomes targeted by agents of Leviathan (the Russian version of HYDRA). It is revealed that he is the son of former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury and his true name was Nicholas Fury Jr. Further in the story, he ends up losing his left eye, making him almost the spitting image of Samuel L. Jackson's Fury and ultimately ends up joining S.H.I.E.L.D. alongside Cheese, who is revealed to be Phil Coulson. While some saw this as a cheap move in order to cash in on the movies' popularity, others saw it as a prudent move on Marvel's part. The black version of Nick Fury has gone on to appear in every media form depicting the character to date, which seems to reflect this.
Marvel And 20th Century Fox: The Maximoff Wars
The characters of Pietro (Quicksilver) and Wanda (Scarlet Witch) Maximoff have the distinction of being one of the few who are staples of both the Avengers and X-Men comics (Wolverine being the other). Fans have been clamoring for years to see these two brought to the big screen and they got their wish when Bryan Singer announced that the character would appear in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Imagine the shock just a month later, Joss Whedon revealed that he was planning to include Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron. This was possible due to their unique status as both core X-Men and Avengers and the character rights contract with allowed 20th Century Fox to utilize the character but they could not refer to any of their Avengers-related backstory. Marvel/Disney seem to have the most restrictions as they are not able to reference their familial relation to Magneto or even as mutants at all (since Fox holds the rights to the mutant concept). These are two very big pillars in their character and the dueling versions is sure to cause confusion and argument among fans about which ones are the "real" ones.
Marvel has found a way to settle that argument via last month's issue of Avengers Vs. X-Men: Axis #7, in which Scarlet Witch casts a spell designed to affect all those of blood relation to her. While the spell effected Quicksilver, Magneto remained unscathed; revealing that he was not their father as had long been thought. This brings into contention if the two are even in fact mutants at all. This seems to be designed to reflect the upcoming Age of Ultron version of the characters, and with the hints Marvel has been throwing around on "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." lately, it's assumed that their version of the Maximoff twins will be Inhumans in lieu of mutants; thus making the Marvel Cinematic film universe's depiction the closest to the current comic book canon.
Fantastic Four: Cancelled!
With the exception of the cast photo above and some leaked pictures of the new Doctor Doom, virtually nothing has been seen from the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot from director Josh Trank (Chronicle); and given 20th Century Fox's track record with the franchise, many fans are taking this as a sign that not all is right with Marvel's First Superhero Family. Since Fox has the FF film rights, this also precludes Marvel from using or referencing key characters such as Galactus, the Silver Surfer and the Skrulls (which necessitated Marvel using the Chitauri as replacements for them in The Avengers). Writer James Robinson and artist Leonard Kirk launched a new Fantastic Four series in February 2014, which the former has confirmed will be cancelled later this year with issue #645, saying that:
"The book is reverting to its original numbers, and the book is going away for a while."
The film reboot is slated to hit theaters in August of this year, and more than a few people have noticed the peculiar timing in Marvel cancelling one of their core, long-standing titles just as a film adaption from another company is set to release. The company denies that this was not intentional, but one can't ignore the implications of this. No FF in the MCU, no FF in 616.
"Deaths" of Wolverine and Deadpool
Reiterating what was previously stated, the X-Men film franchise is one of the highest grossing superhero franchises ever. As far as Marvel is concerned, it is second only to Sony's Spider-Man in domestic gross with the Iron Man films running close second. Prior to the release of The Wolverine, fans were disappointed with the last two films featuring the character, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine; the latter of which also featured fan-favorite Wade Wilson aka Deadpool, whose depiction fans were also not satisfied with. The Wolverine successfully returned the character to its high point and with Ryan Reynolds set to return as Deadpool in a spin-off film, it seems Fox is taking the correct steps moving forward in regards to their cinematic universe. However, in the land of comic book movies, the books drive the movie sales and the movie sales in turn drive the book sales. Marvel has thrown the proverbial wrench in the Fox movie machine by killing off Wolverine in the "Death of Wolverine" mini series that ran late last year. The company is planning to do the same thing to Deadpool in "Deadpool #250," available this April. This comes after a strong year for the character, another coincidence that has to be anything but. Writer Gerry Duggan told Nerdist.com:
"I will say the death of Wolverine was very sort of serious, I think as with all things Deadpool, even when something horrible is happening, I do think it will be enjoyed by the reader. Even the most horrible things that we've done to him, you know, are still fun. I hope. I think. This is definitely a blunt, over-sized celebration of that."
That being said, I'm sure there's a very serious agenda behind the "deaths" of these two characters. Notice that they aren't screwing this heavily with their core characters (arguably) but the fact that these two in particular are on a cinematic upswing keeps leading back to Marvel doing this intentionally.
Another key point to mention is the relationship between Wolverine and his arch-nemesis, Sabretooth. Around the time Wolverine's first solo movie was released, there was still a lot ambiguity surrounding their relationship in the comics. The "Origin" mini series depicted a character nicknamed Dog Logan who was revealed to be Wolverine's half brother and grew up to greatly resemble Sabretooth. Fox decided to run with this and made the two characters brothers on film in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a move that was praised in its concept but trashed in its execution.
For years, there was confusion and debate amongst fans regarding if the two would eventually be revealed as brothers. Marvel provided the answer four years later with Wolverine and the X-Men #26, in which Dog Logan is transported from the 19th century the present day with a completely new character design, thus establishing that he and Victor Creed aka Sabretooth are two completely different characters and rendering the cinematic version a far departure from official canon. Many see this as a completely wasted opportunity by Marvel Comics for potentially huge story arcs, but it ultimately all falls into them trying to get the comics continuity more in sync with the cinematic one. And for all intents and purposes, it seems to actually be working.
Marvel Studios has a lot going on over the next 3 years or so with Phase II of their cinematic universe wrapping up with Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man, then Phase III launches which will include Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 & 2, Captain Marvel and Inhumans. On top of that, Netflix will be airing a "Defenders" mini-series proceeded by "Daredevil", "AKA Jessica Jones", "Luke Cage" and "Iron Fist". After that, it's anyone's guess where the MCU will go, but seeing as how they can literally draw from any comic book property they want (save for X-Men and the Fantastic Four) the sky is literally the limit. 20th Century Fox is looking to expand their X-Men cinematic universe with X-Men: Apocalypse, Wolverine 3, Deadpool, Gambit and X-Force as well as The Fantastic Four 1 & 2. With the changes being made to all of those comics, you can bet that whatever Fox establishes in their films will immediately be rendered non-canon in the comic books. That goes without saying in regards to Spider-Man, whom fans have wanted to see in the MCU ever since Iron Man. And with the lackluster performance of the last 2 Amazing films and rumors of a deal with Marvel to have the character appear in Avengers: Infinity War, it's clear that Marvel and Disney are making it a point to ensure that all of their character rights return home.