The rumors have been circulating for a long, long time — and debate among the fans has been seriously heated. If you believe many sites, Marvel has been engaged in an act of corporate sabotage to undermine the X-Men and Fantastic Four in a desperate attempt to regain the film franchises. But is this fact or fiction? Let's look at the evidence...
First: A Lesson In Logic
Let's start by checking the basic logic. Films sell better than comic books. That means #Marvel can use the films as an opportunity to promote their comics. The comics, however, do not affect the marketability of a film. Marvel could cancel every single X-Men-related comic-book and piece of merchandise, and Fox’s movies would still perform pretty much the same.
In other words, if Marvel think cancelling comics and merchandise will hit Fox, they’re deluding themselves. Given the corporate giant that is Disney behind them, and the shrewd decisions underpinning the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m loathe to think that Marvel are so absurd.
But that’s logic, and does the logic hold up to the facts? Let's look at the narrative choices and marketing decisions that Marvel and Fox have made, and see if we can find evidence of conflict.
The Death Of Wolverine
First up, the death of Wolverine, a comic book plot that left fans shocked back in 2014. It seemed like a direct attack on Fox; there's a running joke that their movies should really be branded as 'Wolverine and the X-Men.'
But here's the catch; comic-book heroes die all the time. Ever since DC killed off Superman in the '90s, the Big Two publishers have competed to launch high-profile death stories. Major fatalities of the 2000s included Batman and Captain America, while Spider-Man was mind-swapped with Doctor Octopus for a while. The higher the hero's profile, the more likely they are to be killed in spectacular fashion. You then usually get a 'legacy' comic — and that's exactly what we saw with Wolverine. The aftermath of Logan's death saw Marvel publish a weekly comic entitled Wolverines, and in the aftermath of 'Secret Wars' we soon saw Marvel publishing no less than two legacy comics. Right now, in the 'ResurrXion' line, it's already something of a joke that every team needs a Wolverine in it.
In fact, this was arguably the best time for killing Wolverine. Over-exposure had led to declining sales; gone were the days where Marvel could throw in a gratuitous Wolverine team-up to save a book from cancellation. No, Wolverine had already been reduced to a shadow of his former self, in a way more real than the loss of any healing factor. Marvel needed to give the Canucklehead a break.
Meanwhile, the House of Ideas clearly decided the time was right to have their cake and eat it. Not only did they kill off Wolverine, they brought in a future dystopian version known as Old Man Logan. Just in time for this year's much-loved Fox blockbuster, #Logan, which was loosely inspired by Mark Millar's classic 'Old Man Logan' arc. Marvel clearly attempted to create a synergy between the comics and the film releases.
You can see exactly the same pattern with #Deadpool. Marvel used 2015's Secret Wars event to carefully up the Merc With A Mouth's profile, and he even became a major character in an Avengers team. More recently, they've even kicked off a relationship between Deadpool and fan-favorite Rogue, one that's surprisingly sweet.
In an interview with Comic Book Resources back in August 2015, Axel Alonso was quite open about the reason Marvel was giving Deadpool more exposure. "There's a movie coming out," he noted.
The Fantastic Four
But what about the cancellation of the #FantasticFour comics? Marvel has claimed that this was because of consistently poor sales, and that argument checks out. Fantastic Four has long been a book that everybody felt good knowing was around, but that nobody read. By the time of the book's cancellation in 2015, the sales had been in a state of decline for over a decade, in spite of Marvel putting major talent on it.
In a recent interview with Newsarama, former Fantastic Four writer Jonathan Hickman explained that the films did have an impact — but not in the straightforward way you'd think.
"I think it’s pretty common knowledge at this point that Marvel isn’t publishing Fantastic Four because of their disagreement with Fox. While it bums me out, I completely understand because, well, it isn’t like they’re not acting out of cause. Fox needs to do a better job there."
Although Hickman's quote has been widely misreported, he actually appears to be suggesting that Marvel dropped Fantastic Four in part because the films were proving to be so poor. Far from delivering a shot in the arm to a dying franchise, the movies were adding to the sense that the brand was currently beyond saving, and Marvel decided to give them a rest in order to try to build demand again. It's an approach Hickman, for his part, clearly hated.
Notice again that this isn't a case of Marvel acting against Fox; instead, it's a case of them hoping to synergize the comics and the films. Here, they found there was no synergy, and as a result the comic was cancelled.
Quicksilver And The Scarlet Witch
Now let's look at another controversial narrative. Back in 2014, Rick Remender's AXIS event rewrote Marvel history. We learnt that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch weren't Magneto's kids after all; they were the 'offspring' of the High Evolutionary. The revelation left fans reeling.
Now, first of all, let's get some perspective. The origin of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch is one of the abiding continuity issues of all time. Are they the children of Miss America and the Whizzer? Are they Magneto's twins? Or are they — as hinted in the days of Stan Lee himself — the result of an experiment by the High Evolutionary? Marvel chose to return to that older concept, and it seems largely to have been a deliberate attempt to distance the Scarlet Witch from the #XMen brand. X-Men fans would never be willing to forgive the character for a controversial extinction plot in the early 2000s, where she almost wiped out the mutant race, so she could never flourish as an X-Men character. In the aftermath of AXIS, Marvel has essentially redefined her as a literal witch, with a dearly-loved series that carefully rewrote her powerset.
As for Quicksilver, a quick check of comics featuring the character will show that he's not exactly been a best-seller in recent years. The last time he played a major role in an ongoing was in Peter David's ill-fated All-New X-Factor run, a short-lived series that he felt proved certain characters — likely including Gambit and Quicksilver — just weren't resonating with the fans right now. In the wake of All-New X-Factor's cancellation, it's no surprise that we haven't seen Marvel develop their speedster very much.
It's proved to be a sensible decision, and it won't have made a jot of difference to Fox, who have studiously avoided the character of the Scarlet Witch.
Another Extinction Arc — And The 'ResurrXion'
A third narrative choice emerged in the aftermath of 2016, with the X-Men and the Inumans positioned against one another when it was revealed that the Terrigen Mists were somehow killing off the mutant race. As a result, the X-Men retreated from the world, hiding in the demonic realm of Limbo.
On the face of it, this seemed like a deliberate attempt to troll X-Men fans, who have long believed that Marvel was focusing on the Inhumans at the X-Men's expense. ComicsAlliance caught the mood with a controversial article entitled, 'Marvel Still Pissed at Fox, Using Inhumans to Kill the X-Men.' But the argument was too simplistic; Marvel brought in some major figures, including writer Jeff Lemire, who would hardly agree to write the story of the X-Men's decline. Meanwhile, two of the books — Uncanny X-Men and All-New X-Men — deliberately avoided heading into Limbo, continuing to integrate the characters with the characters with the wider Marvel Universe. Kitty Pryde joined the cast of Guardians of the Galaxy, and Beast took on a major role in Uncanny Inhumans. The isolationist strategy didn't dominate the books in the way it had during the 'Utopia' era in the mid-2000s.
It's a matter of record that this approach backfired, with sales dropping through the floor. Marvel swiftly realized that a rehashed extinction plot wasn't resonating with the fans, and brought it to a hurried end in the Inhumans vs X-Men event. More recently, they've relaunched the entire franchise in the 'ResurrXion' line.
Carefully blending the current Marvel Universe with strong elements of nostalgia, including hints of a restored relationship between Colossus and Kitty Pryde and a new series of Generation X, this relaunch seems to have been fairly successful. In part that's because Marvel put together another team of tremendous writers, including Marc Guggenheim, Dennis Hopeless, and Christina Strain.
The Narrative Choices Of The Films
Now here's where things get really interesting. Turn away from the narrative choices of the comics for one moment, and look instead to the films. When both Marvel and Fox announced that they'd feature Quicksilver in their movies, eyebrows were raised. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, we learned, occupy a space in the mysterious contract between Marvel and Fox that is difficult to define; they can fit into both franchises.
Fox hit first, with a strong Quicksilver. But, interestingly enough, although initial comments indicated their Quicksilver had a sister, they were soon denying that this was the Scarlet Witch. Marvel hit second, and their Quicksilver was just as strong — and wound up dead. Marvel chose to focus in upon the other twin, the Scarlet Witch.
Whether amicably or through back-room legal brawls, Marvel and Fox seem to have come to an agreement. Fox focus on Quicksilver, Marvel on the Scarlet Witch. It's actually very possible that the sudden frenzy of Quicksilvers to hit the big screen was accidental, rather than intentional, as key figures have publicly claimed.
So, do the narrative choices indicate a war between Fox and Marvel? No, just the opposite.
The Chris Claremont Quote
Back in 2014, legendary comic book writer Chris Claremont left X-Men fans reeling when he mentioned an editorial edict that stopped him creating new mutants. He literally went so far as to say creating a new mutant character would lead to "a war between a publishing company and a film company." With Claremont dearly loved by X-Men fans, his comment was taken as the ultimate proof of Marvel's frustration with the X-Men.
Unfortunately, it also didn't make any sense at all. Claremont himself went on to create new mutants in his short-lived Nightcrawler series. At the very same time he made that observation, Brian Bendis was liberally introducing new mutants — ranging from Hijack to Matthew Malloy. In fact, the 2014 Uncanny X-Men and All-New X-Men annuals actually starred the new mutant Tempus, a character created by Bendis.
I don't understand what Claremont was talking about in his interview, but the simple truth is that his claim can safely be dismissed.
The Television Shows
The conflict between Marvel and Fox really began in the early 2000s, when Marvel worked with Fireworks Entertainment to launch Mutant X. Fox promptly sued Marvel, claiming the property was too similar to the X-Men, and that they had exclusive rights to the franchise on the small screen. Relations between the two companies swiftly devolved into a series of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits, but were ultimately resolved in a "confidential" manner.
Ironically, though, the small screen now provides the best evidence that the conflict between Marvel and Fox is over. Back in December 2015, Marvel and Fox announced that they were working together on two X-Men shows. the roster has changed a little since then, with The Gifted substituting for Hellfire, but that partnership seems to be flourishing. Noah Hawley's Legion was beloved by fans and critics, and The Gifted is currently one of the most hotly-anticipated TV series of 2017. The two companies have been developing these projects for over a year and a half, and their successful teamwork is certainly a cause to rejoice.
A Marketing Crisis
If we turn to marketing, though, we find ourselves on solid ground. From 2014 through to 2016, Marvel definitely did cut down on promotion of the X-Men. You can name a dozen examples, from a reduced number of action figures to their not being visible on the covers of anniversary books. Finally, in May 2015, XM Studios made a (swiftly-deleted) statement that added fuel to the fire.
Here we have it, in black and white. A merchandising company were told to cut out all X-Men content. It’s a pretty dramatic statement, but notice what it doesn’t say.
It doesn’t say Marvel told them to stop.
The Mutant X lawsuit back in the early 2000s left Fox in a position where they had the power to disrupt any merchandise they felt would affect their franchise. If Fox felt they could stop merchandise, and then work to get their own out instead — well, that approach would make real business sense.
More recently, we've seen the X-Men begin to appear in merchandise again. They've recently been added to the Future Fight mobile game, and there have been hints they'll soon appear in Avengers Academy as well. Marvel and Fox are currently working together on an as-yet-untitled mobile RPG. Whatever issues were going on behind the scenes finally seem to have been resolved.
Meanwhile, interestingly enough, the opposite is happening with the Fantastic Four. They've been dropped completely from Marvel Heroes. Meanwhile, there have been intriguing reports that artists have been told to stop promoting characters associated with this brand in merchandise, and these may even have given us a sense of what characters form part of the Marvel-Fox contract! As with the comics, these disappointing decisions may reflect Marvel's general unhappiness with the current state of the franchise, rather than an actual conflict with Fox.
So there you have it. The rumors of conflict between Marvel and Fox have been overstated. In truth, the comics have been attempting to synergize with Fox's successes, an approach that we can expect to continue with the release of next year's Deadpool 2 and New Mutants. It's only where sales have been declining, and no synergy is possible, that Marvel has chosen to cancel.
When you look at the merchandise rights, though, you do see evidence that there was a conflict of some kind going on behind the scenes. Thankfully, with the companies working together on projects like Legion and The Gifted, they seem to have put that conflict behind them. As a lover of Avengers Academy, I'm certainly eager to see Marvel's merry mutants appear in that game!