It’s not too surprising that Marvel and Fox are engaged in a little “secret war” of their own, over the licensing of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. But as Fox presses forward with movies based on both properties, that war is slowly becoming public. Here’s a guide to how Marvel is trying to erase two of its biggest superhero teams.
This conflict has only recently began to blow up (especially in the past few weeks, as we’ll get to later.) But this whole scenario actually has roots that stretch far back into the 90’s.
When Marvel Studios was still Marvel Films, and due to severe financial problems the company faced in the 90’s, Marvel sought to steady themselves by working together with other film studios to make movies, rather than attempt them themselves (attempts up to that point were disastrous at best). In 1993, Marvel penned a deal with Fox to give the studio the rights to make an X-Men film, a plan solidified four years later with a 7-year deal that would grant Fox access to the Fantastic Four as well. In that time Fox created both X-Men in 2000, which played a huge role in the revival of superhero films at the turn of the century, and Fantastic Four in 2004, securing them the rights for longer.
Although the current conflict allegedly stems from a breakdown in negotiations between Fox and Marvel over the Fantastic Four last year, it’s those decisions in the 90’s that have kept the two sets of characters out of Marvel’s hands to this day.
As sad as it is to contemplate, the actual comic books aren’t all that important in the business of money-making these days for Marvel — who, thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, now have a multi-billion-dollar film franchise. But the comics are still fertile ground for Marvel to “get at” Fox, directly through the characters — if you mess with the source material, you can mess with the film adaptations.
There have been myriad small adjustments to the comics over the years, to bring them closer to Marvel’s movie vision, for better or worse. But two recent events have been seen as directly related to the ongoing feud: The cancellation of the Fantastic Four’s ongoing series earlier this year, a move many never expected Marvel to take, and the recent decision to tie prominent mutants Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver closer to the origins portrayed in Marvel’s own Avengers: Age of Ultron by saying that they were never mutants at all. There have also been recent rumors that the company might attempt to spin the X-Men off into their own alternate universe, following the current Summer Comics event Secret Wars, but Marvel has repeatedly denied this.
Where the feud has been most public recently has been through the sale of things that aren’t comics, however. The comics website Bleeding Cool has long kept track of merchandising changes — but recently there have been several egregious examples of Marvel excluding the X-Men and Fantastic Four from toys and clothes. Last year, a list of Fantastic Four-related characters that were allegedly not allowed to be used as part of a series of collectible cards celebrating the companies’ 75th anniversary got leaked to the site, but the latest (and most bizarre) alterations highlighted by Bleeding Cool have come from T-Shirts, funnily enough.
The first can be seen in the header image — a new shirt based on the 1984 Secret Wars #1 has been edited to remove X-Men and Fantastic Four-aligned characters, replacing them with heroes such as the Inhuman Black Bolt, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Iron Fist (who all conveniently have live-action adaptations from Marvel Studios coming soon). The second is above, another Secret Wars cover: this time the iconic cover to December 1984’s Secret Wars #8, an even more half-hearted attempt to remove The Thing, Mr. Fantastic, and The Human Torch from the final shirt (but leaving the Torch’s jet of flame behind).
But it’s not just photoshopping characters out of T-Shirts — the company is also withdrawing the license to use the X-Men and Fantastic Four in products. Last year, Mondo revealed that Marvel flatly said it would reject any poster designs featuring the Fantastic Four. Flash forward to this week, and Collectibles company XM Studios announced that they have had to cancel multiple X-Men related statues currently in production, due to “undisclosed reasons” relating to their deal with Marvel (revealing that the same reasons also happened to apply to potential collectibles based on the Fantastic Four as well). Even action figures aren’t safe — Hasbro’s Marvel Legends Infinite Line has produced a single mutant this year, Scarlet Witch, the first X-Men related figure since August of last year. It’s been even longer since a Fantastic Four entry in the line.
Although they’re slowly starting to be phased out on the merchandising front, of the two affected comics the X-Men are probably safer — but only because their comics actually still sell well. Aside from negotiations turning sour last year over what would eventually become Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, Marvel’s lack of support for its first family has largely come down to the fact that their comics haven’t been selling (hence why that, following their own series cancellation, the FF team will still appear in other series). The seeming lack of public interest in the Fantastic Four, outside of discussing their upcoming movie or the aforementioned weird merchandise cleansing, has largely driven Marvel’s decision to wind down their support of the characters. That this comes just as Fox is beginning to promote its new cinematic reboot of the team is perhaps merely a coincidence.
As long as the X-Men books sell as well as they do, they’ll likely never come under the same level of messing with that the Fantastic Four have.
Right now, at least in the comics, it means that the spotlight will be taken away from them for a bit. The Fantastic Four will no longer be series stars, but supporting characters for other ongoing comics (most likely the comics that are being positioned for Marvel’s movie universe — the Avengers, Spider-Man, and the upcoming Inhumans series).
The X-Men, while still popular — both on screen thanks to the semi-reboot of the movies with First Class and Days of Future Past and within the comics themselves — will largely stay the same. But they will likely have to share their limelight more and more with the similarly ostracized superpowered beings that make up the Inhumans. Following the announcement of their own movie, the Inhumans have been elevated from formerly niche stars in the comics to upcoming major players, both through their own ongoing comic series Uncanny Inhumans and through appearances in Agents Of SHIELD on TV.
But it’s hard to imagine a world where Marvel doesn’t keep attempting to get the Fantastic Four and the X-Men back from Fox. Which means that what we’re seeing now — changes in the comics to take the focus away, merchandise and collectibles slowly drying up — will probably continue. Marvel is unlikely to stop until some of its most recognizable heroes are back under its control.