The film rights to Marvel's vast stable of characters is often a point of dispute and conjecture. After the jump, I'll strive to settle the matter with definitive quotes from studio executives when I can and give as clear of a picture of who owns what as possible.
None of the conclusions here will be speculative. The goal is to provide evidence and facts that can help settle disputes. I will certainly be updating this piece as more information becomes available, but for now please spread this around and help your fellow Marvel fans get some fact-based clarity on the film rights to a handful of Marvel's characters. The rights in question only apply to live-action properties and not any animated projects. In the case of those, it seems that Marvel can do just about anything they want.
Kang the Conqueror
While a lot of MCU fans have hoped and speculated that the time-traveling Kang would end up being introduced in Phase 4, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn has made it clear we won't be seeing him.
While Kang has predominantly been a foe of the Avengers, his origins in and ties to the Fantastic Four will apparently keep him from taking on the heroes of the MCU.
CONCLUSION: Kang's rights reside at Fox.
One of the primary alien species in Marvel comics, the Shi'ar have always been closely tied to the X-Men and, for that reason, their rights reside with Fox as James Gunn revealed in the quote above. This is just further confirmation of something that was pretty clear before when Gunn revealed that Gladiator, the Emperor of the Shi'ar, could not be used in a Marvel Studios' film.
It's interesting to note that it appears that the only major alien species that can be fully utilized by Marvel Studios are the Kree.
CONCLUSION: The rights to the Shi'ar sit at Fox Studios.
In one of the biggest stories of the first quarter of 2015, Marvel Studios has worked out a deal to begin using Spider-Man (and possibly any of the characters from the Spider-Man family) in MCU films beginning as soon as Captain America: Civil War. The deal, it is believed, will also allow Sony to connect it's Spider-Man films to the MCU by using existing characters in those movies. This deal seems like a win-win for both sides with Sony getting a boost from the success of the MCU and Marvel Studios now being able to use one of their most popular characters in their films.
CONCLUSION: Spider-Man's rights reside with Sony, but Marvel Studios can now use him in their ensemble films.
Marvel's shape-shifting alien race is arguably one of the most discussed group of characters when it comes to film rights and rightly so. They first appeared in the Fantastic Four and have also been a constant throughout the years in many of the Avengers' crossover events such as the Kree-Skrull War and Secret Invasion. Until recently, it was assumed that the Skrulls' film rights sat with Fox and they'd eventually turn up in the Fantastic Four film series. That assumption was based on another assumption that the film rights to the Marvel characters were black and white, an assumption recently proven inaccurate when both Fox and Marvel Studios announced they'd be using Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver in upcoming projects, revealing a grey area in film rights of which the majority of the fanbase was unaware.
As far back as 2012, however, a picture of the rights to the Skrulls was being painted.
Entertainment Weekly chatted with The Avengers director Joss Whedon in March of 2012 about the identity of the film's alien threat which, if you recall, was shrouded in mystery at the time and the source of a lot of internet speculation. Whedon told EW, “I will say only this: It is not the Kree or the Skrulls.”
“Those two aliens are Marvel mainstays and have enormous backstories,” he continued. “They have a big life of their own that just could not be contained in a film where I already had seven movie stars.”
In an interview with CHUD from May of 2012, Kevin Feige addressed the idea of why the Skrulls did NOT turn up in The Avengers:
"Yes, Skrulls have a big connection to Fantastic Four. So there are some contractual limitations about who can do what when it comes to Skrulls. Though that is not why we didn’t do Skrulls. There is already enough going on in this movie."Those quotes give an inkling that while the Skrulls weren't used in The Avengers, it was not because they couldn't be used. Whedon and Feige would be two people with the best information on the matter and, when asked, neither said the Skrulls weren't used because of film rights and Feige pretty clearly stated that film rights was NOT the reason they weren't used.
For added clarity, consider this quote from Guardians of the Galaxy director, James Gunn, from an interview with io9 published in February of 2014:
"Marvel only partially owns Skrulls, and also for the record, we don't own the Badoon either. So people were asking why we have the Sakaarans in the film, we don't own the Badoon."
Taking Gunn at his word, it's clear that the Skrulls do exist in the same sort of grey area as Wanda and Pietro Maximoff. Logically, one can expect that Marvel Studios can use the Skrulls but would not have the rights to a character such as the Kl'rt, the Super Skrull, who is imbued with the powers of each member of the Fantastic Four, likely making him the sole property of Fox.
CONCLUSION: The Skrulls are a shared property between Marvel Studios and Fox. Each studio can use them, but there will be limitations as to how.
Namor, the Sub-Mariner
Namor's film rights come up often as he would make a welcome addition to many potential story lines in the future of the MCU. As a member of Marvel's Illuminati, Namor has had a hand in shaping the comic universe and his contrarian view point would make for many interesting debates. While the character entered into the Marvel universe via the Fantastic Four, his rights are not at Fox as one might expect given his origins or his moniker as the "first mutant." His rights, as of now, reside at Universal Studios as confirmed by Kevin Feige via Empire Magazine with the simple comment,"That's at Universal."
Universal Studios was bought by Comcast in February of 2013, though that's yet to have any significant impact on a Namor film. In 2004, Universal began developing a Namor film by hiring David Self (Road to Perdition) to write a screenplay and hiring Chris Columbus to direct and eventually announced a 2007 release date. After Columbus left the project, Universal tabbed Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) to direct only to have the film hanging in development hell.
This comment from Feige was a little stunning and conflicted with a comment by Marvel's Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada's "Cup O'Joe Panel" at London's KAPOW Comic Convention in May, 2012. During the panel, Quesada mentioned that Namor's rights had reverted back to Marvel to the best of his knowledge. In this case, it seems Feige's knowledge trumps Quesada's, though it's right to question how long it will be until Namor's rights do revert to Marvel Studios, allowing one of Marvel's oldest characters to join up with longtime allies and enemies.
In fact, a recent interview with Feige shines an interesting light on Namor's rights. While talking to IGN about the subject, Feige said,"Namor I think is a little complicated, the way some of them are." To my ears that sounds a whole lot different than he belongs to Universal. It's possible that Namor is one of the characters open to both companies or that Marvel could use with Universal producing as they did with The Incredible Hulk in 2008.
As of late May, 2014, evidence is starting to mount that the rights to Namor may have returned to Marvel Studios.
On July 18, 2014, confirmation of the return of Namor's live-action rights to Marvel came in an interview with Kevin Feige.
When the rights to Daredevil reverted back to Marvel in 2013, most assumed that meant the rights to one of his main antagonists, Wilson Fisk, came along as a part of the package. However, a 2012 quote from Avi Arad, one of the producers of Sony's Marvel films, proves that's not the case. When asked by SuperHeroHype if Sony or Fox had the rights to the Fisk, better known as the Kingpin, Arad replied:
"Believe it or not, Kingpin was on loan to Daredevil, so again, anything that is part of the Spider-Man Universe or introduced in the Spider-Man Universe--without getting too legal beagle here--is an opportunity, and if we have a story that Kingpin is important, I'm sure we can handle that."Very recently, in an interview with IGN, Feige said of the rights to the Kingpin,"Kingpin we either have or somehow share. I'm not 100 percent clear on that one." With a Daredevil series forthcoming in 2015 from Netflix, perhaps Sony, who does have a good working relationship with Marvel Studios, will be willing to work out a deal to allow the Kingpin to enter the MCU.
CONCLUSION: The most recent info suggests that while Kingpin was used by both Fox and Sony, he's in play for Marvel. His rights have either been fully returned or he is one of the "grey area" characters like the Skrulls and the Maximoff twins.
UPDATE: The Kingpin, played by Vincent D'Onofrio, will co-star in Season One of Marvel's Daredevil, airing on Netflix April of 2015.
Another character widely-associated with Daredevil is the female assassin, Elektra, portrayed by Jennifer Garner 2003 Daredevil film before starring in her own 2005 release. Many people thought the rights to the character existed as part of a Daredevil package, returning to the studio in 2012. However, Variety reported in August of 2012, that was not the case.
The rights to Elektra seem to be a little confusing, though. In May of 2013, Kevin Feige reported the news a little differently in an interview with Collider:
"Electra(sic) is part of the Daredevil contract, I believe. I believe, don’t quote me on that, I’d have to check with legal and it would take a long time and I’d have to get on the phone with business affairs, but I think she’s included under the Daredevil rights agreement."So, it boils down to who do you think knows best: Variety or Feige. Until evidence surfaces to the contrary, despite Feige's uncertainty, I'll side with him.
CONCLUSION: Elektra's film rights reverted to Marvel Studios as a part of the Daredevil deal.
UPDATE: Elektra was referenced in Season One of Marvel's Daredevil and, it is expected, will play a key role in Season Two as audition tapes have recently leaked.
While this one seems pretty cut-and-dried, it's interesting to note that after the film rights reverted back to Marvel from Sony in May of 2013, Marvel/Disney had to jump through some legal hoops to hold onto them after Gary Friedrich, creator of Ghost Rider, filed a lawsuit against Marvel over copyright issues. Marvel settled with Friedrich out of court, avoiding any further complications with the property.
After regaining the rights to Ghost Rider, along with Blade, Punisher and Daredevil, Kevin Feige told Entertainment Weekly:
"Whenever a character comes back to us, it's usually because the other studios don't want to make the movies anymore - and that usually means the [previous] movies may not have been particularly well-received. They all have potential, but we're not going to say 'We got it back - make it.'While that certainly doesn't sound good for the reclaimed properties, remember that we'll see Daredevil on Netflix in 2015. Marvel has recently reintroduced the property into its Marvel NOW! initiative with a new Rider, Robbie Reyes, and has had a recent history of using the comics to get characters into the mainstream consciousness before adding them to the MCU. It's possible that Marvel has some plans for the character, though nothing has been revealed to the public.
CONCLUSION: Ghost Rider's rights, after a short legal battle, reside with Marvel Studios.
Taskmaster is one of Marvel's very unique and very cool villains, but one with whom casual fans are unfamiliar. Director Joe Carnahan aimed to change that a while back, working with Fox to develop a Taskmaster film in after originally being lined up to work with Marvel for a limited-run Taskmaster comic series. In a 2010 interview with SuperHeroHype, Carahan revealed a bit of his vision for the character's film:
"For Alex (Young, producer of "The A-Team") I was going to do Taskmaster. Originally I wanted to do Juggernaut ’cause I had a really good take on that, and then Taskmaster was something we talked about, and I haven’t discussed it with him for ages, but I would love to get back in. I love the idea of a guy with photographic reflexes, he can see something and repeat it, I thought that was such a cool idea. I think there’s a Moon Knight series where he just beats the sh*t out of Taskmaster and kind of ruined him, and it’s a cool character. I think it might be one of those Marvel characters you really need to reimagine because he’s got the whole skull and cape—it’s a bit grandiose I think—but it would certainly be a cool thing."Alex Young was the co-president of production at 20th Century Fox until being moved into a role as a producer where he worked on films such as A Good Day to Die Hard and Unstoppable. All signs would indicate that Taskmaster's rights rest with Fox. Rumors swirled that Taskmaster would show up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but those have since been proven false. Given the likelihood that Marvel Studios do not own his rights, it wouldn't have been possible anyway. It seems very strange that Taskmaster, a villain who was introduced in the Avengers comics, would show up anywhere but the MCU, but there's no real clarity as to why the rights were at Fox.
Outside of the interview with Carnahan, a quick search did not supply any other information about the rights to Taskmaster reverting back to Marvel.
1/13/16 Update: In an interview with Deadpool director Tim Miller, it was revealed the the rights to Taskmaster are no longer under the control of Fox.
Uatu, the Watcher
Every event that's ever gone down in the Marvel Universe has been observed by Uatu. His recent death in the comics has sparked the Original Sin limited series and some tie-ins where many deep secrets of the comic universe have been and will be revealed. Don't, however, expect to see Uatu in the MCU anytime soon as it's extremely likely that his rights reside solely with Fox Studios. That's not surprising in the least as Uatu's first appearance was in The Fantastic Four #13 where he foretold the coming of Galactus. The letter below, which if proven to be an actual artifact sent out to Marvel artists, likely includes a list of the major characters to whom Fox owns the live-action rights. While there have been a lot of rumors about Marvel eliminating these characters from the pages of the comics in order to hurt Fox's new Fantastic Four film, those rumors have been denied by people at Marvel. Only time will tell, but it's pretty clear that we won't be seeing Uatu in the MCU.
Conclusion: Uatu's rights are at Fox.
The Badoon are an alien species that had a relatively minor role until they became the conquerors of the 31st century and the nemesis of the original Guardians of the Galaxy. They were set to appear in James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy until, rather late in the process, he learned the rights for them were at Fox as he revealed in a podcast. Gunn replaced the Badoon with Sakaarans in Guardians of the Galaxy, but it's unknown if Gunn had some further plans for the Badoon in future sequels.
CONCLUSION: The rights to the Badoon are with Fox.
Kallark, the Majestor of the Shi'ar empire (one of Marvel's big intergalactic races of aliens) is one of the biggest players in the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning Cosmic corner of Marvel. Unfortunately, it seems he won't be seen alongside other Abnett and Lanning's most well-known group, the Guardians of the Galaxy, anytime soon as director James Gunn explained during a Facebook Q & A:
Given that Gladiator first appeared as a Chris Claremont creation in Uncanny X-Men, it's not surprising that his rights are not at Marvel Studios but likely with FOX.
Conclusion: Gladiator's rights are at FOX.