X-Men, Fantastic Four, Marvel, Fox and a rumoured conspiracy

Feature James Hunt 3 Jun 2014 - 06:07

Is a fractured relationship between Marvel and Fox leading to the end of Fantastic Four comics and no X-Men toys?

Recent days have seen some intriguing accusations being about the way Marvel is currently handling some of its characters – specifically, the properties licensed to Fox to make movies from, namely the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

The rumours break down into two main issues.

The first, a piece of gossip originally broken by Bleeding Cool, suggests that Marvel is deliberately reducing the visibility of the Fantastic Four characters, and will soon cancel both of its Fantastic Four comics until after the release of Fox's 2015 movie so as not to give its partners and competitors at Fox any help with publicity.

The second issue is industry veteran Rob Liefeld suggesting that the relationship between Marvel and Fox is so strained that Marvel won't allow the production of movie-licensed X-Men products. Liefeld comments that although Fox controls the licensing, Marvel has the ability to nix merchandise, and exercises that right.

These are some interesting allegations, but are they true? Let's look at them in more detail.

Fantastic Four Cancellation

At present, there's no suggestion that either of Marvel's Fantastic Four comics – Fantastic Four and Ultimate FF – are cancelled. They both recently underwent a relaunch, and despite some ambiguous wording in the latest solicit for Ultimate FF, nothing suggests they're about to conclude.

But if they were cancelled, one can only beg the question of what that would actually achieve in Marvel's favour. The latest available sales estimates on Fantastic Four (covering print sales in the US only) were low: just 35,000 copies sold. The latest issue of Ultimate FF sold even fewer, at 23,000. If Marvel were to can these books, that'd be 50,000 fewer people giving money to Marvel each month, which is a not-insignificant dent in the publishing arm of the firm. But when a movie trailer can get millions of hits on YouTube, 50,000 people is hardly going to matter to Fox. In a very direct sense, to cancel Fantastic Four, Marvel would be cutting off its nose to spite its face.

The allegations hold that this isn't a business issue, but an emotional one: that Marvel's higher-ups, specifically Ike Perlmutter, have a problem with Fox holding onto its characters. Perlmutter allegedly thinks that Marvel can afford not to publish Fantastic Four, whereas multiple X-titles represent a huge chunk of its business and are therefore safe.

It's an enticing narrative, but not one that necessarily holds up. Until the rights reverted in 2013, other studios also controlled Ghost Rider and Daredevil. The former has been subject to multiple launches since the licensing deal was made (and after it ended) as Marvel tried to find a take on the character that'd stick. The latter would have been far easier to shuffle away than Fantastic Four, because Daredevil only has one solo title. If something has changed in the way Marvel treats comics based on Fox-licensed characters, it's a very recent change indeed.

Non-Use of Characters

Tied up with the rumoured Fantastic Four cancellation, there's a suggestion that Marvel has been instructed not to promote appearances of the Fox-licensed characters. This would account for the non-appearance of both the Fantastic Four and the X-Men on the front cover of the Marvel 75th Anniversary Omnibus.

On one hand, there's something of a smoking gun for this rumour: an instruction to artists not to use the Fantastic Four characters on Marvel sketch cards, including related characters like Galactus and the Silver Surfer, who are tied up with the Fantastic Four movie rights.

But on the other hand, there's no instruction not to use the X-Men characters on sketch cards, even with a new X-Men movie just out and a new one in active development. And the memo specifically mentions The Watcher - who has just been made the focus of Marvel's latest crossover - and The Silver Surfer - who just got a very high-profile relaunch from one of Marvel's best-selling writers.

Even if the notice is genuine, it suggests that Marvel is trying to stay away from the Fantastic Four specifically, rather than all Fox properties, and not even in the comics. It could be that Marvel is trying to protect itself from a licensing dispute with Fox over whether Fantastic Four cross-media appearances count as movie tie-ins. It could just be that it wants to increase visibility of Marvel Studios characters in general, as a way of channelling business energy and value into properties it owns.

It could even be that it's planning to leave the Fantastic Four fallow for a short while. This would explain both cancellation rumours of the comic and character non-appearances outside of comics. Marvel previously turned low-seller Thor into one of its top titles by cancelling his book and leaving him off the table for a while before a high-profile relaunch. Could it be looking to do the same with the chronically low-selling Fantastic Four? A movie release would provide the perfect opportunity to relaunch the book after a year or two away, after all…

No X-Men Toys

Liefeld makes a good point about the recent lack of X-Men toys, compared to the onslaught of goods that accompanies Marvel Studios' films, and even Sony's Spider-Man movies. But then, there haven't been any X-Men movie tie-in toys since X2. Marvel Studios wasn't releasing movies until well after the toy-less X-Men: The Last Stand. Those who were there will remember the amount of peg-warming junk that accompanied the release of the first two movies, so it's not that it can't do it. It's that one (or both) of them doesn't want to.

It'd be easy to place the blame on Marvel, were it not for the fact that there were toys released for the Ghost Rider movie, which came out in 2007 - after X-Men: The Last Stand. So maybe it's not that it can't do toys for X-Men. Maybe it genuinely doesn't want to.

Why? We can only speculate. Perhaps the demographic of X-Men is such that it doesn't want to put toys out and make people think it's aimed at kids. Perhaps it lost so much money doing it the first two times that it can't convince anyone to do it again (for all the hit X-Men movies, only the most recent has grossed over $500m worldwide). Either way, it's far from the cut and dried reality that it may appear. 

How bad is the Marvel/Fox relationship?

It's fair to say that Marvel and Fox probably don't get on as well as Marvel and Sony, and there are examples we can point to beyond the issue of toys.

For instance, Marvel has done tie-in comics and adaptations of the recent Amazing Spider-Man films, but hasn't done an X-Men movie-verse comic since X2 was released. Then, perhaps crucially, Fox rushed to insert the scene-stealing character of Quicksilver in X-Men: Days Of Future Past just after Marvel Studios announced him for Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age Of Ultron movie. Quicksilver's X-Men moment though amounted to a great but wholly inessential appearance for the character.

Further evidence? Marvel launched a new Amazing Spider-Man comic the same month as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out in cinemas, starring Electro, the villain of that movie. It hasn't synergised with Fox like that in years. Not since Wolverine: Weapon X came out around the same time as X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Rumour-mongers would have us believe Marvel is trying to do as little as possible to enhance the value of the Fox-owned properties - because why should a film studio spend money on a license it can't exploit in other media? If Fox doesn't use those licenses, it'll have to hand them back, leaving Marvel free to make its own X-Men and Fantastic Four films, which may indeed be the endgame.

But on the other side of the coin, Marvel publishing has to make money. Despite what people think, Disney doesn't subsidise the comics arm of the business: it has to pull its own weight. And if that means tying into movies that Marvel didn't actually make and using characters that Marvel Studios can't exploit, so be it. If there's any reason for the lack of synergy between Fox and Marvel, it might just be down to what Tom Brevoort has said in the past on his Q&A Tumblr: that Marvel isn't privy to the development of Fox's movies, and most of the time it doesn't know what's in those films until it actually sees them, which makes planning tie-ins impossible.

Clearly there are lots of things that suggest the relationship between Marvel and Fox isn't perfect. But Marvel is still a business. We can see why people might see personal malice in their decisions, particularly given Ike Perlmutter's reputation - but if these things were happening and Marvel was leaving money in people's pockets as part of a personal vendetta, then one imagines Disney's other shareholders would eventually have something to say.

Either way, now that the rumours have been voiced, analysed and denied, it's all but guaranteed that there's almost no way to know for sure what was going on. Maybe Marvel will change tack, maybe not. We won't be able to tell whether it did or didn't. Either way, you can bet that this is the most people have talked about the Fantastic Four comics in a while. No such thing as bad publicity, right?

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