Since my last article, “On Superhero Film Fatigue,” I’ve been asked by a few people to discuss the topic of Fox/Marvel film rights. I only briefly touched upon Fox’s X-Men franchise in that post, and the questions I’ve been asked are warranted: how do the X-Men films stack up against those being produced by Marvel Studios themselves? Why did Sony come to Marvel and decide to work with them on the Spider-Man franchise, while Fox has yet to do the same with the X-Men and Fantastic Four? What is the likelihood that Fox will ever work with Marvel, or furthermore, sell the rights to their franchises back? Seeing how I am an unabashed expert with an unrivaled business acumen*, I’ll share with you my correct and completely objective views on all of these questions.
*This statement is false.
First, how do the Fox X-Men films stack up? Well, first off let’s just establish that they’re not making as much money as The Avengers. Those are record-breaking films and nothing in the cape genre short of maybe Batman v Superman will touch them for a while. However, they’re still making a highly respectable amount of money; enough to rival most of the secondary Marvel Studios films. In the summer of 2014, X-Men: Days of Future Past made $748 million on a $200 million budget. For perspective, in the last article we talked about what a smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy was in the same summer. That made $774 million on a $196 million budget. It’s certainly worth noting that the X-Men are an established franchise and the Guardians are not, and that Guardians still did better. However, that’s not something that Fox has to be overly concerned about. After all, it’s not like they made less money just because Guardians made slightly more. They came out three months apart in the summer, and for the most part that demographic is going to see both films.
A second comparison to note is The Wolverine against another film discussed in the previous article, Ant-Man. They came out on almost the same week (one week off) two years apart, and their results are almost identical. The Wolverine grossed $415 million against a $120 million budget, while Ant-Man (to date, as it’s still performing in some areas) has pulled $407 million against a $130 million budget. Again, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is far more established and recognizable than Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, so if we’re looking at it from that perspective, it’s ultimately another win for the Marvel Studios brand. But from the perspective of the question at hand – do the Fox X-Men films stack up – this proves that they can hold their own without any financial concerns (unlike 2015’s Fantastic Four disaster from them).
Let’s change lanes and focus on the question of why Sony has chosen to work with Marvel Studios for their Spider-Man franchise, whereas Fox has not done the same. From my point of view, this one is actually relatively simple to answer. Sony has been in a bit of financial trouble over the past year or two and there were unofficial reports that they were unhappy with the performance of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in spite of its $709 million gross (though this was against a $255 million budget, so the profit margin is notably smaller than many of the other high grossing movies we’ve discussed). Press releases discussing an entire Spider-Man shared universe seemed to contradict these reports however, as they seemed willing to sink money into a plethora of spin-off films, including Sinister Six, Venom, and an untitled female-led film (likely Black Cat).
However, any financial issues must have overcome their desire to expand the Spider-Man film universe, as earlier in 2015 it was announced that Spider-Man would be introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that MCU overseer Kevin Feige would be helping Sony to create the next solo film for the character. It does make sense, in theory. Before the introduction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man in 2008, Spider-Man was likely the most recognizable Marvel hero (and arguably still is). If the Iron Man franchise can break $1 billion with its third film, there’s no real reason that Marvel’s most famous hero can’t either. They just need the rub that being a part of that larger shared universe that Marvel has created can give them. Plus, letting Marvel co-produce any solo Spider-Man films will allow them to put money, time, and resources toward the spin-off films that made need a little extra work to click with a mainstream audience (a Black Cat film might be a hard sell, for example). We already have an animated Spider-Man film announced for 2018 from Sony, set apart from the character that will be introduced in Captain America: Civil War. It stands to reason this will be the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man to avoid any confusion. It also shows that Sony might be playing a smart game; keep making their own Spider-Man related films, and coast off the success of introducing him into the massive MCU line. Financials almost certainly played into it, but they haven’t straight up sold the rights back to Marvel. They’re just sharing them, and it’s primed to put them in a far better position with the franchise than they were before.
That leads us to the final questions here, which is why Fox has yet to work with Marvel in the way that Sony has chosen to? And will they in the future? This is probably the more difficult question to answer, but I’d have to assume a large part of it has to do with them being in the opposite position as Sony. They haven’t had any publicly discussed financial issues over the past several years, so they’re not necessarily in a position where they need to come back to Marvel for help with the characters. The X-Men franchise is steadily climbing back up the ranks in worldwide gross after initially dropping for a few installments after The Last Stand.
X-Men (2000): $296 million
X2 (2003): $407 million
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006): $459 million
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009): $373 million*
X-Men: First Class (2011): $353 million
The Wolverine (2013): $414 million
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014): $748 million
*The gross for this likely suffered due to the leaking of a partially finished version of the film online a month or so prior to its release. The film sucked something fierce, and word of mouth was able to spread around for much longer prior to the film’s release than usual in that scenario.
That franchise is on the uptick as far as Fox is concerned, and they’d hope Fantastic Four could do with some of that rub if they eventually cross the franchises over (Protip: Probably not a good idea right now, guys). Contrast this with Sony where, as I waited to note here, the Spider-Man franchise grosses has been dropping off.
Spider-Man (2002): $821 million
Spider-Man 2 (2004): $783 million
Spider-Man 3 (2007): $890 million
Amazing Spider-Man (2012): $757 million
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014): $708 million
It seems as though people have not connected with the rebooting of the Spider-Man franchise, and this has spooked Sony back to Marvel given their current financial state. Fox is experiencing a revival of sorts with their genre, so they’re far more confident at expanding it on their own. They have three films in the X-Men franchise currently scheduled for 2016: Deadpool, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Gambit. It will certainly be interesting to see how all three perform.
Deadpool has an incredible word of mouth and hype meter right now after the trailer’s release, but it will be rated R which could cut into a huge percent of its demographic. I’m also unsure of how it’ll play outside of the United States, so I’d go relatively conservative with an estimate here and say $350 million. X-Men: Apocalypse has a massive, massive cast, and a villain that many remember from the 1990’s animated series, capitalizing on that nostalgia in a way. I wouldn’t be shocked to see this one squeak past Days of Future Past depending on the marketing for the film (we’ve seen more or less zero since it doesn’t come out until May). I’ll say $775 million worldwide for Apocalypse. Gambit is a really tough one. Channing Tatum is a great fit for the character, and I’d like to say he’ll bring in a demographic that may not normally see this sort of film. It’s another one that relies on 90’s nostalgia, as much of the word of mouth revolves around Gambit being a character that people now in the 20’s and early 30’s grew up with. I think if marketed properly as a heist film with superheroes, this one could do very well for itself. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to debut Tatum as the character in X-Men: Apocalypse, but as of right now, that’s not happening according to producers. It’ll be easier to reassess the question of whether Fox goes back to Marvel with the X-Men after we see what kind of 2016 they have. It’s also worth noting that Wolverine 3 in 2017 will be Jackman’s last run as the character, so that could impact the line as well.
I can’t see a world in which they don’t sell the Fantastic Four rights back by the end of 2016 though. They’ve gone on record as saying the opposite right now but…c’mon. They greenlit a sequel before the first even came out, and are still going to continue work even though it grossed $165 million on a $120 million budget? This is their third time failing with the characters, and at this point they’re just a drain on the division that works on their Marvel properties. There are enough toys in the X-Men sandbox, and the FF aren’t doing that franchise, or Fox as a whole, any favors. I suspect we’ll be seeing the Four, Doom, Galactus, and the Silver Surfer sometime during or after Avengers: Infinity War in a couple years’ time.
Alright, I think that wraps up everything I want to say about the comic book film franchises at the moment. If you want or need me to elaborate on something, leave a comment here, or hit me on Facebook or Twitter. I do tend to write in a rather stream-of-consciousness way, so there’s a chance I just kept rambling and glossed over something. Also, please send me your questions involving comic books, characters, or franchises for future articles. Anything you want to know about, or already know about but want to know more about. Whatever. I’ll write about it.