Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Legal Challenges of Comic Book Movies

Super heroes have become a dominant force in American cinema, and the prevalence of super heroes has inspired studios to create movies that overlap with other movies to create “cinematic universes.” There is a lot of complexity attached to these cinematic universes that may escape the notice of the average moviegoer, and this post will try to draw attention to some of the complexities of the intellectual property law surrounding super heroes.

There are two major companies in charge of super hero comic book publication, Marvel and DC. DC owns the rights to heroes like Batman and Superman. It is also a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Entertainment, which means that the same company owns the film rights to these characters and does not have the same complicated legal structure as Marvel. Marvel, which is currently owned by Disney, owns the rights to characters like Spider-Man and The Avengers. Marvel and DC have always allowed their characters to appear in other books owned by the company. 

While the DC and Marvel shared universes were generally distinct from one another, crossovers were not unheard of. One character owned by both parties, Access, has the power to move between each company’s comic universe. Both companies own the rights to the character, and both have published stories featuring the character independent of the other company.

Even the flagship properties that define each company are rooted in legal controversy. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the Superman character and sold it to DC Comics in 1938. Later that year, Siegel proposed stories featuring a young Superman, referred to as Superboy. DC did not respond to this suggestion, but later published a story featuring the Superboy character in 1944. The creators sued for the rights to both characters in 1947, with the Supreme Court of the State of New York ultimately deciding that DC owned Superman while Siegel owned Superboy. You can find a copy of this decision here. These ownership issues have plagued the character through his entire existence. While the character as presented in Action Comics #1 will enter the public domain in 2033, legal disputes over ownership of the character have happened as recently as last year. You can read about the most recent developments in the most recent case addressing these disputes, Larson v. Warner Bros. Entertainment, here.  

As an aside, you may wonder about the clunky language about the character "as presented in Action Comics #1." This is because elements that became associated with the character after his initial publication may wait longer to enter the public domain. For instance, Superman's heat vision was not introduced until years after the character's initial publication, and would not enter the public domain with the initial elements of the character. You can read more about these later developments to the character in Siegel v. Warner Bros. Entertainment

For a long time, the shared universe was a unique aspect of comic books, and each comic book movie or property was treated as an individual property. Film rights are different from publication rights, and the film rights to flagship characters found their way to a number of different production companies. For instance, Marvel sold the film rights to the X-Men, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four characters years before they began their cinematic universe project.

Each of these transfers has caused its share of issues for both studios, including some amusing pieces of pop culture trivia. The cleanest of these is The Fantastic Four. Marvel sold the rights to its flagship property to Constantin Film in 1986. In 1992, the studio created an adaptation of the property, allegedly never meant to be released. It existed solely so that the studio could retain its rights to the property, according to articles like this one from Los Angeles Magazine. The film was never officially released, and has become something of a pop culture legend. The fourth season of the television series “Arrested Development” features a plotline based loosely on the production. 20th Century Fox then obtained the rights to the property, and has since attempted to start a franchise with the property in 2005 and 2015.

20th Century Fox also owns the film rights to the X-Men, and has regularly produced films using those rights since 2000. While the mechanics of comic books mean that there is no perfect line between the X-Men and other Marvel properties, most characters clearly belong to one franchise more than the other. The Wolverine has appeared in Avengers comics, but belongs in the X-Men film rights. These lines are not as clear for some characters, though, such as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. The children of primary X-Men antagonist Magneto who eventually joined the Avengers, neither franchise could claim exclusive ownership of the characters. The end result is that both film franchises have featured these characters with limitations on their use within the property. For instance, The Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch found in Marvel films do not have the same backstory that they had in comics, and are no longer “mutants,” as Marvel’s mutant characters belong to the X-Men franchise.

Spider-Man may be the most difficult of the three properties. Columbia Pictures, the primary film producer for Sony, owns the rights to the character, and has produced two multi-film franchises ("Spider-Man" and "The Amazing Spider-Man") featuring the character. However, the 2016 Marvel film “Captain America: Civil War” featured a new version of the character. What happened? Sony still owns the film rights to the Spider-Man character, but the company decided to work together with Marvel in a unique arrangement that lets Sony retain ownership of the property and films while allowing Marvel to use the character. You can read more about this deal in this article from Variety. The specifics of this agreement are still a little unclear, and also appear fragile. While current plans call for a sequel to the upcoming “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the agreement might be in question after that film’s release, according to articles like this one from IGN.

There are many similar legal issues throughout the history of comics. If nothing else, this brief discussion might help film fans navigate a world where multiple interpretations of the same character exist at the same time in different movies, or why so many franchises are rebooted so frequently. One might need the intellectual property-based powers of a character like Access to truly grasp the complicated rights issues surrounding our comic movie-dominated theaters.

Graphics by Sam Williams

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