For years, starting with 2000’s “X-Men” and ramping up with Marvel Studios’ 2012 juggernaut “The Avengers,” comic book do-gooder team-ups have been all the rage on the big screen. Why have just one hero, the thinking goes, when you can have two (“Batman v Superman”) or six (“Justice League”) — or more than two dozen (“Avengers: Infinity War”)?
With the Walt Disney Co.’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox expected to be finalized this month, that trend is about to get supersized with a spandex-clad family reunion that many fans thought they’d never live to see.
In one fell swoop, the blockbuster $71-billion mega-deal brings nearly the entire stable of Marvel superheroes and villains under one owner, with marquee Fox-owned characters like the X-Men, Deadpool and the Fantastic Four now free to be absorbed into the Walt Disney-controlled Marvel Cinematic Universe. (One notable exception is Spider-Man, whose rights are owned by Sony Pictures, though in recent years that studio has forged an increasingly close and fruitful creative partnership with Marvel.)
For comic book devotees, the prospect of seeing, say, Wolverine, Deadpool and Mister Fantastic saving the world alongside Captain America, Thor and Black Panther — or perhaps battling it out among themselves — is tantalizing. For Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, it’s the fulfillment of a decades-long dream.
“Well, it’s simple. When it all comes together, Marvel will have access to almost all of its characters, and that’s something that most companies that have intellectual property characters have always had,” Feige, the primary weaver of Marvel’s ever-growing cinematic tapestry, told the Times. “Marvel, in a very unique way over the years, has not had access to all of its characters, and now it will. That just seems like something that’s very appropriate and exciting for me — at the potential and the possibilities to come.”
But while the union of these disparate superhero franchises may sound simple in theory, sorting out exactly how it will work in reality may be anything but. As the oft-quoted Spider-Man aphorism goes, with great power comes great responsibility — and, in this case, a lot of tricky creative problems to solve.
Much remains unknown about how the Fox and Disney Marvel characters may be integrated going forward. With the “Avengers” series coming to a head in April’s “Endgame,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe is already embarking on its Phase 4, with the just-released “Captain Marvel” and films including “The Eternals” and “Black Widow” on the runway. But other holes are clearly left to be filled.
Fox has two final superhero films in its pipeline, presumably to be released under the Disney banner: the “X-Men” spinoffs “Dark Phoenix,” slated for a June release, and “New Mutants.” But beyond those, it seems likely that several comic book projects in development at Fox — including “Gambit,” “X-Force” and “Doctor Doom” — may be shelved while Feige figures out how he wants to rearrange the pieces on his chessboard.
Speaking to the Times in September, Drew Goddard, slated to direct “X-Force” — a spinoff of the “Deadpool” franchise — expressed his eagerness to dive into the project. “[‘Deadpool’ star and co-writer] Ryan [Reynolds] and I came up with some really good ideas, ideas that got me really excited,” Goddard said.
In the wake of the merger, though, the project is in limbo, if not dead.
Goddard declined to comment, as did several other key players in Fox’s superhero universe, including producers Hutch Parker and Simon Kinberg. But Rob Liefeld, who created “Deadpool” and “X-Force,” dampened fans’ hopes when he wrote on Twitter in January, “Pour one out for ol’ X-Force. Victim of the merger. $800 million grosser easy.”
Indeed, some have wondered how easily Fox’s superhero franchises — which tend to be darker in tone and, in the cases of “Deadpool” and “Logan,” have carried R ratings for violence and language — will blend into the generally sunnier, decidedly PG-13 Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Will a gleefully profane character like Deadpool — who lops off heads with a katana, cracks filthy jokes and at one point in the last film took a massive hit of cocaine — be able to let his freak flag fly under a regime that has never before released an R-rated film?
“Deadpool as a comic character breaks all the rules,” screenwriter Paul Wernick, who co-wrote the two hit “Deadpool” films with Rhett Reese and Reynolds, told The Times last year. “We always say if you can’t do it in another superhero movie, you’d best be doing it in a Deadpool movie.”
In a conference call with investors last year, Disney CEO Bob Iger left the door open for Deadpool to stay true to his raunchy, irreverent self even after the merger. “There may be an opportunity for an R-rated Marvel brand as long as we let audiences know what’s coming,” Iger said.
Similarly, the “X-Men” franchise as we’ve come to know it over the years has often been heavier and headier in tone than the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, making it unclear how the two would be meshed.
“What’s different about the ‘X-Men’ movies is that they’re operatic,” Kinberg, who has produced three “X-Men” films as well as “Logan,” “Deadpool 2,” “Dark Phoenix” and “New Mutants,” told The Times in 2016. “They’re Shakespearean movies. A lot of superhero movies now, including ones I love, are wittier and more contemporary in their feel. But ‘X-Men’ is more theatrical.”
Given the number of “X-Men” and Marvel projects already in the works, “X-Men” producer Lauren Shuler Donner warned at the Television Critics Association last month against the dangers of overcrowding.
“You cannot have too many Marvel, ‘X-Men’ superhero movies out there: We’ll cancel each other out,” she said, even as she expressed her hope that Disney will follow through with a theatrical release for “New Mutants” amid rumors it could go directly to Hulu. “Each one has to be distinctive.”
That said, Shuler Donner affirmed her full confidence in Feige and the powers that be at Disney to shape the expanding universe. “It’s all in Disney’s playground and they get to decide,” she said.
The one thing Iger has made abundantly clear is that — whatever tonal and storytelling challenges may be involved in integrating this wide and diverse array of superheroes and villains — there will not be a wall separating the former Fox characters from the current Marvel characters. All of them will be fully absorbed into Feige’s expanding domain.
“It only makes sense for Marvel to be supervised by one entity,” Iger told the Hollywood Reporter last year. “There shouldn’t be two Marvels.”
The fact is, with literally hundreds of characters suddenly to tend to, managing just the one will be a tough enough job for anyone.
Times staff writer Jen Yamato contributed to this report.