Wednesday, March 04, 2015

How Marvel Wrested the Mutants from Fox's Cold, Dead Hands

Agents of SHIELD is back*. Excelsior!

Marvel has maintained that its films (Marvel Studios) and TV shows (Marvel Television) are mutually exclusive, but that's malarky. The dissolution of SHIELD after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier directly led to the plot of the second half of Agents of SHIELD's first season, which increased praise -- if not ratings -- for the show. The episodic nature of the inaugural season's first half was jettisoned, and the show actually had a purpose under the Marvel Universe umbrella.

I like to think that was always the plan. I don't think Clark Gregg or Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen would have hopped aboard if they thought SHIELD was just going to be some Marvel-branded television B-team apart from the films. At the same time, I'm sure Marvel wanted to set up a bumper. They didn't want the possible failure of Agents of SHIELD to negatively affect their cinematic hot streak. It's a golden age for cable drama, but network TV is still considered a slum.

Now, and very deftly, the events of Agents of SHIELD's second season is affecting what's to come in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Since 2008, Marvel has had tremendous success with their studio films and characters: Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy. That success means that within the next five years, we'll see the Marvel superhero film roster expand to features for Ant Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Ms. Marvel.

Yet two of Marvel's signature franchises have remained out of the company's reach: Spider-Man and the X-Men. In the late-90s, Marvel filed for bankruptcy**. To keep its head above water, it sold Spider-Man's film rights to Sony and the X-Men's (and the Fantastic Four's) to Fox.

A Devil Dinosaur's bargain, to be sure.

But a funny Ben Grimm happened. Marvel, utilizing its B, C, and even D-list heroes, couldn't lose. The Avengers -- and 11-year-old me would find this insane -- became more popular than Spider-Man and the X-Men. Hell, even the Distinguished Competition, with Batman and Superman, arguably the two-most-recognizable superheroes in the world, have been trying to play catch-up.

Two weeks ago, it was announced that Sony, which owns the film rights to Spider-Man, reached a deal with Marvel Studios to have Spider-Man appear in an MCU movie (speculation suggests that it will be in Captain America: Civil War). Sony will produce its own Spider-Man film in 2017, one apart from the two dreadful Amazing Spider-Man movies, and with the role of Peter Parker once again recast. Marvel's Kevin Feige -- who has done for comic book movies what Walt Disney did for animation and John Lasseter did for CGI animation -- is a consultant.

Yet Marvel still doesn't have one thing it covets: Mutants. Superheroes always have a story for how they acquired their powers. Superman is an alien who gets his strength from Earth's sun; Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider and can climb walls; Captain America was injected with an experimental drug to turn him into a super soldier; Hulk was blasted by gamma rays, LOL, whatever that means.

So unless you're an alien or a god, comics always tried to explain, however inanely and often idiotically, childishly, how normal human beings achieved superpowers.

In 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a short cut. What if superheroes were just born that way? The X-Men, Mutants, solved that problem, while metaphorically addressing issues such as racial inequality and radicalism.

It's a subject that has been mined for countless morality tales, but only because it remains a timeless story. The strong prey upon the weak, and the weak fight back.

And it's a tale that Marvel would love to tell. Unfortunately, Marvel, as part of its deal with Fox, has no rights to the word "mutant."

They do, however, own the rights to the word "inhuman."

The Inhumans are basically mutants. They live on the moon and their ruler, Black Bolt, can't talk because if he did the volume would make your head explode. He has a tuning fork instead of an A on his forehead. It's great. They have a giant dog named Lockjaw that can teleport. There's also Medusa, whose hair is so voluminous it can make your head explode. Then there's Karnak. I've never been sure exactly what Karnak does. He looks a little like Paul Shaffer and Piter de Vries.

(I swear I'm not on hallucinogens.)

Anyway, the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are going to be in Avengers: Age of Ultron. They aren't mutants; they're Inhumans. This would all be very easy to follow if everyone watched Agents of SHIELD, so stop asking me so many questions while I'm trying to watch this movie, Wanda.

* after an outstanding 10-episode run of Agent Carter

** For what cost, Holo-Foil Cover?

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