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Whose License Is It Anyway

Whose License is it Anyway?



02 August 201710 min read

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Whose License is it Anyway?

Introduction to the Superhero Movie Industry

A good superhero movie in the Hollywood can command an average budget of anywhere between 100 Million and 250 million. This isn’t surprising because the comic book universe of over 8000 characters is supported by a loyal fan base. Fans swear by one of the two main universes where heroes ensure justice prevails, the Marvel universe and the DC universe.

The Division between Marvel and DC

Needless to say, we can all agree that the Justice League, the DC comics superheroes, and the X-men, the Marvel comics superheroes, will never cross paths. But what about the X-men and the Avenger? They both belong to the Marvel family; can’t we get excited to watch their epic battle? And what about Spiderman, yet another Marvel Veteran? He did make a cameo in the latest Captain America: Civil War movie, can’t we get excited to see all our favorite heroes sharing the same screen?

The History of Marvel's Entry into Hollywood

In the time of high budget movies and CGI animation, it is easy to forget that unlike the DC franchise, Marvel is a very young player in Hollywood. It wasn’t until 2008 that Marvel came out with its first ever movie, the Iron Man. Even then, they did not have their own production house. It was in 2009 when Disney acquired Marvel Enterprise, that the Marvel heroes finally got a home in Hollywood. However, this has created more problems for Marvel than it has solved.

The Licensing Issues Faced by Marvel

Unlike the DC franchise, Marvel has been inconsistent with licensing its characters. Marvel itself holds rights over only a few of its mainstream superheroes, though this wasn’t a big problem until 2008 when Marvel entered the film industry. Prior to this, they essentially generated revenue through comic books, merchandising and licensing. This wasn’t the problem that DC ever faced. 

On the contrary, DC being a subsidiary of Warner Bros., had been consistently churning out superhero movies. Although they were generating profits in entertainment and merchandising sectors, they were bleeding cash in their comic books division.

The Speculative Boom and Its Impact on the Comic Book Market

Through the late 80s to mid-90s, the infamous speculative boom rocked the comic book market. Though significant, this event was not unexpected. The speculators identified the market correctly but did not understand it fully. As comic books were initially introduced in early 30s, they were available readily and catered to large audience. However, over time, their appeal decreased in number but increased in fervor. 

Their fanbase, often known for their almost cult like loyalty to their fandom, was correctly identified for its economic potential. However, identifying the commercial value in a creative industry can be a tricky affair. 

A dedicated fan base does guarantee a reliable income, but leaves little room for modifying the content. When the speculation rose that comic books would hold monetary value in future, the production of substandard works also increased. People began hoarding the comic books and the real audience were lost in the crowd. This resulted in rise in sales of comics, creating an illusion of rise in demand.

The Aftermath of Marvel's Bankruptcy

This triggered the intricate web of licenses and cross licenses in 1994 when the then Marvel Entertainment Group had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. To ensure survival, they were forced to take drastic measures. 

Putting up rights to some franchise as collateral while selling copyright bundles over various superhero franchise to different media houses. Avengers, Captain America Black Panther, among others were put up as collateral, which Marvel Enterprise ultimately earned back. 

Spider Man was sold to Sony and X-Men and Fantastic Four went to Fox Studios. Both Sony and Fox Studios launched their superheroes into cinematic world and started encashing millions by the early 2000s with movies like Spider Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four and Daredevil. 

Marvel too picked up slack with Iron Man, which was an unexpected hit, and restored their rights over Avengers, Captain America and Black Panther. In 2009, Marvel was acquired by The Walt Disney Company.

The Current State of Marvel's Licensing Agreements

Today, Marvel has the resources and the budget to generate good movies, but they no longer hold the rights to some of their most famous characters. Marvel has begun entering cross licenses with its original licensees to gain the right to use its own superheroes in their movies. 

This has limited the audience’s access to their heroes. Long negotiations and unprofitable licensing agreements now govern which character will meet which one. It wasn’t until very recently that Sony decided to enter into a shared agreement with Marvel over Spider Man, and that is when the audience got a glimpse of Spider Man casting his web in Captain America: Civil War.


The superhero movie industry is a highly lucrative and competitive market, with Marvel and DC leading the way. Marvel, although a relatively young player in Hollywood, has made a significant impact since its entry in 2008. However, Marvel has faced licensing issues and had to enter into cross licenses with its original licensees to use its own superheroes in movies. This has limited audience access to certain characters. Despite these challenges, Marvel continues to produce successful movies and has recently reached agreements with Sony for the inclusion of Spider Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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