Even if you’re not hugely into comics there’s a good chance you understand why you’ll never see Superman arm-wrestle Thor, or Batman and Iron Man having a conversation about who’s richer and has cooler gadgets. For the longest time there have been two major players in the world of comics publishing—Marvel & DC—and in each of the above examples the two characters fall on either side of that divide. The Avengers brings together multiple Marvel characters, and the upcoming Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice will see DC’s two titans on the same screen, but never the twain shall meet.
What might be less clear however, is why certain Marvel characters never seem to run into each other on the silver screen. The Avengers movie, and the solo adventures of all its constituent members (plus the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show), are happening in one continuity. It’s fun to watch that universe grow, and look for cameos and references across the films, but to a fan of the comics it’s frustratingly obvious to see the film-makers run up against the limits of what they are permitted to show or even reference. Put simply, it’s a drag to know you’ll never see any two of Hulk, Wolverine and Spider-Man in the same frame.
The mystical force that keeps these universes separate is something more powerful than the Infinity Gauntlet, or the Tesseract, and far more insidious even than the Aether… it’s the immutable power of copyright law! Whilst Marvel owns all the rights to the use of its characters in print and on TV, the film rights are a different and more complicated story. Believe it or not there was a time in the distant and murky past (the 1990s) when superhero movies were not a permanent fixture of the box office. The Batman movies of the day were unsuccessful both as action films and in the camp comedy they reached for, and Jurassic Park (1993) and Independence Day (1996) set the templates for the summer blockbuster. It was in this climate that Marvel began selling movie rights to its characters. Spider-Man went to Sony, X-Men went to Fox, and both grew successful franchises out of what they had bought. So successful in fact that Marvel took the decision to begin producing their own films based on the properties they retained, beginning with Iron Man (2008).
Under the guidance of Avi Arad and Kevin Feige, the series of films that introduced Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, and then assembled them for Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) has become the second highest-grossing film franchise in history. Now well into its ‘Phase Two’ and with releases allegedly planned as far ahead as 2028 Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has become as reliable and regular a source of entertainment as the comics themselves.
However, having struck deals for licensing out some of their most popular characters, Marvel—acquired by Disney in 2009—find themselves in a strange position: for all of the epic, dimension-hopping scale of their film series there remain some simple things they cannot do. Things, I’m willing to bet, many of their creatives dearly want to do. The relationship between Spider-Man and Hulk is long-running comic book gold, and it probably stings the writers as much as the fans that we don’t get to see it on screen. It probably makes the accountants weep too; think how much money an X-Men / Avengers cross-over would make! Who wouldn’t want to see what happens if Iron Man runs into Magneto?
But it’s not just the inconvenience - we’re now starting to see the fragmentation of these universes. The character of Quicksilver, seemingly unanimously considered the highlight of Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), is also glimpsed at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). The concepts for the character in each case are clearly different, they’re played by different actors, and what happens to one will have no bearing on what happens to the other. This is seemingly permissible by a quirk of the agreement Marvel has with Fox: Quicksilver (and his sister Scarlet Witch) are the children of Magneto, and therefore part of the X-Men continuity owned by Fox, but both—in print—have served as long-term members of the Avengers and hence are fair game for on-screen use by Marvel. With Avengers: Age of Ultron releasing in 2015, and X-Men: Apocalypse hitting screens in 2016, the two competing versions of Quicksilver are likely to prove somewhat confusing to moviegoing audiences. Good luck explaining copyright law to the seven year-old who doesn’t understand why one Quicksilver hangs out with Wolverine and the other isn’t even allowed to say his name.
It’s not impossible, of course, that this tangle can be undone. If enough money changes hands we could yet see a cinematic conceit bring together characters from the separate universes. So the idea that we might one day see a Hulk & Wolverine fastball special isn’t completely dead, but I wouldn’t hold my breath… unless I was Namor the Sub-Mariner… the rights to whom seem to be with Universal Studios, along with Howard the Duck. So there’s your next big team-up blockbuster I guess.