What Will the Disney–Fox Merger Mean for Superheroes?

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New bros. Photo: Marvel Studios/20th Century Fox

The collision of universes is a common trope in superhero fiction. Time and again, comic books have presented stories in which a group of characters from one version of Earth merge into a different version, creating a syncretic new whole where those pieces of intellectual property can all coexist and goof around together. Today brings what is arguably the biggest, and certainly the most lucrative, collision of all: the merging of Disney and 21st Century Fox.

Short version: All the characters created in the pages of Marvel Comics are finally under one cinematic roof.

Since 2009, Disney has owned the rights to the vast majority of those characters and has popped them into films about the Avengers and their cohort in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the movie and TV rights for a few key Marvel Comics franchises were held by other companies. Sony has Spider-Man, and though a 2015 deal between Disney and Sony brought Spidey into the MCU, he’s still technically owned by the latter. Fox, on the other hand, has fiercely held their two Marvel franchises: the X-Men (including Deadpool, who came out of an X-Men spinoff comic) and the Fantastic Four. That’s why you’ve never seen Wolverine team up with Iron Man on the big screen, even though they have on the comics page. That’s all set to change.

In a statement, Disney said the deal “provides Disney with the opportunity to reunite the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Deadpool with the Marvel family under one roof and create richer, more complex worlds of inter-related characters and stories that audiences have shown they love.” That’s a pretty firm announcement that the MCU will be expanding to include Fox’s characters, rather than simply keeping them off in their own silo. But we still have some big questions that the announcement doesn’t answer.

Will it actually happen?
Before we get too worked up about this news, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about a $52.4 billion acquisition that would birth a media behemoth. Reports say the deal could take at least a year to actually close, and the Justice Department (which, let’s remember, is trying to block the AT&T–Time Warner deal) could step in to slow or stop the process. So take everything below with a hefty serving of salt. But, for the moment, we’re going to operate under the assumption that it’ll all work out.

What happens to the cast and crew of the existing core X-Men franchise?
Everyone involved in the X-films would do well to study the case of Spider-Man. At the dawn of 2015, there were still plans for more Spidey flicks set in the universe established in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man (that’s the first one with Andrew Garfield) and its 2014 sequel. But when Disney and Sony made their pact, all of that got tossed by the wayside and there was a complete cast and continuity reboot with this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. There’s still one more Fox X-Men movie in full-on production mode, next year’s Simon Kinberg–helmed X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and it’s firmly set in the world that was first introduced way back in 2000’s X-Men. But Dark Phoenix may well be the end of the road for that universe and the actors who work on it. Now that there’s new management, it seems quite likely that Disney will go the Spidey route again and just start over from scratch, by introducing new versions of the mutants into the MCU. But there’s another possible option: a multi-universe convergence. In comics, the titular Phoenix force is one of massive cosmic power, and the MacGuffin of next year’s Avengers: Infinity War is a reality-altering object called the Infinity Gauntlet. Perhaps one or both of those will rip open the fabric of the multiverse and bring the existing X-Men cast and continuity into the MCU’s? Or is that too complicated for the average moviegoer to grasp?

And what about the X-Men spinoffs?
Dark Phoenix isn’t the only X-Men-related adaptation out there, and the rest of them present sticky universal issues. Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, based on an X-Men spinoff comics series, is set for release next year. It’s reportedly set within the X-Men universe but won’t really address much of that universe. It’s likely that the same goes for the James Franco–led movie about X-related person Multiple Man, which is still in very early stages of development. And then there’s the Logan sequel about vicious little Laura, which is similarly embryonic and only tangentially related to the core X-Men franchise. And Gambit. And X-Force. What happens to all of these flicks? If Disney opts to just hit reset on everything mutant-related, then perhaps Multiple Man and Laura’s pictures will be nipped in the bud. But what if The New Mutants is a hit and Disney wants Boone’s planned sequel? Maybe there’s still time to reedit it to remove references to the rest of the X-world and thus make it compatible with the new reality. Or maybe they’ll just let the sequel exist in its own little non-MCU world, without addressing any connections that may pop up in the first installment. Fox had already been adopting a policy of letting the X-spinoffs more or less do their own thing, so perhaps Disney will continue in that direction. Speaking of which …

Whither Deadpool?
The most profitable of all the cinematic X-Men-related characters has been Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool, and there’s no chance in hell that Disney will jettison him from their plans. His sequel hits next year and, like last year’s first installment, it already has X-Men references baked in, with mutants like Domino, Negasonic Teenage Warhead, and Cable set to appear. Will future episodes just eschew those characters in order to keep things tidy? Or will the Deadpool franchise be kept on its own, non-MCU track?

Really, it all comes down to what Disney wants to do with Deadpool’s brand of humor. In comics, he’s regularly interacted with characters from throughout the Marvel mythos, very much including the Avengers, and those stories have often been wild successes. It only seems natural that Disney would be tempted to pop Deadpool into situations with his new filmic siblings for fun and profit. But will that tonal contrast be too extreme? Is the world ready for Deadpool lobbing swears and farts at, say, Captain America? Luckily for Disney, he has an existing tradition of bursting through the fourth wall, so even if they start including him in the MCU and don’t explain why, they can just have him crack a few jokes to the audience about how little sense that makes.

Will this solve the MCU’s much-discussed “villain problem”?
Much digital ink has been spilled about the idea that the MCU, by not being connected to the X-Men or the FF, has lost out on three of Marvel Comics’ best baddies: Magneto, Galactus, and Dr. Doom. Loki was pretty great, Hela was a delight, and Thanos might be fun, but come on, who gives a rip about Kaecilius or Ronan the Accuser? Now that all of Marvel’s properties are in the same playpen, will we get a consistently better pedigree of nasty folks for the Avengers to do battle with? Oh, and what happens to Noah Hawley’s Dr. Doom movie? Will it be incorporated into the MCU? And if so, will the auteur walk away at the prospect of being forced to be a franchise player?

Is this MCU phase four?
The MCU has been presented in chronological “phases,” with movies in one phase building up to a shared climax in a film that then plants the seeds of the next phase. We’re in the midst of phase three, which will conclude with an untitled Avengers fourquel in May of 2019. Beyond that, we know very little about what comes next. Could it be that Disney and MCU chief Kevin Feige had long known that a Fox merger was possible, and that they wanted to keep open the possibility that phase four would be all about the introduction of the mutants and the FF? Whatever their plans had been, it’s pretty likely that they’ll now be centered around these new additions to the family.

How will we re-meet the Fantastic Four?
The FF, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were the characters that launched the Marvel Age of Comics back in 1961. Without them, there would probably be no Marvel Comics universe, much less a Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, they’ve always been a bit of an afterthought at the multiplex. There was a never-released, Roger Corman–produced FF film made in the early 1990s, then there were two lukewarm-ly received FF pictures in the aughts, and 2015 brought a reboot that was one of the only outright flops of modern superhero cinema. Though the characters are still beloved by geeks, they’ve been somewhat cursed at the box office. But a new day dawns for Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Sue Storm, and Johnny Storm. How will they be introduced? They’re very (pseudo-)science-oriented, so could it be that they’ll leap in fully formed from some alternate universe? Or will we get an origin story? Given how important they are to superhero fiction, expect them to be reintroduced with a lot of fanfare, no matter what.

What will this mean for television?
Time for a little org-chart wonkiness. Marvel Comics and Marvel Television are run by Marvel Entertainment, a Disney subsidiary controlled by longtime Marvel head honcho Ike Perlmutter. He’s a bit of a difficult guy to deal with, and in 2015, Marvel Studios — the film arm — split off from Marvel Entertainment to be its own Feige-run subsidiary that reports to the Disney mothership without going through Perlmutter. So although Disney’s Marvel TV shows are set in the MCU, they’ve become less and less integrated into it (e.g. while the Marvel Netflix shows used to be narratively tied to the big fight from The Avengers, Runaways hasn’t even mentioned it). If there is some kind of multiversal cosmic merge, will it be mentioned in Marvel’s TV output, or will the divorce become even more apparent by a lack of such mentions? Will mutants start to crop up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? What happens to X-shows The Gifted and Legion? The latter will probably continue to be its own weird thing without any substantial connection beyond vague, unnamed allusions to Professor X. But the former constantly mentions the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants, even though there aren’t cameos from or direct connections to the movies. Again, we must ask: Will The Gifted exist in its own silo, or will it somehow be integrated into the MCU? And, perhaps most important, will this mean new MCU-related shows that involve X-Men comics characters? Even though Perlmutter and Feige don’t get along, the former probably won’t pass up an opportunity to profit off of his newfound access to the mutants.

How will the other superhero studios react?
This deal will light a fire under the rest of Hollywood. Disney is now even more of a threat to every other studio, so it seems entirely likely that everyone else will step up their efforts to gain a foothold in the superhero game. Sony has the most options. They’ve already been working on a universe populated by Spider-Man supporting characters, which will launch with next year’s Tom Hardy–starring Venom and will continue with the Gina Prince-Bythewood–directed Silver & Black. But they have a lesser-known card in their hand: the Valiant universe. There’s a comics company called Valiant that has built out its own superhero cosmology, and Sony has been working on adapting it into film, with flicks about characters like Bloodshot and the Eternal Warrior currently in varying stages of development, some of them penned by Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer. They’ve been languishing as of late, so will this merger news push Valiant onto Sony’s fast track? And which other superhero universes might be on the table for other studios to buy up? One that leaps to mind is the nascent Catalyst Prime universe, launched by comics company Lion Forge earlier this year. Could it get snagged soon in some studio’s effort to stay competitive in an newly challenging marketplace?

What great superhero storylines are now up for adaptation?
Now that the X-Men and the Avengers can meet up, there are comics tales on the table that weren’t before. The most obvious one, if only because of the title, is 2012’s Avengers vs. X-Men, which saw the two teams battling over what to do about the Phoenix force (which, remember, will have been introduced to mainstream audiences as of next year). There’s Secret Wars, a mid-’80s tale in which the Avengers and the X-Men are transported to a distant planet and are forced to do battle by a cosmic being. There are some that seem a little too unwieldy, like House of M, which saw the Avengers and the X-Men waking up in a new reality where mutants rule the world. There are some that hinge on whether the MCU would be willing to match up with the comics world and somehow make the Scarlet Witch the mutant child of Magneto, such as The Children’s Crusade. But there are plenty of smaller-scale stories that could be loosely adapted, like Avengers Academy, where the Avengers and the X-Men train youthful recruits together; or 1964’s Uncanny X-Men No. 9, where the two teams first met while trying to stop a mad bomber. There’s no shortage of material to pluck from.

What characters are gonna hook up?
Easily the most important question. Will we finally see Storm and Black Panther get it on like they did in comics? Or, along those lines, Johnny Storm and the Inhumans’ Medusa? Will we get a re-creation of that great scene from the comic Ultimate Spider-Man where Jean Grey and Peter Parker meet and he can’t stop accidentally thinking about her while she reads his mind? Could Black Widow and Wolverine commiserate about their pasts as black-ops killers? Might we get a moody love triangle between Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Beast? Dare we hope for a foursome between Captain America, Bucky, Magneto, and Professor X? Hey, if this merger can happen, anything’s possible.

What Will the Disney–Fox Merger Mean for Superheroes?