The subject of film rights can be a disgusting and murky web of confusion. It took a while for many mainstream Marvel fans to separate the Marvel Studios superhero films from Sony and Fox superhero films. It can be a bit of a mess for casual fans, and it doesn’t help when you also have studios teaming up to help bring different versions of the character to the big screen (we’re looking at you, Spider-Man).
But the character in question this time around is the Hulk. Where exactly do his rights lie?
If you’ll recall, the Hulk is a character who’s made it to theaters in two standalone films, and two “Avengers” films. His first standalone debut was in Ang Lee’s 2003 film, “Hulk,” which received lukewarm reception from comic fans. In 2008, he was given a second chance with “The Incredible Hulk,” the second film in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (though he was played by Edward Norton at the time, instead of Mark Ruffalo). Both films underperformed financially, and the green giant’s been sidelined as a supporting Avenger ever since.
But since his “Avengers” debut, fans have been excited to see another standalone movie happen—one with Ruffalo taking on the title role. Despite this enthusiasm, we’ve yet to see any move from Marvel, and this is a studio who has movies planned through 2020!
In April, Ruffalo gave an interesting quote to Collider as to the potential reason for this:
“As far as a Hulk movie, a standalone Hulk movie, Marvel doesn’t really have the rights to that yet. That's’ still Universal’s property, so there’s that issue. That’s a big impediment to moving forward to that. Now I don’t think that’s insurmountable, by the way, but I don’t know where it’s going from here for me.”
So how true is this statement from Ruffalo? Well, it’s not true at all, to be frank. So where’s all the confusion coming from?
Let’s take a quick step back.
Marvel Studios didn’t exist as we know it until the mid-2000s. In the 1990s, Marvel hardly had the resources to stay afloat as a comic book publisher, let alone make movies. As such, Marvel sold off the film rights for their characters to studios that did have the resources to make movies. One of the rights they’d sold off was the Incredible Hulk himself, which resulted in Universal Pictures putting out 2003’s “Hulk.”
In order to retain rights to the character, the studio needs to make a new movie every few years or so. Since “Hulk” underperformed, Universal Pictures opted to let the rights relapse to back to Marvel, who then went on to make the 2008 Incredible Hulk movie.
But wait a second…didn’t Ruffalo say Universal had the rights to make a standalone Hulk movie? So how could Marvel Studios have already made a Hulk movie if they didn’t have the rights? The confusion here lies in the distribution rights, notes Forbes. Essentially, Universal—even though it has no production rights—has the right to first refusal of distribution. What this means is that Marvel Studios can make whatever Hulk movie they feel like, and Universal can decide whether or not they want to distribute it. If they refuse, Disney would likely pick up the expense.
This may be weird for some people to think about. After all, ever since “Iron Man,” it’s felt a lot like the studio was pretty much independent from all the other studios they used to work with, but that isn’t quite the case. In fact, Paramount distributed a sizable chunk of Marvel Studios films, including “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and “Thor.”
In short, it’s not a rights issue that’s holding up a standalone Hulk flick. For whatever reason, Marvel Studios has decided to keep the character as a secondary one. Chances are it’s a financial one, as the character has yet to prove itself substantially profitable after two tries. Sure, you can argue that his popularity has skyrocketed since his appearance in “The Avengers,” but why would Marvel bank on him when they have so many other potentially successful franchises they can probe?
Would you like to see another standalone Hulk movie?