The X-Men and Fantastic Four are being freed from limbo. Not, Limbo the vaguely hellish dimension ruled by X-Man Illyana Rasputin, but a sort of brand purgatory where you can't be touched. For the past five years, Marvel Entertainment has avoided characters from both properties and that's about to change, due to a recent deal between The Walt Disney Company and 21st Century Fox.
Understanding The History
To understand why the X-Men and Fantastic Four have been persona non-grata, you have to step outside of the fan mindset-"These characters are popular, why wouldn't you use them?"-and step into a business one. Most of this comes down to rights. From the 1970s until the late 1990s, Marvel didn't have much of an interest in making films. It was a comic publisher first, licensing out its properties to others for films, cartoons, and merchandise. Most of its film rights were optioned to various studios during this time.
Fox got the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. Sony had Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, Luke Cage, and Thor. New Line Cinema had the rights to Iron Man and Blade. Universal Studios owned the Hulk. Lionsgate Entertainment even had the rights to Black Widow. Columbia Pictures owned the rights to Black Panther.
Most of these options had stipulations, with the most common being that Marvel would get the rights back if a film wasn't produced by a certain deadline. Films are expensive to produce, so while many of these projects hit the pre-production or script stages, many weren't made. Some were made and released, but the box office return wasn't worth continuing. This led to most of the characters reverting to Marvel Entertainment from 2005 onward.
The exception came down to three major holdouts: Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. Sony held onto Spider-Man with an iron grip; it didn't know what to do with the character and his universe after the Sam Raimi films, but it knew the property was a moneymaker. Likewise with Fox and the X-Men. As long as Sony and Fox kept making movies, Marvel Entertainment would never see those rights.
Make Mine Marvel
Sometime in the beginning of the 2010s, Marvel decided it wasn't worth pushing those brands. If it couldn't control everything from top to bottom, then the Marvel Comics portfolio was deep: they could just find other characters to use. The X-Men had enjoyed the front seat in Marvel's multimedia plans with cartoons, toys, and more. The company didn't outwardly say much about it, but they quietly stopped licensing X-Men and Fantastic Four projects.
"You're talking about issues involving licensing and animation, and those are questions you'd need to ask to our people that oversee those areas," said longtime Marvel Comics editor Tom Brevoort in response to a question about the lack of X-Men toys or cartoons. "There are only so many hours in the day, and so many initiatives you can have going at once,. So you need to pick and choose where you want to spend your time and your efforts. If you had two things, and on one you earned 100% of the revenues from the efforts that you put into making it, and the other you earned a much smaller percentage for the same amount of time and effort, you'd be more likely to concentrate more heavily on the first, wouldn't you?"
Wolverine and the X-Men was the last cartoon featuring the characters, airing for a single season in 2009. In the comics, Marvel tried to position the Inhumans as the replacement for the X-Men (it didn't work). Following the end of Jonathan Hickman's grand Fantastic Four-themed crossover Secret Wars, the First Family was put on ice. If you've been looking for toys related to films like Fantastic Four or X-Men: Apocalypse, you've probably noticed there aren't many. T-shirts, posters, statues, and more; Marvel slowly cut out those properties it didn't control.
This extended to the games. The last titles to feature the X-Men included Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 in 2011, followed by Deadpool, Lego Marvel Super Heroes, and Marvel Heroes in 2013.
You can see the move to drop the X-Men and Fantastic Four since then. The now-defunct Marvel Heroes removed the Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer earlier this year. TT Games followed Lego Marvel Super Heroes with Lego Marvel's Avengers and this year's Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2, which has no X-Men or Fantastic four characters. Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite avoided both properties completely, despite Wolverine, Magneto, Doctor Doom, and Storm being series mainstays.
Even future projects are X-Men free. Insomniac Games and Sony have Marvel's Spider-Man coming exclusively to PlayStation 4. Square Enix is currently working on the Avengers Project, a series of games based on the Avengers. Guardians of the Galaxy from Telltale Games has wrapped up already. Marvel Strike Force, coming for mobile platforms in 2018, is completely without the X-Men or Fantastic Four.
That was the holding pattern we were stuck in. The X-Men and the Fantastic Four, prevented from being as big as they could be.
A New Universe
Until now. Today, Marvel Entertainment parent The Walt Disney Company agreed to acquire 21st Century fox's film and television studios for $52 billion. This is essentially a merger of two huge media companies, bringing together ABC, Fox Networks, ESPN, National Geographic, and more under a single banner. I won't go into the potential issues of this deal, like how it might change the production of the weirder and more innovative X-Men projects, how it consolidates a ton of entertainment under the Disney banner, or how Fox's News and Business side can probably do a lot of nonsense with $52 billion. Instead, folks are wondering how this changes the Marvel Cold War against its own characters?
Well, the cold war would be over, but the results of that aren't immediate. The deal isn't closed yet and there's still a round of government regulatory to-do in order to determine if the new company will be big enough to violate antitrust laws. Even once a decision is made, we won't be seeing the fallout of the mergee for some years down the line.
Near-term, we'd likely see the X-Men coming to Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite; I'd expect that in late 2018 at the earliest, but early 2019 is probably closer to the truth. The mobile games, including Marvel Strike Force and Marvel's Contest of Champions, might also see the quick inclusion of X-Men and Fantastic Four into their ranks.
Square Enix' projects are currently focused on the Avengers and it would probably cost a good deal of money and time to pivot away from that. Regardless, those games probably aren't coming until 2019 on the low end. And that's all Marvel really had on the horizon in terms of announced games.
Anything that comes after this deal, in terms of full-fledged X-Men and Fantastic Four games on home consoles, is way out. You're looking at 2-3 years of development time. If a company started on an X-Men game in 2018, it wouldn't be releasing until 2020 or 2021 and that's heavily-condensed development effort.
Meaning, for all the fanfare around this deal, you won't probably won't see the benefits for a few years. Even on the film side, a film can be shot and released in a year, but that doesn't take into account the pre-production stages. A Fantastic Four or X-Men film firmly under Marvel's production is looking at 2020 at the earliest, just like the games. And again, that's rushing things.
The truth is the full shape of this merger won't be apparent to us for another 2-3 years. In the meantime, we don't know how our industry as a whole will shake out. Will we be on the PlayStation 5, next Xbox, or new revision of the Nintendo Switch? What form will those platforms take and how will they affect how games are developed?
Yes, if this deal goes through, the X-Men and Fantastic Four will be freed from limbo. The problem is we don't know what kind of universe they'll be returning to.