Friday, October 31, 2014

Why Marvel wants the X-Men to fail

X-Men: Days of Future Past cover Marvel

The X-Men used to be Marvel's dream team and were everywhere you looked — video games, toys, trading cards, and cartoons (those glorious cartoons).

The X-Men ruled the world before the Avengers, Marvel's new A-Team, were even a glimmer of a thought in director Joss Whedon's head.

But there's been anger brewing over the past few years. X-Fans have been more vocal about being neglected. They claim they are the casualties of Marvel's fragmented movie rights. Their books, they say, have gone stale, and are no longer the focus of Marvel's plan, because Marvel isn't making big money off of X-Men movies.

And they claim that Marvel is putting this 51-year-old franchise on the back burner so that it can promote other teams like the Guardians of the Galaxy, which the company fully owns the film rights to. (Guardians' $94-million opening weekend probably felt like another nail in the coffin.)

Here's a guide to the world of X-Men truthers:

Where it all starts: The movie rights

Decades ago, before Marvel was the ultra-successful blockbuster-making company it is today, it was actually teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. In order to get out of that bankruptcy, it struck licensing deals with companies like Fox and Sony around 1996. "Because the studios were in strong positions, they agreed to share only about 5 percent of the revenue from each film with Marvel," the Wall Street Journal reported.

Sony got Spider-Man. Fox got the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. Marvel got the characters, villains included, that were not part of those franchises. Sony and Fox parlayed those rights into huge hits like X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002).

In order to keep these rights and keep making that superhero blockbuster money, Sony and Fox need to keep using the characters they have. Otherwise, as we saw with characters like Daredevil and Elektra (whose film rights were formerly owned by Fox), the characters revert back to Marvel's control.

What's in Marvel's best interest?

From a completely cynical and business perspective: it's in Marvel's best interest for Sony and Fox to lose their rights to their big characters, because it would mean that Marvel would reclaim those popular, money-making franchises.

But there's also another layer to this: Marvel is also a comic book company. It's in control of the source material that Sony and Fox use, and it has say when it comes to cartoons, toys, and licensing. And this makes some X-Men and Fantastic Four fans nervous because Marvel could, if it wanted to, downplay their favorite characters by limiting the merchandise. For instance, Marvel has a deal where it benefits from Spider-Man's movie products even though Sony owns the movie rights.

Rob Liefeld, a comics creator who helped make the X-Force title, tweeted about a Marvel freeze-out of X-Men merchandise back in June:

Liefeld went onto explain in more tweets that he believes X-Men merchandise would have gotten in the way of Guardians of the Galaxy toys and promotion.

This anxiety came to a boil late last month when Tom Brevoort, Marvel's Senior Vice-President of Publishing, was asked by a fan on Tumblr why there wasn't more of an effort to market the X-Men when there are projects like a Guardians cartoon on the way:

"Why isn't there any X-Men cartoons? Why wasn't there any licensing for DOFP. WHY isn't there Goldball toys or any new X-Men toys? Oh and of course No real X-News at the Cup o Joe panel. Thanks foe [sic] your time."

Brevoort responded, stating that Marvel didn't see the need to promote the X-Men (or other titles that the company isn't getting the full revenue from):

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.

I will say two things, though, both of which are pretty self-evident, I think.

1) 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.

2) 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?

That's the first time a Marvel executive addressed the X-Men question/elephant in the room directly.

Usually, the idea of a conspiracy is talked about in whispers and anonymous comments to the press. Bleeding Cool, a site that follows comic book news, has done some good reporting on Marvel's alleged downplay of the characters it doesn't own the rights to including tidbits like creators being told not to create any new characters for X-Men or Fantastic Four and a plan to reportedly halt Fantastic Four comic books.

It's enough to make you wonder what Marvel's endgame is.

What's happening in the comics

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When Scarlet Witch altered reality and decimated the mutant population. (Marvel)

It's hard to say if there's something nefarious going on with how Marvel is handling the X-Men. What we do know is that there are a myriad of X-Men titles around right now like All-New X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Force, and so on and so forth.

And, perhaps it's a coincidence, but a lot of characters that Marvel owns the full rights to show up in those titles. The Guardians of the Galaxy were part of a cross-over event in All-New X-Men. In the latest run of Uncanny X-Men, SHIELD, the Avengers, and She-Hulk have all shown up at one point or another. And in a comic called Uncanny Avengers, which is about a team of Avengers and X-Men, the X-Men story has slowly been turned into an Avengers-centered plot.

The story lines involving the X-Men could be taken as affronts. In 2005, Marvel implemented the "Decimation" storyline, where Scarlet Witch (an Avenger) altered reality and took away powers from over 90 percent of the mutant population. This eventually resulted in the deaths of some mutants, as well as classic mutants like Jubilee — a long-standing member of the X-Men — losing their powers.

New mutants wouldn't start showing up again until 2010, after the "Second Coming" story arc. That was followed by the "Avengers vs. X-Men" crossover event in 2012, which ended with five X-Men going power-hungry and turning into villains (X-Men fans don't really like it when Avengers beat up on X-Men). And further, the franchise's 50th birthday was marked by an event called "Battle of the Atom," largely seen by X-Men fans as underwhelming.

When you look at the big Marvel news over the past few months, you'll notice that the X-Men — save for a Storm solo series — have largely been absent. In July, Marvel announced that Thor would be a woman. The company followed that a day later when it announced that Captain America would be black. Aside from the Storm solo series, the next big event for the X-Men will be the death of Wolverine — but, again, neither of those events got the kind of buzz that Marvel got with Thor and Captain America.

What do fans think of this?

It's split. The important thing to understand here is that there are several different segments within the Marvel fanbase. With movies like Guardians, Captain America: Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past each drawing over $90 million in their opening weekends, it's safe to say that Marvel has a lot of fans, and it's more than likely that a lot of these fans aren't exclusively tied to a favorite superhero (i.e. there are probably fans who love X-Men but also really enjoyed the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and vice versa).

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A classic X-Men roster (Marvel)

But when you break things down to just the comic readers, the situation becomes a bit more fragmented, and allegiances are a bit more pronounced. At Comic Book Resources, a popular comics site, the forums aren't just split into DC and Marvel but rather are split into: Marvel, Spider-Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, and X-Books (and so on). And in those fandoms, there's even more jagged segmentation.

In the X-books forum, a message board to discuss everything going on in the different X-Men titles, there's a 17-page (and counting) thread called The Complex, a thread made especially for fans (and their skeptics) who believe that Marvel is purposely short-changing the X-Men.

"It's feeling like Marvel is sort of just going through the motions with the X-Men, and is using them as a legacy cash-cow while simultaneously shoving Inhumans and GOTG down our throats," one fan writes there.

That fan is referring to Marvel's deep investment in the Inhumans, a race of superhumans whose powers lie dormant until exposed to a substance called Terrigen Mist. The Inhumans were an integral part of Marvel's "Infinity" crossover event, where a Terrigen Mist bomb was released on Earth, turning many people into Inhumans. From an editorial standpoint, this gave and will give Marvel a whole new batch of superhumans to write. But some X-Men fans think that there's more going on here, and believe that the Inhumans will be Marvel's way of creating X-Menesque characters without having to use the X-men, thus opening up more movie possibilities and diminishing their favorite X-Men and X-Women.

"Marvel WILL shove Inhumans down your throats, it IS going to happen. They will not stop until the property is considered a success. They will put whatever creative teams they need to on it to make it work," another fan chimed in at The Complex. "They will change whatever mutants into Inhumans to make it work."

Granted, these views don't represent the views of all X-Men fans. These fans are the ones most likely to believe the conspiracy theories full-tilt. And though these X-Men truthers might seem, to Marvel fans in general or even some fellow X-Men fans, largely crazy, the fact that their views warrant a 17-page discussion feels like there's something there that should, at the very least, be examined. Marvel's writers know this.

"I was told when I started writing the X-Men that there is a very small part of the readership that feels very persecuted," Brian Michael Bendis, one of Marvel's star writers wrote in June, addressing rumors of an X-Men cancellation. "[T]hese readers think that Marvel hates the X-Men with a fiery passion and are looking to destroy it... so even though the best artists on the planet and franchise writers have been put in charge of this very important part of the Marvel universe, some people still think that Marvel is out to blow its own foot off," he added.

Bendis writes the wildly fun All-New X-Men comic. And devout X-Men fans would point you to the fact that All-New X-Men has curiously been a vehicle for crossovers with other Bendis comics like Guardians of the Galaxy (which Marvel owns the rights to) and Ultimate Spider-Man.

What if this is real? How should I feel?

If Marvel weren't considering ways to streamline its involvement in X-Men stuff and maximize the franchises and characters it does own, it would be surprising. The way the film rights deals are drawn and the way things have shaken out, Marvel actively promoting the franchises from which it benefits the most — a strategy that Brevoort hinted at — makes solid sense. Any company with a semblance of savvy would do the same thing in this situation.

What you also have to consider is if Marvel is still a comic company first, or if it is positioning itself to be more of a general entertainment company. Is it still making the bulk of its money from comic books, or has it decided that movies are really the future? If Marvel still thinks of itself as a comic book company, then you could still conceivably see investment being poured into X-Men titles because they sell. If it happens that Marvel transitions into a movie-first company, then it could, if it wanted to, start cutting X-Men titles.

The differences in scale are substantial. For comparison: The Avengers made somewhere around $1.5 billion in its box office earnings, while the estimated North American market size for print and digital comics in 2013 was $870 million, Comicchron, a site that analyzes and researches comic sales, reported.

When you look at X-Men comics specifically, X-Men #1 and Uncanny X-Men #1, were both in the year-end top 10 of North American comic sales in 2013. According to Comicchron's numbers, the issues sold 186,300 and 182,700 issues respectively. But if you dig deeper and look at individual months this year, X-Men titles haven't been as impressive with All-New X-Men being the only X-title in the top 20 (usually floating around 17-18) of sales for the last three months.

Guardians' success has showed that Marvel can make really successful movies based on characters that don't have the recognition of the X-Men or Spider-Man. It also showed that Marvel's movies can make people buy comic books. Here's a snapshot of Comixology's best-selling titles from Friday. Notice how many of them are Guardians titles (it should be noted that Comixology had a sale to coincide with the release of the movie):

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In a way, the fact that Marvel doesn't have the rights to Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, or X-Men has motivated the company to gamble, take chances, and fully flesh out characters that may not have had the same gravitas as its well-known heroes. If Marvel had kept the rights to all of its characters, it's unlikely the company would make a Guardians movie, talk about a Black Panther movie, or give Black Widow the platform to become as popular as she is today. We'd probably be watching X-Men 33: Wolverine Does Something Again.

On the other side of that, you have to feel for fans of comic books like the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. They know that their titles probably aren't high up on the list of Marvel's priorities, and it's probably not in Marvel's best interests to give either franchise a fantastic, popular storyline that could be turned into a movie when there are other properties where that storyline would benefit the company more.

There's a tagline from the first X-Men movie — a very successful product of this rights dispute — that seems awfully prescient for anxious X-Men fans today: "The time is coming when all that we are afraid of will be all that can save us."

That time, if you ask X-Men fans, is already here.

Update: A reader pointed out that Comixology had a sale to coincide with the Guardians movie release. That probably helped the sales during the week. The post has been updated to reflect that.

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