Much of what is below is still accurate, but Looper just did an excellent video on the topic so I thought I would include it as an addendum, since a few things have changed (most notably Spider-Man tricky legal arrangement).
Long, long ago (ten years) the thought of Marvel having a film studio backed by Disney was ludicrous. Marvel movies were Spider-Man and X-Men movies and that was that. Then Iron Man started what has been come to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe: a shared film world where ANYONE could pop up. Except everyone can’t pop up.Remember those Spider-Man and X-Men films that were all there was for so long? Well, the reason Wolverine and Spider-Man aren’t Avengers (as they are in the comics) is because Marvel can’t do a think with them on film. Killing Time devotee Brad Morris requested a rundown of which studios own which characters, and I do take requests, so here we go.
Marvel has, without exaggeration, thousands upon thousands of characters. We’re not going to go over each one. I take requests for articles, not novels. The legal situation on a lot of characters is dicey so things may change between the time I start this article and when I finish it.
The Avengers (and most of the characters who have been Avengers over the years along with each of their supporting casts) and here I’m including SHIELD, Nick Fury, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Iron Man and Thor.
The Incredible Hulk and his supporting cast and villains (General Ross, Red Hulk, Rick Jones, The Leader, Betty Ross, Abomination, etc.);
Daredevil, The Punisher, Blade, Ghost Rider (Marvel just got all four back after other studios gave up on trying to make them work).
And (inhale) Adam Warlock, Black Knight, Black Panther, Captain Britain, Captain Marvel, Cloak and Dagger, Darkhawk, Death’s Head,
Deathlok, Defenders, Doctor Strange, The Eternals, Guardians of the Galaxy, Hercules, Heroes For Hire, Howard The Duck (but being able to, doesn’t mean you SHOULD), Howling Commandos, Inhumans (Marvel has big plans for them, but I’m kind of suprised they didn’t get lumped into the FF deal), Invaders, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, Ka-Zar, Killraven, Power Man aka Luke Cage, Man-Thing, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, New Warriors, Nova & Nova Corps, Power Pack, Quasar, Rom: Space Knight, Runaways, She-Hulk, Sentry, Shang Chi, Shanna The She-Devil, Sleepwalker, Squadron Supreme, Spider-Woman, Thunderbolts, Vision. and Werewolf By Night.
In regaining Daredevil from FOX, Marvel also got the following characters who went with his rights (in other words, these are the characters you can expect in Netflix’s show): Daredevil/Matt Murdock, Elektra (Natchios), The Kingpin/Wilson Fisk, Bullseye, Jack Murdock, Christine Cord/Tatoo, Typhoid Mary/Marry Alice Walker, Kirigi, Stick, Stone, Karen Page, and Ben Urich (who I’m sure Sony wouldn’t mind having for their Spidey-verse since he’s the most well-known reporter at the Daily Bugle).
FOX, like Marvel and now Sony, is creating an expanded X-verse for the X-Men. If it is a mutant, FOX owns the rights. The only exceptions are Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch since both characters are historically also Avengers. The split agreement on those two characters means that Marvel can’t call them mutants or refer to their father (Magneto). FOX cannot use any aspect of the characters that is related to stories that took place in Avengers books.
FOX has recently been doing epic X-events. If they wanted to, say, do the House of M storyline in which the Scarlet Witch literally rips the X-gene out of all but 198 mutants in the world, they couldn’t do it because the story also involves the Avengers.
FOX is putting together an X-Force team to feature characters like Cable, Domino, Warpath, Deadpool…..Deadpool has had such a tortured journey toward a solo film you could write a whole article on that. I don’t like Deadpool so I won’t. But FOX has him.
FOX also owns The Fantastic Four, Galactus, The Silver Surfer, Dr. Doom, and all traditional FF villains. This really sucks because The Guardians of the Galaxy would be awesome with the Surfer and Galactus could be an epic, line-wide movie event. It also means don’t ever look for an adaptation of The Civil War storyline. I’m amazed Marvel has the rights to Thanos, actually. FOX is currently in the process of putting together a reboot of the FF that’s tentatively scheduled for 2015. Also lumped into this deal were Nova/Frankie Raye, Alicia Masters, and Willie Lumpkin.
Sony owns Spider-Man and anything even bordering on Spider-Man. All villains, supporting characters, the Daily Bugle, etc. Sony has big plans for expanding the Spider-verse. It has at least Amazing Spider-Mans 2-4 in the works along with a Venom and Sinister Six Film. There’s nearly as many characters in Spider-Man’s world as there are mutants, so they can keep this going a loooong time. Incidentally, if you were wondering why sometimes studios jam as many characters as they can into a film, it’s because once you have them appear on-screen, you generally have the legal right to make a spin-off based on that character.
As near as I can tell, the only thing Universal has the rights to is Namor (The Sub-Mariner). That’s just ridiculous. They need to sell him to FOX and put him with the FF. He will not work in a vacuum, he of tiny wings on his feet. Universal is holding on to him like he’s Superman and a recent attempt by Marvel to get his rights back was abandonned with Universal wanted too much in return.
Can Marvel Get Any Of These Back?
No. Yes. Maybe. Depends who we’re talking about. Namor, yes. If they realy want Namor and FOX doesn’t, then Universal will eventually cave and they can make a deal.
The way Marvel has been regaining characters like Daredevil, Punisher, Ghost Rider, Blade, etc. is simply by just waiting. Those deals had clauses (and so does FOX’s FF deal) in which if a movie was not made in X number of years, rights reverted back to Marvel. Thanks to Ang Lee, Marvel even got the Hulk back this way. However, they’ve pretty much gotten everything back that can be gotten that way and FOX’s FF reboot resets the clock on how long it would take to get them back even if it tanks like the first two.
The genius who made the Spider-Man and X-Men deals did NOT put a time limit on them for disuse (not that that will ever happen), nor did he (I’m saying he because only men are this stupid) put an END DATE on the contract. So, short of throwing several billion dollars (and that’s probably not enough) at both Sony and FOX, Marvel will not be getting back Spidey and the X-Men. Ever. The possibility exists for The Fantastic Four, but not for a goshdarn long time.
So, to sum up, Marvel now has control of essentiall everything but three aspects of the Marvel Universe: Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and the X-Men. I would love to have everyone in one universe, too, but the Spidey and mutant corners of the Marvel U. are so deep that if Marvel did have them, I don’t know how they’d manage to weave them into the MCU. Sometimes when you have to make do, you make your best work. Marvel has plenty of toys in the box. Now give me my Moon Knight movie that I, as his only fan, demand.