How Marvel nearly didn’t have its own Iron Man rights

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Marvel had to wait for somebody else’s rights option to expire – and hope a movie didn’t happen – before it could press ahead with its Iron Man plans.

It’s a well known story that in the 90s and early 2000s, Marvel wasn’t in a position of power when it came to the movie rights to its own characters. On the verge of going out of business – it was effectively bankrupt in 1996 – it sold off the screen rights to all sorts of characters for very low prices.

As such, Fox was able to secure the rights to the X-Men for a sum believed to be less than $1m. It also secured deals for Daredevil, Elektra and the Fantastic Four. Universal meanwhile inked a deal for Hulk movie rights, whilst Sony signed up the entirety of the Spider-Man character base, including the webslinger himself.

Less known, Lionsgate circled a Black Widow movie, and Miramax was interested in bringing Doctor Strange to the screen.

New Line, meanwhile, was one of the first to score a hit with a Marvel character, off the back of its original Blade movie. Two further sequels followed.

However, the company – now part of Warner Bros of course – nearly had another prominent Marvel character on its asset book. And in fact for a while it actually did. New Line was one of the many companies who shopped around for Marvel characters when the latter was at a financial low ebb, and it also snagged itself the screen rights to Iron Man as part of its shopping trip.

Of course, Iron Man in the late 90s and early 2000s was not a famous character in the way he is today. In fact, even Marvel was wary of bringing the character to the screen, crossing everything that its eventual film would gross at least $100m so it stood a chance of getting its money back.

But a long time before the film eventually happened, Fox was the first to circle a possible Iron Man movie, pre-the first X-Men feature. It took up an option to develop a film in the 1990s, but ultimately for whatever reason didn’t move the project much further forward than that. There was a brief flurry of activity when Quentin Tarantino was potentially involved, but that petered out.

New Line, then, snapped up the rights from Fox in 2000 and unlike Fox, seemed far more serious about making a movie. Over the course of around half a decade, New Line hired a series of writers to try and get the movie into shape. Amongst them? Terry Rossio, Ted Elliott and Joss Whedon. Tim McCanlies got the film close to a shooting script, and New Line identified Nick Cassavettes as a potential director. It eyed a 2006 release.

Yet it couldn’t quite get the movie together. That notwithstanding, New Line still wanted to renew the rights for one final push. And that’s where luck wasn’t on its side.

It was pretty conventional within Hollywood for rights to be extended, especially when a finish line for a project was foreseeable. Thus, as the Iron Man rights lapsed at the end of 2005, with no movie in production (as the deal required), New Line went through the formalities of asking Marvel for an extension.

They were shocked to be turned down.

Unbeknown to New Line, Marvel had been quietly moving itself to a point where it wanted to fund movies itself, having seen the likes of Spider-Man and X-Men become box office juggernauts. Further unbeknown to New Line, Marvel had identified Iron Man as the character to spearhead its own launch into the movies, and was quietly waiting things out for the rights to revert.

Had New Line got a film moving just a few months quicker, the 2008 Iron Man wouldn’t have happened. Yet Marvel saw its chance, though, and the road to the Marvel Cinematic Universe was under construction.

That said,to this day, Marvel still hasn’t quite unpickled the assorted rights that were sold off on the cheap, although most have.

It notably refused Fox an extension to its Daredevil rights at the start of the decade, meaning they reverted when a fresh movie didn’t get off the ground (in spite of Fox’s protests) leading to the successful Netflix series. Likewise, the Disney purchase of Fox has meant Fantastic Four and X-Men are back under Marvel control.

New Line meanwhile eventually let its Blade rights lapse, unsurprising given that parent company Warner Bros was pursuing DC properties for the big screen, and wasn’t too keen on spending its resources on a Marvel property.

And yet Sony still has the Spider-Man rights, albeit in an ongoing agreement with Marvel to allow it to use the character in its own movies too. A case of everybody wins. Universal, though, is the stumbling block in a standalone Hulk movie. Whilst Marvel can use and has used the character in ensemble films, Universal has a distribution option for a standalone Hulk film, and Marvel has no desire to pursue the film under those circumstances.

The story of what happened with the 2008 Iron Man movie though is one well told, and the subsequent 12 years of success come down to the gambles Marvel took right back then.

Yet had New Line got down to business a little earlier? Those Avengers may not had quite assembled in the way they did…

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