In another dispute over movie rights, Marvel Studios is blocked from making a standalone movie on Namor the Submariner. Like the Incredible Hulk, Universal Studios owns the rights to the character Namor and entered into a special arrangement with Disney for the character to feature in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Universal seems unbending. No standalone Hulk film has been in the works since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, which they produced. There appears to be no joint effort to produce a standalone Namor film on the horizon either.
The complex rights management also affected how the character was marketed for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
This complex entanglement of character rights stems back to before the Marvel Cinematic Universe when Marvel Comics did not control intellectual property rights. These were the days when a sprawling, interconnected universe of dozens (if not hundreds) of comic book characters seemed unthinkable. Marvel licensed or sold off rights to various studios. Spiderman went to Sony, X-Men and Fantastic Four went to Fox Studios and Hulk and Namor went to Universal Studios. The connection these characters had in Marvel Comics was severed–but not permanently.
After the success of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel Studios initiated a novel and ambitious plan to create a cinematic universe, an idea that had never been achieved and, to date, other studios struggle to emulate. Under the leadership of then-CEO Bob Iger, Disney bought Marvel Studios in 2012, which coincided with the first team-up of marquee Marvel characters in Avengers Assemble. Every year since, more and more movies have been made introducing new superheroes and villains.
As the MCU grew larger, Disney focused on bringing all of Marvel’s characters home under the Disney banner. Iger bought Fox Studios for many reasons, but one reason included reacquiring the rights to X-Men and Fantastic Four. The Mouse House also entered into a fruitful partnership with Sony to produce three standalone Spiderman films (and counting) along with his many appearances in other MCU films.
The only studio left to give up its iron grip on Marvel characters is Universal, which owns both Incredible Hulk and Namor. Neither character can appear in a standalone film nor can they feature in marketing material, unless it’s part of a series of posters.
The strangest part of the story is the change in Namor from the comics. If Universal has such a tight grip on the character, how was director Ryan Coogler able to change the character from his Atlantean origins to a Mesoamerican deity that can live and breathe underwater? In an interview with The Wrap, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever producer Nate Moore said: “There weren’t really things we couldn’t do from a character perspective for him, which is good because clearly, we took a ton of inspiration from the source material, but we also made some big changes to really anchor him in that world in a truth that publishing never really landed on, I would argue, in a big way.”
According to Moore, Coogler wanted to add more detail to an underwater world that is vaguely drawn in the comics, which also allowed him to depart from Namor’s Atlantean origins. “I’ve read every Namor comic ever written and I love them, but the world of Atlantis is a little vaguely drawn. It’s maybe kind of Roman maybe. And so, Ryan is such a detail-oriented filmmaker that he wanted to anchor into something that felt as tangible and real as hopefully Wakanda feels for people. And I think there was nothing from a business side anyway that was preventing us from doing that, which is great.”
The switch from Atlantean to an ancient Mesoamerican culture is an inspiring move to separate Namor from the DCEU’s Aquaman, and this move also continues the MCU’s quest for more diversity. Despite the transformation of Namor’s cultural background, the essence of the character remains. In his debut in “Marvel Comics #1” in October 1939, Namor is a bad guy who, as the comics progressed, reformed into a hero, which was emulated in an original way in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Namor does shift back and forth between hero and villain depending on the storyline in the comics, which will provide some interesting and fertile territory for the MCU to explore in coming films.
It seems likely Namor will be used like Hulk in coming MCU films. While getting his own standalone film is unlikely, Namor will likely have a strong presence in future crossover events and as a secondary–though major–character in other standalone superhero films.
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