It seems obvious, right? The Hulk is one of Marvel’s most popular characters. His 2008 movie helped launch the MCU in the first place, hitting theaters the same year as Iron Man and confirming the existence of a shared cinematic universe among Marvel properties.
And yet in the decade since that first movie was released, we’ve gotten nothing: no direct follow-up to Bruce Banner’s story. The Hulk continues to appear in other MCU titles, as do his various supporting characters: chief among them being General (now Secretary of State) Thunderbolt Ross, and his son, Joint Counter Terrorism Center representative Everett Ross. Even his most iconic stories from the comics are getting co-opted into other Avengers’ movies, like the Planet Hulk storyline that unapologetically forms the backbone of the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.
So what gives? If he’s so indispensably popular that he’s crammed into as many crossovers as is humanly possible, why are other Phase 1 heroes on their third solo movie before Banner so much as gets a second?
The answer actually lies in the needlessly complicated world of Marvel movie rights. Even today, when they’ve gotten nearly all of them back under one roof, they continue to be a spider’s web of conflicting interests and third parties.
You see, Marvel wasn’t always the bedrock of the entertainment industry. In fact, back in 1996, when the comic book speculator bubble burst and the entire industry collapsed on itself, Marvel filed for bankruptcy. It was a slow, arduous process to climb out of that hole, and part of how they did that was sell the film rights to as many of their characters as there was a market for.
Although a lot of minor characters got shipped off to studios most people never heard of before (including Blade, Daredevil, Man Thing, Ghost Rider), three key players carved up the lion’s share of the film rights. Fox walked away with both X-Men and Fantastic Four. Sony ended up with Spider-Man. And Universal nabbed Hulk.
After an ill-fated movie in 2003 that involved a fight with a gamma-irradiated poodle, Universal sat on their rights. The thing is, however, that unless they made a movie based on the character within a set number of years, the rights reverted back to Marvel (a fact that explains why The Amazing Spider-Man movies exist at all). After a couple of years, Marvel got the rights to their (literally) biggest hero back and used it to launch the MCU.
Although it seemed to wrap up neatly enough, there was a tiny little wrinkle in their plan. Universal might have forfeited the Hulk character rights back to Marvel, but they still retained the distribution rights to any movie they made based on him. That might not seem like a big deal, but that means that Marvel Studios is missing out on millions of dollars in pure profit every time they release an Incredible Hulk movie.
They actually have the same problem with the Avengers movies, the distribution rights to which still rest with Paramount. It’s not like they’ve going to shelve that billion-dollar money-maker, however. They’re making money hand over fist with that franchise, even without distributing it themselves.
The thing is, though, that if they don’t make another solo Hulk movie — if they instead squeeze him into another hero’s movie — they can continue to cash in on his popularity and not give a penny of it back to Universal. After all, Universal has zero stake in a Thor movie, regardless of how much Hulk Marvel manages to shovel into it. That’s how what by rights should have been a relatively straightforward movie about a magical space Viking turns into a grudge match between him and the science troll.
Don’t expect this trend to change any time soon. Hulk is too popular for Marvel to shelve, but, like any good business, they’re not about to give up so much as a dime that they don’t have to. Their present course, although certainly disappointing, makes too much sense for them to abandon ship just yet, especially when Ragnarok, with a commanding 98% on Rotten Tomatoes ahead of its release, is proving to be one of their best movies in years.
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