A Guide to the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse

In a previous blog post, we examined the history and future of the various DC Comics cinematic franchises that make up what I (apparently alone) am calling the DC Cinematic Multiverse. But DC isn’t the only company to have a massive tangle of cinematic universes under its belt. It’s long-time rival Marvel has been even more prolific when it comes to adapting their material for the large and small screen. Unlike DC, though, Marvel gave up control over much of it’s catalog during the dark times (the 1996 bankruptcy and subsequent reorganization), resulting it several different studios having access to bits and pieces of the Marvel world. To this day there is still a lot of confusion over who has what rights, who can be in which films, and on-screen with who else, and which films belong to which shared canon.

Note: As with the DC post, I am mostly ignoring the animated parts of the Marvel multi-verse. There have been 36 (to date) animated shows and about a dozen animated movies.  In general, with two notable exceptions, these shows all exist in their own separate universes, with their own separate designations in the Marvel reality catalog, and otherwise play no role in the live-action TV or movie worlds.

So, as we did with DC, lets see if we can make some sense of of the tangled mess that is the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse.

Reality Numbers

The idea of having a lot of separate, fragmented versions of their characters is certainly nothing new to Marvel. Their source comics are famous for having thousands of one-off, spin-off, what-if, alternate-timeline and even alternate-universe settings, where variations on their characters exist as distinct people with distinct pasts. Marvel has gone so far as to identify each of these variations with a “Marvel Reality Number”. These numbers are occasionally published in the various editions of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, and a more up-to-date list can be found here, curated by one of the Official Handbook‘s chief editors.

The primary reality number for the printed source material is Earth-616, the mainstream Marvel universe. In general, issues of Marvel’s comic books take place there unless otherwise specified. A second, more recent print setting is the Earth-1610 Ultimate universe, a “reboot” of Marvel’s entirely history which was created in 2000. The latter is notable for being the source of much of the inspiration for the recent popular movies.

Not all Marvel properties have been given a reality number, but a whole, whole, whole lot of them have been. Whenever possible, the official reality numbers are given here, to help identify and distinguish those properties that do or do not exist within the same shared universe.

The Early Days

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Unlike DC comics, which historically (thanks mostly to Batman and Superman) had a very strong live-action presence in both TV and movies, Marvel’s big-screen presence prior to the late-1990’s was very limited. There were a handful of movies and a bunch of television shows produced during that time; while the animated shows were pretty popular, the live-action ones did not fare very well.

The first big-screen adaption of Marvel’s (actually, at the time, Timely Comic’s) work came in 1944, with a Captain America film (actually a serial film, broken up into 15 parts) made by Republic Pictures. They had previously adapted other super-hero properties to film, but Captain America was their last. While the film was generally well received by critics, it was way over budget, and was hardly even a Captain America movie. It contained none of the traditional elements of the Captain America character: he was not a solider, was not named Steve Rogers, didn’t fight Nazis, and carried a pistol instead of a shield, just for starters. It’s generally assumed that the movie was written for a different character (likely Fawcett/DC character Mr. Scarlet) but was changed at the last minute. Marvel included a nod to this movie in Captain America: The First Avenger, in which Steve Rogers stars in a serial film early in his career.

After that, the next time Marvel’s work appeared on film was in Howard the Duck in 1986, followed by direct-to-video adaptations The Punisher and Captain America. All three of these films were dismal failures, and the disastrous reception of Howard the Duck would scare film studios away from any theatrical movie based on a Marvel property until after the bankruptcy.

During this same period, Marvel was also dipping its foot into the small-screen pool, trying out a couple of live action TV series based on their characters. Their first attempt was The Amazing Spider-Man in 1977, which was popular but ultimate cancelled by CBS (who felt they had too much comic-book material on their network). Between 1977 and 2000, about a dozen live-action shows and made-for-TV movies were put on the air, including two really bad X-Men rip-offs, another Captain America movie, and a Nick Fury movie starring David Hasselhoff. None of these adaptations was very well received, and they have all been mostly lost into the mists of time.

The shining diamond in among all of this rough is was the highly popular The Incredible Hulk television franchise. The only genuinely successful franchise in Marvel’s portfolio prior to Blade, the show would eventually encompass not only 5 seasons of episodic television, but three made-for-TV movies between 1977 and 1990. Collectively, these make up the Marvel universe Earth-40005

The Movie License Explosion

In the mid 1990s, Marvel was experiencing some major financial problems (for a number of reasons), which led to Marvel Entertainment Group filing for bankruptcy. Soon after that, Marvel’s new CEO decided to take advantage of their vast, untapped vault of characters by bringing them to the big screen. Marvel Entertainment Group formed a new movie production company, Marvel Studios, to turn their comic properties into feature films.

Marvel had previously optioned a few characters to film studios, and had gotten frustrated that none of them ever came to fruition. Most notably, Fox licensed the X-Men characters as early as 1993, and a Spider-Man man movie had been “in production” for almost 25 years. In addition, there had been the occasional “contractually obligated” movie, such as an unreleased Fantastic Four movie, that were produced with no intention of ever being seen — they existed solely to allow the studios to hold onto their properties a bit longer.

Marvel’s new idea this time around was to sell “pre-packaged” movies, with Marvel controlling all of the pre-production and creative aspects, e.g. writing, casting, hiring directors, etc., and handing off to a bigger studio for filming and distribution. Ultimately, Marvel’s executives didn’t have quite that much creative control over their movies, but even so, CEO Avi Arad began aggressively working to get Marvel characters into movie theaters. The first movie produced and filmed and distributed under this new system — and the first in over 10 years — was Blade.

Over the course of the 1990’s, dozens of Marvel’s character licenses would be acquired by at least six different movie studios. The success of Blade finally spurred these studios to start converting their own properties into movies, and between 2002 and 2007, 15 Marvel-based movies would be released. Each of these movies exists in their own separate universe — the idea of a shared movie universe hadn’t yet cropped up. That idea would have to wait for Marvel to decide to take matters into their own hands.

The Off-Brands

While most of Marvel’s cinematic properties are based on characters from their primary Earth-616 universe, or their alternative Earth-1610 Ultimate universe, there are a few movies that are based on completely unrelated properties. These movies have done pretty well in the theater, but few people associate them with Marvel Comics. These include properties that are published through Marvel’s Icon Comics imprint, which they use to publish creator-owned series. The list of movies based on Marvel’s lesser-known properties includes:

  • Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass 2 (Icon Comics), licensed by Universal Pictures
  • Men In Black, Men in Black 2, Men in Black 3 (acquired from Malibu Comics), licensed by Sony/Columbia Pictures
  • Kingsmen: The Secret Service (Icon Comics), licensed by Fox

The Cinematic Flops

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The list of Marvel mainstream properties that were farmed out to other studios is pretty long, and contains some of Marvel’s biggest names. Most of these licensed characters never made it to the big screen, and were eventually abandoned by their licensees. Many of them would later reappear in Marvel’s own movies or TV shows, but some are just sitting around gathering dust. Of those that did make it into theaters, only a very select few were successful. But first, here are the ones that weren’t:

Artisan

Artisan Pictures (which has since been bought by Lionsgate) received the licensing rights to make a Black Panther movie, but it never materialized. The movie never seemed to have gotten beyond the casting rumor stages. The license eventually expired in 2005, and was one of the first to return to Marvel.

Lionsgate

Lionsgate films obtained two properties from Marvel, though only one of them ever made it into theaters. They received a license for Black Widow but let that license expire unused. The other property they got was Punisher, which was made into two films: The Punisher in 2004, and Punisher: War Zone in 2008. These are two standalone movies — the second is a reboot of the first — and do not share any continuity.

These films are notable for being two of the very few R-Rated movies based on Marvel properties, and the last ones until Deadpool in 2016. Unfortunately, neither movie was very well-received, and Lionsgate let the license deal expire sometime in 2010, when Marvel announced at SDCC they had gotten the character back. Still, it would be another 6 years before Frank Castle would show up on-screen again.

Universal Studios

Universal Studios made a number of licensing deals with Marvel, including for their theme parks, but only one film property: The Incredible Hulk. This was one of the deals that had been lagging for a long time, possibly as far back as 1990, but was kicked into high gear in the 2000-era success of Marvel’s characters. They brought in famed director Ang Lee, fresh off Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to convert this into a film, which was released in 2003. The film was rather controversial among Marvel fans, since it changed a lot of the character’s backstory, but it was commercially pretty successful (not quite making double it’s budget but coming close). Nonetheless, Universal decided not to follow up on it, and made a deal with Marvel Studios to reacquire the property. Marvel briefly considered making a sequel, before deciding to reboot the character, and to incorporate him into their planned massive movie franchise.

One interesting aspect about this deal is that, while Universal can no longer make Hulk movies, they have retained the right to distribute any Hulk movies that Marvel does make. Several people at Marvel, including actor Mark Ruffalo (the most recent Bruce Banner) have implied that the Disney-owned Marvel will likely not make another solo Hulk movie as long as the distribution rights rest with competitor Universal, but the Hulk is still free to appear in other character’s movies, or the ensemble films.

Sony/Columbia Pictures

Sony, via their Columbia Pictures studio, acquired a number of Marvel properties. They were quite successful with one of those (we’ll get to that), but much less so with the others.

They originally had access to Thor and Luke Cage, but were never able to make much progress on either of them and let them pass back to Marvel. Their final property at least got taken to film: Ghost Rider. The 2007 Ghost Rider movie was made enough money to warrant a 2012 sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, but both movies were roundly panned by both fans and critics alike. Sony decided to end the franchise at two movies, and let their license expire.

Fox

Of all the studios to get access to Marvel’s licenses, Fox is far and away the most successful at it. Fox is the only one to even come close to matching Marvel Studio’s success. However, much like Sony, their one massive success is accompanied by some utter failures. While (as far as I know) Fox actually made movies from all of the properties they licensed, not all of them turned out very well.

Fox’s first stumble was with the 2003 movie Daredevil, which broke a streak of 6 good Marvel movies in a row dating back to 1998, but somehow warranted an even worse 2005 sequel focusing on Daredevil’s anti-hero girlfriend Elektra. Fox thankfully stopped at two here, and let the property fall back into Marvel’s hands, where they promptly turned it into a phenomenal television series.

Fox’s other property hasn’t done much better: a 2005 adaptation of Fantastic Four wasn’t bad (certainly not as bad as many other licensed films), but the 2007 follow-up Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer seemed to kill the franchise for a while. Fox tried again with the disastrous 2015 reboot Fant4stic [sic, ugh], which was one of the worst-received comic book movies in a very long time. However, at least as of mid-2016, Fox has not yet given up on the property, and there is still talk of a possible sequel (though the planned release date was quickly scrapped).

The Cinematic Marvels

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With that out of the way, lets turn our attention to something much more positive: the resounding success a few studios have had with their Marvel licenses. Overall, there were three distinct Marvel franchises — each with their own licensee — that became successful and popular movie adaptations, and brought comic-book movies back into the mainstream.

Blade

New Line Cinema has the distinction of producing the first genuinely successful movie franchise based on Marvel’s property, with it’s three-film series about Blade, the vampire hunter. The first Blade film was released in 1998, and was a huge box-office success, spawning not only two sequels, but a short-lived television series set after Blade: Trinity. The character in the movie was altered slightly from his comic counterpart (he was made into a half-vampire, with the commensurate boosts in strength and speed); after the success of the movie, the Earth-616 Eric Brooks was updated to be more like his Earth-26320 counterpart.

The first movie was a big hit with comic book fans, and the sequel fared even better, earning more than it’s predecessor. Unfortunately, in a pattern not-uncommon in comic book movies, after the second film, things started to go downhill. Blade: Trinity was roundly panned by critics, and made less money than Blade 2. At this point, New Line ran out of things to do with the character, and the final movie was also plagued with personnel issues (largely revolving around star Wesley Snipes). New Line tried to branch out into a television series, but was unsuccessful, and subsequently let the license agreement lapse.

Blade: Trinity is notable for being the first of several comic-book movies starring Ryan Reynolds, who would go on to play DC’s Green Lantern, as well as two different versions of Marvel’s Deadpool. The series is also notable for all three films being R-Rated, a relative rarity in the superhero world.

Spider-Man

While they had pretty bad luck with most of their licenses, Sony/Columbia did manage to make one of their characters into a popular and successful franchise: Spider-Man.

Sony actually brought out two distinct series of movies for the Spider-Man character. The first, set in Earth-96283, started with Spider-Man in 2002, and produced two sequels, showcasing a number of classic Spider-Man villains, such as The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, and Venom. The movies were initially well received, though there were some key changes in the character’s backstory. Most notably, Peter’s first romantic interest is Mary Jane (Gwen Stacy doesn’t show up until late in the series), and he has organic webbing instead of inventing his own. Unfortunately, each film in the series was slightly less acclaimed (though all of them were commercially successful), and when the director dropped out of the planned fourth movie, Sony already had reboot plans underway to replace it. These films have supplied two of the most infamous scenes in all of comic-book movie history: the classic upside-down kiss from Spider-Man, and the utterly horrible dancing Peter scene from Spider-Man 3.

In 2012, Sony released The Amazing Spider-Man, now set in Earth-120703, which once again told the origin story of the superhero. This version adhered a bit more closely to the comic roots — Peter invents his webbing and mechanical web slingers, and his love interest is Gwen Stacy. This time, Peter starts off initially facing The Lizard, and the follow-up The Amazing Spider-Man 2 pits him against Green Goblin and Electro. Again, the first movie was generally well-received and a box-office success, but the second one significantly less so. After five attempts at a Spider-Man movie (which included plans for a Sinister Six cross-over that never materialized), Sony was finally willing to let the character go.

In 2015, Marvel and Sony announced that they had finalized a deal to bring Spider-Man into Marvel’s incredibly phenomenally popular movie franchise. Sony still retains some degree of control over the character, and (similar to Universal and Hulk) will retain distribution rights, but the production aspects of the next Spider-Man movie will include heavy involvement from Marvel, and occur within the shared continuity of Marvel’s other films.

The X-Men

As mentioned, Fox has had, by far, the most success with their Marvel licenses. Indeed, they’re the only ones who have continued to renew their license deals. Their first big-screen adaptation was the 2000 movie X-Men, which launched the second most successful Marvel cinematic franchise in history (trailing only slightly behind Marvel’s own movie franchise.)

The X-Men franchise consists of, at present count, nine movies (including the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse), with at least a half-dozen more at various stages of development. While X-Men director Bryan Singer has largely driven the creative direction of this franchise, several spin-off movies were produced without him. Unfortunately, this has turned the franchise into possibly the most confusing cinematic universe of any licensee, thanks to a variety of continuity glitches. And now, with the added bonus of time-travel, the The X-Men Cinematic Universe consists of two separate and distinct “realities”.

The initial series of movies: X-Men, X-Men: United, and X-Men: The Last Stand, form the core of what Marvel has identified as reality number Earth-10005. They subsequently released two prequel movies, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: First Class, plus a second solo movie, The Wolverine, set sometime after The Last Stand. While the solo movie managed to stay pretty consistent with the existing canon (until the very end), the two prequels introduced a lot of problems with continuity, including characters meeting out of order, having unrealistic ages, etc. Fox ultimately attempted to clean up this mess by introducing time travel in X-Men: Days of Future Past, which didn’t exactly fix the continuity problems so much as sweep them under the rug. All of those problems still exist in Earth-10005, but that is no longer the “correct” reality; all movies from Days of Future Past forward exist in a new, revised timeline (which Marvel hasn’t yet assigned a reality number). Singer has explicitly claimed that the events of The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine are no longer canon, though no specific mention was made about the other movies.

In addition to all the X-Men films, Fox has also branched out into other mutant films; the first of these being the solo Deadpool (notable for being the first R-rated comic movie in 8 years), which is set in the same reality as the current X-Men movies. Fox has also announced plans for a solo Gambit movie, as well as a possible X-Force movie in the future.

Special mention needs to be given to two mutant characters Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. These characters are mutants, and Magneto’s children, which makes them very closely tied into the X-Men storylines. However, they are also core members of the Avengers team, who’s license was retained by Marvel. As such, an explicit exemption was built into the Fox deal allowing Marvel to keep using these two characters, as long as no mention is made of their mutant origin. While Fox has yet to use Wanda, they have used (and continue to use) Pietro, meaning there are now two different versions of Quicksilver in two different cinematic universes.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe

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In 2004, after seeing the success that other studios were having with their properties, Marvel’s new COO decided it was time to begin self-financing movies. Their original project was to make 10 movies over 8 years, all distributed by Paramount Pictures, but produced and filmed and financed by Marvel themselves. Marvel still had a ton of character properties that were unlicensed, and movies were planned for characters such as Captain America, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, and Hawkeye. Pretty soon, however, Marvel began reacquiring rights to properties that had been licensed but unused, starting with Black Panther (which Columbia Pictures let lapse in 2005), Iron Man (from New Line Cinema in 2005), Hulk (from Universal in 2006), and Thor (from Sony, also in 2006). These last three would go on to be the first three movies in Earth-199999: the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

What immediately set these movies apart was that the MCU was a shared universe. Characters and events from earlier movies reappeared in later ones, and the ending scene of each movie teased the next film in the series. This all lead up to one of the biggest movie events in superhero history: The Avengers, which brought together four separate solo movie franchises into a single film. Since then, each new Marvel film has built on this shared story, sometimes in big ways (e.g. Captain America: Civil War), and sometimes in small ones (e.g. Ant-Man), but always with the goal of telling one single, epic, galaxy-spanning story.

In 2009, Marvel was acquired by Disney, who took over distribution of the Marvel Studio movies when their Paramount deal ended. Disney subsequently bought back the rights to all the existing Paramount films, leaving The Incredible Hulk as the only MCU movie not wholly-owned by Disney. At the same time, more of Marvel’s licensed properties kept reverting to them on a steady basis, including ones that had seen big-screen adaptations already: Blade, Ghost Rider, Daredevil, and Punisher. In 2015, Sony Pictures agreed to a restructuring of their Spider-Man license that effectively reverts control of the character to Marvel, meaning that the only Marvel comics franchises that are not under Marvel Studios control are also unfortunately two of their biggest: the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, both still licensed to Fox.

(As noted earlier, Fox also has license deals for Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver; Marvel introduced the Maximov twins in Age of Ultron, but killed off Pietro in that film. Thus, at least at this point, Fox has effectively exclusive use of Quicksilver, and Marvel has effectively exclusive use of Scarlet Witch.)

In 2010, Marvel expanded their movie studios to include television production, brought their Marvel Animation production in-house, and began work on a live-action Marvel television show. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a spin-off of the Avengers movie, was the first live-action Marvel show since the short-lived Blade series in 2006, and with their renewal for a fourth season, is now second only to The Incredible Hulk as the longest running such show. Marvel also branched out into online streaming with a series of Netflix-based programs, with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, plus the upcoming Luke Cage and Iron Fist, culminating in a planned crossover show Defenders.

As of this moment, the Marvel Cinematic universe is, by a very large margin, the most successful film franchise in history; with another dozen films on the books for the next few years and at least one more TV show, it shows no signs of slowing down.

Animated Shared Universes

Like the DCCM, Marvel’s cinematic multiverse has been home to a huge number of animated programs, which I have largely ignored here for space reasons. In general, the majority of those shows are set in their own separate universes. However, there have been two sets of animated TV series that are set in shared universes, and deserve special mention:

Earth-8096 is a shared continuity consisting of several animated films and television series that aired between 2009 and 2012, including Hulk Vs. (2009), Thor: Tales of Asgard (2011), Wolverine and the X-Men (2009), and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2010-2012). In addition, there were two limited-edition runs of print comics spun off of from the latter program that are set in the same universe. In 2012, Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was cancelled, thus ending the Earth-8096 story.

Earth-12041, the “Marvel Animated Universe“, is the shared universe where all of Marvel’s currently active (and a few finished) animated series take place. It began upon the cancellation of the last Earth-8096 show, and the creation of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble. The shows in this universe more closely follow the tone and characterizations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though the actual plots and storylines are drawn from multiple comics sources. At the moment, the universe includes the animated series Marvel’s Avengers Assemble (2013-), Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H (2013-2015), Ultimate Spider-Man (2012-), and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2015-). As with Earth-8096, most of these shows now have spin-off print comic series, also set in the same shared universe

Finally, extra special recognition needs to go to Big Hero 6, an animated film based off an obscure Japanese superhero team from Earth-616. Not only is this the first (and only, so far) animated Marvel movie to be released into theaters, it’s also the first Marvel-based film to win an Academy Award (for Best Animated Feature).

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5 thoughts on “A Guide to the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse

  1. Regarding MCU tv shows, you missed “Agent Carter”…

    It’s perhaps not as big a name as some of the other shows and it is set a bit apart by being in a different period of time, but it’s definitely part of the MCU.

    • Ah yes, I was just reading the text (where it’s not mentioned) and not looking at the image (where it is). I was expecting for it to show up in the text as well.

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