What if Universal Studios bought Marvel?

Why Iron Man is not allowed to Disney World and why Marvel is not allowed to be called Marvel - The complicated situation of the Marvel licenses in the Disney parks

Today, thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, everyone is talking about Marvel and an important pillar of the Walt Disney Company. But this great success almost never came about, because long before the successful film franchise, Marvel was almost bankrupt after many setbacks in the mid-1990s. In order to get more money into the coffers, the film rights of many characters were sold back then. This is also the reason why Sony still has the film rights to Spider-Man today and why the film rights of the X-Men and Fantastic Four were with 20th Century Fox for many years.
This decline of Marvel at the time was partly due to the growing success of its direct competitor DC Comics. In 1989, Tim Burton's "Batman" movie hit theaters and once again made DC its huge popularity. Universal Pictures had just opened a new theme park in 1990 with “Universal Studios Florida” and wanted to claim part of the new success at DC for itself, although the film rights to Batman were already with Time Warner at that time. A new theme park called "Gotham Island" based on Batman and Gotham City was planned.

Universal is building Marvel Super Hero Island

But since DC was now completely owned by Time Warner and there were violent disputes about the presence of individual characters in a potential theme park, according to various reports, nothing came of this plan. But Universal Pictures did not want to put the plans for a superhero park to the files and turned to Marvel, which was having massive financial problems at that time. Previously, Universal had already bought the film rights to the Hulk and Namor, so the two parties were not unfamiliar.
On March 22, 1992, a contract was finally signed by Marvel and Universal: MCA - the then parent company of Universal - will build a complex of attractions, shops and eateries that are heavily themed around the Marvel characters. This contract is for an indefinite period unless Universal decides to close the area or stop making payments for the use of the characters. Marvel can only terminate the contract if it can be proven that Universal is abusing the use of the characters. The new theme area was named "Marvel Super Hero Island" and became part of the new "Islands of Adventure" theme park in Orlando, Florida. The official opening of the area was on May 28, 1999.

Takeover by Disney

With the sale of some movie rights and the deal with Universal, Marvel was able to generate new funds and stay afloat long enough to get back on its feet. All of this happened long before the Walt Disney Company took over Marvel, which only happened at the end of 2009, when the later massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe had already taken its first steps with "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk". But with the purchase by Disney, Disney had also taken over all existing contracts between Marvel and other parties: The film rights of many characters were still with Sony, 20th Century Fox and others - and the contract with Universal also continued to exist.
The Walt Disney Company had long been Universal's biggest theme park competitor at the time, and the Marvel purchase was, of course, a threat in Universal's eyes. Universal also immediately stated that the acquisition would not affect the licensing agreement with Marvel, and Bob Iger confirmed that Disney would continue to fulfill all of the contracts Marvel currently has with Disney competitors.

Contracts with obstacles

However, the contract between Marvel and Universal was much larger than some might have thought at the time. Universal had taken very good care of themselves when using the Marvel characters in theme parks, and all of these terms and conditions still apply today.
The whole thing is also very complicated, as it is also about which characters are currently playing a role in Universal's attractions. In the “Marvel Super Hero Island” themed area in Florida, the Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man play a role. The latter also plays a role in the Universal Studios Japan theme park within an attraction.

In the sphere of influence of a Universal Park, according to the contract, Disney may not use the same characters in its parks that can already be seen in the corresponding Universal Park. Or to put it more simply: Spider-Man is not allowed to play a role in Disneyland Tokyo and neither the Avengers, nor the X-Men, the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man are allowed to play a role in the Walt Disney World Resort. This is a big problem for Disney, especially in Orlando, because this is where another important point comes into play:
In all contracts between Marvel and other parties, characters are assigned to so-called "families". Characters such as Aunt May, the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus belong to the "family" of Spider-Man characters, as they were either introduced there or are traditionally assigned to this main character. According to the contracts, ALL characters of this "family" are not allowed to appear in a Disney Park near the corresponding Universal Park. If you now realize that the Avengers are also part of Universal Park in Orlando, it looks bad for most of the Marvel heroes for the Walt Disney World Resort: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and many other of the great known heroes the Marvel Cinematic Universe must not set foot in Walt Disney World! On the other hand, all characters who do not belong to the named "families" can also be seen in Walt Disney World.

The Mississippi River as a magical border

The Mississippi River plays a major role in all of these rules, as this was included in the treaties as the boundary for the area of ​​influence of Universal Park in Florida. East of the Mississippi, the rules mentioned above apply; to the west of it, Disney is allowed to use all characters from Marvel Comics and films in its own theme parks.
In Japan, on the other hand, the whole of Japan is a restricted zone for other parks, so the same rules apply to Disneyland in Tokyo as to Walt Disney World, although here only Spider-Man is a problem, as only he is part of one in Universal Studios Japan Attraction is.

Why Marvel can't be called Marvel

However, there is also a clause here: The characters may only be used for limited advertising opportunities. How exactly this looks in individual cases is unfortunately not known. In addition, the name "Marvel" may not be used as part of an attraction or for marketing. These clauses also apply worldwide and thus also apply to Disneyland in Paris.
This is also the reason why the new planned subject areas around the Marvel heroes are called "Avengers Campus". In addition to the term “Marvel”, “Avengers” is the best-known brand for Marvel and if you are not allowed to use a name like “Marvel Land”, then the whole thing is called “Avengers Campus”.
But here is another problem for Walt Disney World. The name "Avengers" may not be used there, as the Avengers in Orlando are part of a universal attraction. So what to do Orlando will get an outpost of the Avengers on the planet Xandar, which will not have the name "Avengers" in the title. This planet was last seen in the MCU in "Guardians of the Galaxy" as the home of the Nova Corps. Since this planet is known from the movies and none of the characters belong to one of the “families” that are blocked by Universal, this is probably the best option for Disney to have a kind of “Marvel Land” in Orlando.

Universal is not allowed to do everything either

The theme of Universal around the Marvel heroes is still very much in the design of the 90s and many have already speculated that sooner or later Universal will and will adapt the design to the design of the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe. But this is not possible because the design of the MCU Heroes is legally owned by Disney and Universal is not allowed to use this design.
On the other hand, theoretically an attraction with Iron Man in his comic-book look but with the voice of Robert Downey Jr. would be legally permitted. On the other hand, Disney should use the voice of Robert Downey Jr., but neither show him as Tony Stark or Iron Man in Orlando.
In general, Universal can update the attractions in its parks at any time, although Disney would have the right to veto - but only if the reasons are understandable and these are rather rare in this case.

More problems in the future are guaranteed

With the purchase of Fox by Disney this year, the film rights to the Fantastic Four and the X-Men fell back to Marvel Studios and we will see a reboot of the two series as part of the MCU in a few years. But here new problems arise, especially for Walt Disney World: Both the X-Men and the Fantastic Four are not allowed to be seen in Wald Disney World either. A problem that hardly seems to be solved, especially when you consider that these two hero teams will soon play a big role in the films ...

Image sources
Header image with superheroes © Marvel
Superhero affiliation graphic © The Geek Twins
Superheroes on Universals Island of Adventures © Universal