How Does Universal Have Marvel Characters? Your Questions Answered

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Back before Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth helped sow the seeds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Marvel company was struggling financially. How did the company address this near-bankruptcy issue? By selling rights to its most popular heroes to anyone who would pay for them. Which rights? Movie and theme park rights. Anything that wasn’t tied directly to the comic book publishing was sold to the highest bidder. For years, this wasn’t much of a problem. Fox got X-Men and Fantastic Four and made some good X-Men movies, some bad X-Men movies and some awful Fantastic Four movies. A couple of them also featured Evans, the future Captain America.

Sony got Spider-Man and made two good, maybe great, Spider-Man movies and three not-very-good Spider-Man movies. Then about a decade or so later, Disney acquired the movie rights to the Marvel characters that had not already been acquired. At that time, characters like Iron Man, Thor and even Captain America were considered second-tier. Characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy were all but unknown. 

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So what happened? 

Under the leadership of Kevin Feige, the Marvel Cinematic Universe took off. Suddenly, the second-tier superheroes were at the top of popular culture, sending ripple effects throughout the business. Eventually, Disney became so massive that it acquired Fox and the rights to the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. Sony, which kept producing bad Spider-Man movies, eventually worked out a deal with Disney to bring Peter Parker into the MCU and the studios to share in the profits. 

So how does Universal have Marvel?

Well, back in the old days when Marvel was selling rights, Universal snatched up the rights to many of the Marvel characters for use in its parks East of the Mississippi River. Specifically, Universal bought the following families of characters from Marvel Entertainment:

  • Spider-Man
  • Fantastic Four
  • Avengers
  • X-Men
The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman Universal Islands of Adventure
Above: The entrance to The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman ride at Universal Islands of Adventure (photo by James Overholt/HeyOrlando.com)

Why does Universal have Marvel?

When Islands of Adventure was in the planning process, Universal – then under parent company MCA – needed intellectual property. Other theme parks had some success with DC characters like Batman or Superman, so Marvel seemed like a good investment. 

Wolverine Looms Over a Store Universal Islands of Adventure
Wolverine looms large on a storefront in Universal Islands of Adventure (photo by James Overholt/HeyOrlando.com

How long does Universal have Marvel rights?

To quote Outcast’s Andre 3000, forever and ever … kind of. The contract is in place in perpetuity and does not have an endpoint. Either party can end the contract. However, if Disney wanted to shut it down, it would have to be able to successfully prove that Universal was hurting the brand through the lack of upkeep and care. That means Universal has the rights as long as it’s willing to invest in them and make the necessary payments.

The Captain America Diner at Universal Islands of Adventure
Universal can keep their Marvel rights, including Captain America until they relinquish them (photo by James Overholt/HeyOrlando.com)

What Marvel characters does Universal own?

Universal owns any character whose chief association is within the four families mentioned above. However, that’s more complicated than it sounds. Throughout Marvel’s long history, many characters have crossed between those universes. For instance, Quicksilver and Wanda Maximoff – aka the Scarlet Witch – are the children of X-Men chief villain Magneto. But neither are strictly considered X-Men characters alone. That’s how Fox and Disney were able to have competing versions of the same characters in movies before the Disney-Fox merger. 

With this in mind, who does Universal own? They own the characters you see in Universal’s Islands of Adventure Marvel Land. They own X-Men like Wolverine, Rogue, Cyclops and of course, Storm and her Storm Force Accelatron Ride. The Universal Orlando Resort also has Avengers like Captain America, Thor and Hulk and his Incredible Hulk Coaster – one of the most popular attractions in Universal Studios. 

Universal Studios Florida also has the Fantastic Four – Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, Human Torch and The Thing. And maybe more importantly, one of the biggest villains of the Marvel Universe, Dr. Doom and Doctor Doom’s Fearfall. Finally, Universal has Spider-Man – which brings us to the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man – and all the great Marvel comic characters from that universe, or at least most of them. 

Comic Book Store Universal Islands of Adventure
The Marvel Comics store at Universal Islands of Adventure (photo by James Overholt/HeyOrlando.com)

What Marvel characters does Disney own?

East of the Mississippi River? Disney has the rights to any character who is not a main part of the four families and/or is not in use by Universal. So the Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is fair game at EPCOT. However, it’s important to note that Disney cannot bill them as Marvel characters or use the Marvel branding. 

Storm Force Accelatron Universal Islands of Adventure
Storm-Force Accelatron is similar to a tilt-a-whirl ride (photo by James Overholt/HeyOrlando.com)

What other characters can Disney use? 

Well, Dr. Strange was a member of the Avengers but not enough to be considered part of the Avengers family. Many characters make appearances in other titles throughout the years. But when the latest Dr. Strange movie opened, he was able to meet fans in Walt Disney World without violating the agreement, so it’s safe to speculate that Strange is available to Disney. Black Panther, however, is not. Black Panther is a core member of the Avengers who also had a long relationship with Storm from the X-Men.

Namor – the antagonist from “Wakanda Forever” – is a mutant who exists in the Avengers world as well as that of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, so he’s out. Disney – I would think – would have the rights to the Eternals and the Inhumans. But neither of those families of characters has taken off. Captain Marvel is also out because she is an Avenger AND she has the Marvel name, which is a double whammy. And while I can’t say for sure, I believe the fact that we didn’t see Marvel characters like Ant-Man – who is pretty clearly a big part of the Avengers – or Shang-Chi to promote their films means both are off limits to Disney in Orlando.

What about Marvel characters at Disney California Adventure?

You might be wondering why the Marvel Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure is so much better than Universal’s Marvel Super Hero Island in Islands of Adventure. Technology. Money. Investment. ​​​​Universal’s Marvel Super Hero Island opened in the 90s and you can feel it. It’s a very 90s version of Marvel heroes – a version mostly obliterated by the arrival of the MCU. The Incredible Hulk coaster is a great ride. The Storm ride is fine for a tilt-a-whirl and Doctor Doom’s Fearfall is also fine for what it is. 

The most successful part of the Island for me was the character meet and greets. Spider-Man and Captain America were especially good. The Spider-Man ride, in my opinion, is in desperate need of an upgrade and the entire Island could do with a significant upgrade overall. The Disneyland Avengers Campus, however, is new and expensive. It also represents cutting-edge theme park technology with flipping Spider-Man robots and such. It’s absolutely awesome in the way that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Star Wars Galaxy Edge are. Universal’s Marvel Island currently pales in comparison.

Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal Islands of Adventure
The Incredible Hulk Coaster is one of the most popular Universal rides (photo by James Overholt/HeyOrlando.com)

What’s next for the Marvel franchise?

It’s kind of like a game of poker at this point. Every time Disney debuts a new Marvel attraction – whether it’s in California or Orlando – Universal’s Marvel stuff looks older and cheaper. At some point, Universal is going to have to decide to ante up and invest to keep up with Disney. In other words, stay with the status quo and lose footing, or punt and try to work out some kind of deal.

Are you planning a trip to Universal Studios in the future? Check Tripster for deals on multi-day tickets.

What Marvel character or ride is your favorite at Universal Islands of Adventure? Let us know in the comments!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Gullion

John Gullion, Managing Editor at the Citizen Tribune, is a freelance contributor for TheSmokies.com LLC – the parent company of TheSmokies.com and HeyOrlando.com.

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