Who Owns the Hulk? A Breakdown of Movie Production and Distribution Rights

     June 22, 2015


Back in April, Steve had a chance to sit down with Mark Ruffalo – who plays Marvel’s latest big-screen version of the Hulk – and picked his brain to find out just what the chances were for a standalone Hulk movie. Here’s what Ruffalo had to say at the time:

RUFFALO: As far as a Hulk movie, a standalone Hulk movie, Marvel doesn’t really have the rights to that yet. That’s still Universal’s property, so there’s that issue. That’s a big impediment to moving forward with that. Now I don’t think that’s insurmountable, by the way, but I don’t know where it’s going from here for me.


Image via Marvel

Now, in order to help clear this picture up a bit, a Forbes article has used Ruffalo’s above-mentioned quote as a springboard into sorting out just which studio owns which particular rights and from that, the possibilities for a standalone movie.


First thing’s first: According to this write-up, Marvel owns the film production rights to the Hulk. They have since 2005, after Universal’s character license lapsed since a follow-up to Ang Lee’s 2003 film Hulk had not yet entered into production. In the first quarter of 2006, then-Marvel Entertainment chairman Morton Handel announced in an earnings report that the rights to Hulk and Iron Man had reverted to Marvel; later that year, the studio also regained film rights to Captain America and Thor.

Now the complication: Universal still retains distribution rights to the Hulk, along with the right of first refusal. In other words, Marvel can make their movies without any interference from Universal, but Universal decides whether or not they want to act as distributor. That being said, if Universal opts not to distribute, Disney would then immediately be able to scoop up the distribution rights. So, for Universal: Nothing to do with production; distribution rights are dependent on exercising that option.


Image via Marvel Studios

Does all this prevent a standalone Hulk movie? Not really, not when you remember that Marvel’s Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor were all distributed by Paramount. Also, pointing to Marvel’s deal with Sony as it pertains to using Spider-Man – Marvel can use the character for team-ups while Sony can continue to produce and distribute their own Spidey-centric films – it’s obvious that Marvel Studios is willing and able to make arrangements with other Hollywood power players. So if Marvel went ahead with a Hulk film on their own, they could either buy out Universal’s distribution rights, make a deal with the studio that would be mutually beneficial, or just live with the deal as it stands. They’ve acted on each of those options in the past. Marvel will make more money from a shared production/distribution deal for a Hulk film than it will by not making one at all, though it can be argued that it’s much cheaper not to make a movie in the first place than it is to share profits on the back-end.

So if a Hulk movie is possible, why isn’t it probable? As Forbes sums up, there are three reasons: 1) Previous Hulk films have not been, relative to other Marvel films, as critically or financially successful for the studio and thus pose a greater risk for developing another standalone feature. 2) The Hulk seems to work better as a wildcard member of a team rather than the central character shouldering the entire movie; in short: he’s a supporting character. And 3) Reimagining the Hulk as anything more than a rage monster has not impressed audiences in past films.


Image via Marvel Studios

When it comes to the Hulk as the focus of a film, as I see it you have two options: You can make it a very human story – a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale – in which a mild-mannered intellectual grapples with a very real internal monster, or you can go big and put the Hulk up against foes who are almost a match for him, ie “Planet Hulk” or “World War Hulk.” In the first instance, we’ve already seen those storylines in previous films; they didn’t connect with audiences for a number of reasons. That’s not to say that the right story with the right actor at the right time wouldn’t work, but Marvel is likely not willing to take that gamble when the existing Avengers movies provide just enough of that plot to be rewarding to audiences in small doses.

As for the big-budget Hulk stories, if Marvel isn’t willing to spend the money on a more down-to-Earth tale, then they’re probably even more reluctant when it comes going to the other extreme. Putting an entirely CG character on screen for 90 minutes against an arena or world populated with hundreds of similar CG characters instantly starts to raise the budget while reducing any semblance of humanity in the film. The decision to commit to that plan a few years in advance, coupled with the financial complications of studio deals I mentioned earlier, makes either Hulk film a risky proposition no matter which extreme they land on.


Image via Marvel

Ironically, the Hulk himself is a character of these extremes, and the narratives needed to bring his story to the screen are just as polar. Perhaps the best option is the middle ground, a place where Bruce Banner can interact with his fellow human-ish heroes and engage in scientific discourse and philosophical ponderings before Hulking out for a few moments of CG-filled wonder. Guess what? That’s the Hulk that currently exists and has been entertaining audiences during the previous Avengers films. It’s probably that that’s where the Hulk will stay for the near term, at least until Marvel exhausts its current cinematic plans and looks for something big to gamble on once again.


Image via Marvel


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