Much has been made in the last two months of actor Mark Ruffalo’s comments about the future of the Marvel superhero Hulk on the big screen. In an interview with Collider, Ruffalo stated, “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.” And ever since, fans and media outlets have been speculating about Marvel not owning the rights to the Hulk on film, and there’s been a lot of guesswork about what precisely Ruffalo was referring to. Since the details of these rights deals are rarely made public in all their little nuances, the uncertainty about precisely who owns what and — most importantly — why Marvel hasn’t made a Hulk sequel yet continues to vex fans and press alike. So let me clear it all up for everyone once and for all, with the specific correct details for you.
Marvel regained the film production rights to the Hulk in 2005, after Universal’s license of the character lapsed due to failure to enter production on a sequel to 2003′s Ang Lee film Hulk. In February 2006, Morton Handel — then-chairman of Marvel Entertainment – said during an earnings report announcement, “Several watershed events in 2005 have set the stage for the next phase of Marvel’s growth. … We are actively working on scripts for Captain America, Ant-Man and Nick Fury… In addition, the rights for Hulk and Iron Man reverted back to Marvel.” Later in 2006, Marvel successfully regained the film production rights to Captain America and Thor as well.
But despite obtaining the cinematic rights to make Hulk movies, Marvel did not obtain distribution rights. Universal held those rights, and today I can confirm the exact situation is that Universal currently retains the right of first refusal to distribute any Hulk films in the future. If for some reason Universal chose to forgo distribution, then Disney would immediately pick up the distribution rights for the Hulk movie. So Universal has no claim at all to the production rights, and their distribution rights are dependent on exercising their option, which remains in full effect at the moment.
Those thinking that the Universal distribution rights are the major obstacle to getting a Hulk sequel seem to forget that Marvel released Iron Man 2 with Paramount distributing the picture. Paramount in fact distributed Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor. Meanwhile, Marvel entered an agreement with Sony to share Spider-Man production rights in a plan that lets Marvel use the wall-crawler for team-ups only, while Sony still produces and distributes solo Spidey flicks. Marvel clearly isn’t going to refuse arrangements with other studios to share characters or share distribution, if and when the studio wants to make a movie.
So the claims that distribution rights alone would be enough to make Marvel refuse to release another Hulk movie don’t make much sense. If they wanted to make the movie, they’d either buy the distribution rights from Universal, reach a deal in which Universal agrees to decline distribution in exchange for some other arrangement with Marvel or Disney (for example, Disney co-financing another project with Universal, Disney allowing Universal to distribute some other film instead, Disney changing the release date of one of their films to open the calendar up for a Universal movie, and so on), or they’d just release a film and live with the distribution deal as they did with Iron Man 2 and lots of other films (as they’re doing by sharing Spider-Man).
It’s not entirely irrelevant that Universal has distribution rights to the Hulk solo movies, and of course Marvel would prefer to release all of their content under their own banner and not have to share profits. That’s just good business sense. But it’s also good business sense to not cut off your nose to spite your face, and Marvel has consistently been willing and able to make deals and release films under shared licensing or distribution if and when that fits into their plans and is the best way to make the movies they want to make.
The real primary reasons Marvel has postponed any plans for a solo Hulk movie are threefold.
First and foremost, despite the amazing success Marvel has enjoyed and the fact they clearly dominate the superhero film genre with blockbuster releases, 2008′s The Incredible Hulk stands out as the single Marvel release that we honestly have to admit performed weakly at the box office. With just $263 million in worldwide theatrical receipts, the film barely improves upon the equally disappointing box office performance of its predecessor film Hulk, which took $245 million in 2003.
The earlier film had a $137 million budget and the later production cost $150 million, so the proximity of their box office is mirrored in the closeness of their respective budgets as well. The brand didn’t grow, in other words, and both films failed to break even in theatrical dollars. The Incredible Hulk did enjoy a very healthy roughly $120+ million on worldwide home entertainment, but that is offset quite a bit by marketing costs that came in at about $80+ million.
If Marvel is going to invest $150-200 million in a superhero movie, they need to feel confident they’ll see more than perhaps $40 million in eventual profit a few years down the road. They can invest that sort of money into properties they know or strongly suspect will deliver huge returns, so expecting them to invest in a franchise that’s twice failed to even cover its own expenses at the box office isn’t very reasonable.
The Hulk character has proven immensely popular in the Marvel Avengers team-up films, but he doesn’t have to shoulder an entire film and isn’t on screen for most of the running time. Which brings us to the second primary reason Marvel hasn’t made a Hulk sequel film — the character seems to work better and be more popular as a value-added addition to other films. Saving the Hulk to turn him into a “special event” character whom audiences only get to see as an extra element in Marvel’s biggest productions raises his profile and ensures people don’t get tired of him. It also allows the movies to exploit his strengths as a character with far less concern about any potential weaknesses.
And let’s be clear, some weaknesses do exist — at face value, and as perceived by the mainstream public who buy tickets, the Hulk is primarily a big super-strong monster-hero. Which has terrific value as a supporting character in a larger story, but (again, speaking about mainstream public perceptions here) might feel harder to imagine remaining as enjoyable to watch for the entirety of a two-hour film. When solo Hulk movies tried to save the “Hulk-out” moments to avoid oversaturating the films with “big angry monster smashing things and fighting,” audiences clearly weren’t as impressed, despite the fact those were actually good films (I love The Incredible Hulk, it’s essentially a throwback to old Universal classic monster movies).
I think there’s a real impression at the studio that trying a solo movie focused on the Hulk being the Hulk most of the time in the story is a highly risky project. Making a sequel that works will require some unique angles to approach the character in a way that retains everything about his Avengers appearances that make them so beloved, while avoiding all the things about usual Hulk solo stories that audiences seem largely uninterested in.
Finally, there is the simple matter of budgeting. A movie with the Hulk would necessarily include him staying in Hulk form a large portion of the time — again, two previous solo films that had more relatively limited Hulk screen time performed poorly, and any new film has to up the ante and really offer something huge for the Hulk to face off against. With the Hulk as an entirely CGI character, it would mean a lot longer production time and higher costs for the extensive visual effects necessary to create such a large character consistently on film for a two hour movie. And again, whatever shows up to anger him and bring him to battle will have to be worthy of the Hulk we’ve come to know and love, meaning a threat level almost equivalent to an Avengers movie.
The biggest and best modern Hulk stories with potential for big-screen adaptation, according to fan sentiment and press attention, are Planet Hulk and World War Hulk. In either case, or any similar scenario, we’re talking about a large amount of visual effects work and large cast, so the budget for such a project would be close to $200 million if not more. It needs a great story with a compelling new arc for the Hulk that convinces audiences there’s more to him than they’ve seen so far, a threat level that turns this into a really big event-level movie on par with the previous event movies he’s been reserved for, and lots of marketing to build the hype and buzz around the release to ensure a big opening weekend and long legs.
That sort of expense is difficult for Marvel to swallow right now since history hasn’t been kind to movies that depended on the Hulk as the main character. A $180 million budget film would require another $150 million in heavy marketing, so $330 million is the total price tag and $660 million is the break-even point. To get the sort of returns Marvel can get by investing that money into another property, a Hulk sequel therefore needs to bring in at least $750+ million at the worldwide box office, preferably more. And until that sort of performance seems much more likely than a modest or yet-again-failed theatrical run, Marvel knows better than to go down that road.
Those are the three big reasons we haven’t had a Hulk sequel yet, not because Marvel lacks film rights or because there is just some big problem arising out of distribution arrangements. Yes, distribution rights are a detail to be worked out eventually, but not a big enough obstacle to prevent a sequel if Marvel was ready to make one.
So fans should relax and be patient. Marvel has proven to be one of the most savvy and successful studios in Hollywood. They are very aware of what audiences like and don’t like at this point, and they are very aware of their options for using the Hulk in a variety of different types of stories. For now, they appear to think the Hulk works best for the character, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, and for audiences if he’s used as an added-value element for big event pictures rather than risking all of the good will he’s earned in the last few years by chancing yet another solo film too soon when they aren’t even ready for it in the bigger scheme anyway.
If and when Marvel has the right story to tell, and the Hulk has finally built up so much public affection that a stronger solo performance seems much more likely than another stumble, then and only then will Marvel movie forward with a sequel. It will have to fit into Marvel’s larger plans, which are bigger than any one character. There is a whole universal narrative at work in the Marvel films, and each character and franchise has a role to play. For now, a solo Hulk adventure obviously isn’t in the best interests of what Marvel has in mind. But rest assured, you’ll be seeing more of the Hulk soon enough — and eventually, that will include in another solo outing, when the time is right.
What do you think of the Hulk’s status as a special guest star in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, dear readers? And when the Hulk does inevitably return to the big screen in his own adventure, what should it be? Sound off in the comments below!