Is This How Disney Gets The Rights For Hulk And Namor From Universal?

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has soldiered on remarkably well for nearly 15 years now, having generated nearly $29 billion at the global box office since the release of "Iron Man" in 2008. All the while, Disney has had to navigate making these films without the complete rights to many of its key characters. Most notably, Sony still controls the rights to "Spider-Man" and his core cast of supporting characters, which is why movies like "Venom" can be made outside of the MCU. Of major importance, Universal Pictures still controls the solo movie rights for both Hulk and Namor.

We'll get into the particulars of the rights issue and why it exists in a moment but, interestingly enough, a way for Marvel Studios and Disney to get those rights back has potentially emerged. And, oddly enough, it all has to do with Hulu. For those who may not know, Disney currently owns two-thirds of Hulu thanks to the acquisition of Fox back in 2019. Comcast (which owns NBCUniversal), meanwhile, signed a deal in 2019 that gave Disney control of Hulu. But in 2024, either Disney will have to buy Comcast's remaining share for at least $27.5 billion, or the entirety of the service will need to be sold to someone else. This is where the lingering Marvel character rights come in.

Per The Wrap, Wall Street analyst Jason Bazinet of Citi recently paved a path for Disney in a note to clients, suggesting how a deal could come about. "Universal has distribution rights to Hulk and Namor. As such, if Disney makes a Hulk or Namor film, Comcast can distribute the film on Peacock. If Hulu is sold, Disney may use this as an opportunity to secure these distribution rights." There we have it.

The Hulu situation

Comcast and NBCUniversal have been trying hard to get a foothold in the streaming game with Peacock over the last few years. Unfortunately, that has not been going well as the losses have really started to pile up, and it simply doesn't seem like the service will be able to amass enough subscribers to reach profitability. At the same time, cord-cutting is accelerating and massive media companies must keep an eye on the future, one that will be driven by streaming. That being the case, it might actually make more sense for Comcast to try and buy all of Hulu from Disney next year. Of note, Disney CEO Bob Iger has said "everything is on the table" when it comes to Hulu, so that's certainly a possible outcome.

The hook of Bazinet's pitch is that Disney and Iger could use the Hulk and Namor rights as a bargaining tool in regard to the Hulu situation. Comcast would undoubtedly be better positioned in the streaming wars with Hulu rather than Peacock. Meanwhile, Disney still has Disney+ and could fold much of its movies and TV shows into that service, losing little in the process. What they could gain, however, is the ability to make a solo "Hulk" movie, as well as billions in cash from selling their controlling stake in Hulu. Both sides could get great value out of a deal like this.

The Marvel character rights situation

The fact of the matter is that Marvel Studios and Universal are very unlikely to collaborate on a "Hulk" or "Namor" movie like Disney has done with Sony for Tom Holland's "Spider-Man" films. There isn't really enough upside for either studio at this point to go half-sies. Marvel and Universal worked on 2008's "The Incredible Hulk" together, but nothing has materialized ever since. So, Marvel is content to keep Hulk in team-up films, while Namor made his debut in last year's "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," because a solo movie isn't possible — yet.

Universal is kind of just squatting on some important character rights that Marvel could put to good use. But how on Earth did Marvel ever let those rights go in the first place? It's important to remember that, in the late '90s, Marvel was not the powerhouse it is today and actually filed bankruptcy in 1996. Beyond that, comic book movies were not big business in the '90s, so Marvel had no reason to think these character rights could be worth billions.

As a result, they sold the rights to the "X-Men" and "Fantastic Four" even before the bankruptcy to try and shore up their finances. That wasn't the only deal made though, as Universal took the rights to "Hulk" and also ended up with the "Namor" rights. Over the years, rights to franchises such as "Daredevil," "Blade," and "Ghost Rider" have reverted back to Marvel Studios. Yet, Sony is still clinging onto "Spider-Man" for dear life, while Universal retains the last lingering rights that seem within reach.

This sort of thing happened once before

Maybe the most important thing to consider when looking at this proposed deal is a deal that Iger, Disney's current CEO, put together in the past. Coincidentally, it also had to do with lingering character rights and was also done with NBCUniversal. Specifically, we should look at Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and the deal that was done in 2006 that led to Disney regaining the rights to that character after nearly 80 years.

In short, Walt Disney created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927 before Mickey Mouse, with the character going on to star in a series of very successful shorts. That contract was with Universal and, when the deal expired, a deal for the rights could not be agreed upon, leaving Oswald in the hands of producer Christopher Mintz and Universal. And there they stayed until an odd situation arose in 2006 involving sportscaster Al Michaels.

Once Disney acquired the rights for "Monday Night Football," which would move to ESPN, Michaels wanted out of the contract he had recently signed. So, Iger cooked up a deal wherein Michaels could be "traded" to NBC in exchange, in part, for the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Universal offloaded some rights they were doing nothing with, and Disney got back a very important legacy character created by Walt Disney himself.

This is to say, a bizarre yet mutually beneficial deal between these two massive media companies happened before. Will it happen again? We'll see what 2024 brings when the time comes for the Hulu deal to be sorted out. But this could be Disney's best shot at bringing some of those lingering Marvel character rights home.