Disney faces some big challenges in assembling the Avengers and Fox's X-Men

Key Points
  • Disney's pending purchase of Twenty-First Century Fox would give the studio control of two Marvel comics properties it doesn't own.
  • That would allow Disney to unite its Avengers-focused franchise with Fox's X-Men and Fantastic Four series.
  • It also creates challenges because Fox has found success with R-rated superhero movies while Disney keeps turning out family-friendly comic book films.
The Avengers unite against Ultron in the film “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
Marvel Studios

Walt Disney, which could soon be the undisputed king of Marvel Comics movies, might find itself wrestling with the old maxim: Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Disney's pending deal to buy Twenty-First Century Fox is no doubt a coup. Disney, which owns Marvel Entertainment, currently has the film rights to most of the Marvel comics universe, including characters like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor.

The deal would give it control of Fox's X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises, allowing Disney to bring the characters into its massively successful series of interconnected superhero films.

But the pending acquisition also comes at a time when Marvel Studios and Fox have steered the superhero genre in different directions. Both of those creative paths led to movies that are wildly popular with fans, presenting something of a strategic conundrum for Disney as it seeks to merge the two worlds.

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Disney also faces the daunting challenge of potentially recasting characters that in some cases have been portrayed by the same actors for over a decade. Hugh Jackman, for example, has appeared as Wolverine in eight movies over the course of 17 years.

Striking the right balance is critical because it could determine the longevity of franchises that have both earned billions at the box office. That is no doubt top of mind for Disney since comic book movies were consistent blockbusters this year when hits were hard to predict.

"There is a lot at stake. This is almost like a religion. The fervor and enthusiasm and passion that the comic book or superhero audience has for these properties is something not to be taken lightly," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore.

Two different paths

While Disney continues to deliver family-friendly superhero features that revolve around its "Avengers" franchise, Fox has found success in the last two years with R-rated movies based on characters like Deadpool and Wolverine.

Last year's "Deadpool" and the 2017 Wolverine sequel "Logan" were not only critical hits. They also had huge box office hauls despite modest budgets.

"You don't want to mess with that terrific formula that Fox developed, particularly going with the R-rating, the edgier side of the Marvel universe," Dergarabedian said.

"Deadpool 2" arrives next year, and the studio has been developing spin-offs of its R-rated movies. Disney CEO Bob Iger this week reassured reporters that Deadpool movies, which are only loosely-connected to the main X-men series, would remain R-rated after a buyout.

Still, it seems highly unlikely that Disney would not introduce the X-Men — and Wolverine, the team's most popular character — into their shared universe, which would probably force the franchise to conform to the PG-13 mold.

It's a question of letting fans have their cake and eat it too. While comic readers have waited a long time to see hard-edged heroes in R-rated movies, they have also clamored for Fox-controlled characters like Wolverine and the Human Torch to appear on screen alongside Marvel Studios' Captain America and Hulk.

"They just want to see their favorite characters interact with their other favorite characters. It's what they've been waiting for for a decade," said Alisha Grauso, editor-at-large at Movie Pilot, an online magazine that focuses on genre entertainment.

Deal comes at opportune time

Despite these challenges, the deal comes ahead of something of an inflection point for both studios' superhero series.

The "Avengers" franchise is fast-approaching its fourth installment in 2019. Franchise star Robert Downey Jr. has been playing Iron Man for 10 years, and many of Marvel Studios' leading men and women will no longer be under contract after Avengers 4.

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Grauso notes that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, has recently indicated that Marvel movies will look very different after 2019.

That could include less emphasis on the type of overarching storyline that has dominated Marvel Studios' storytelling since its shared universe launched in 2008 with "Iron Man," says Grauso. In that case, Marvel might actually be moving closer to Fox's superhero strategy.

Meanwhile, several factors create a case to start from scratch with the X-Men.

The series is now 17 years old, and while a soft reboot in 2011 breathed new life into the franchise, extending the series hinged on a time-travel storyline, which produced a somewhat messy and confusing continuity.

The latest film in the franchise, "X-Men: Apocalypse" underperformed its predecessor, "X-Men: Days of Future Past." If next year's "X-Men: Dark Phoenix" disappoints, it could be the sign Disney needs to overhaul the series.

Fans might not have to wait too long to know the fate of the X-Men and Fantastic Four. Marvel Studios is known for mapping out multiple strategies based on a number of scenarios, says Grauso. That includes a world in which producers have access to all the properties they need to tell the stories they want to tell.

"I can guarantee that they've been talking about this for a long, long time," Grauso said. "I'm sure that there are plans in place for these movies, maybe not concrete plans, but I think they've been on Marvel's radar."