Superhero movies would seem to be at the whims of the market. Hollywood is a faddish place, and fads come and go, after all. But a court case that’s spent years winding through the system might be heading for the Supreme Court… and it might alter the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe altogether.
The case in question is Lisa Kirby Vs. Marvel Characters. Essentially, Jack Kirby’s estate is suing to terminate Marvel’s copyrights and restore a share of the rights to Kirby, or rather, Kirby’s estate. So far, Kirby’s heirs have run into a brick wall, but the Supreme Court might take up the issue. Some major legal heavyweights have weighed in on the issue, and the Court has shown interest.
Considering the rights to characters like the Hulk, Fantastic Four, and Iron Man are at stake here, there’s potentially millions on the line. It would also give the Kirby family the ability to approve or veto Marvel movies involving Jack Kirby’s creations, not to mention a chunk of the rights over the actual comic books made since.
The problem so far is essentially how the comic book industry works and in some places still works. Kirby was on a “work-for-hire” basis for Marvel when he created this characters: Namely, he drew the pictures, wrote the scripts (depending on who you ask), and got a check. That was where it stopped; he got no royalties, no bonuses, nothing. So far, the courts have agreed that this was a legally binding arrangement, although arguments about how fair this is are vociferous and still ongoing.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Kirby, though, all bets are off. First of all, every single major Marvel and DC property was created under a work-for-hire agreement, and that would mean that a whole bunch of major and minor characters would suddenly be at least partially owned by their creators, or at least that a whole bunch of lawsuits would be filed to that effect.
Secondly, it would pretty much completely derail the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it stands, although probably not altogether. Disney has made it abundantly clear how they feel about creators coming back and asking for their fair share. It’s not clear how they’ll react when suddenly they’re on the hook for millions in royalties. And this is just about the comic book industry; this could affect everyone from session musicians to journalists to video producers.
It’s not clear what the Supreme Court will do, but keep an eye on the case. If it goes to trial, it might change superhero movies for good.