Is Marvel planning for ‘Inhumans’ movies to make an end run around Fox’s ‘X-Men’ rights?

So far, Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios have been running things separately, and there’s been almost no synchronicity between their storytelling. That’s great because it means the writers and artists working on the comics aren’t being forced to build the work they’re doing around someone else’s storyline, and it means that movie fans don’t have to feel driven to read comics between the movies just to figure out what’s going on.

That may be changing, though, and some recent rumors about the plans they have for Phase Three as well as some behind-the-scenes battles that have plagued the studio for the last few years raise some fascinating questions about the future of the studio.

As strange as it sounds, I’m not sure I’d put Stan Lee on the short list of credible sources when it comes to Marvel’s upcoming plans. Sure, he has a cameo in everything they make, but I don’t think he’s consulted on anything they’re doing. Still, he made a recent mention of several movies that he says are being developed right now by the studio, including the long-rumored “Black Panther,” Kevin Feige’s pet project “Doctor Strange,” and, to the surprise of many, “Inhumans.”

On the surface, it would be a strange choice for Marvel to make an “Inhumans” movie. After all, they’ve already got one superhero team franchise up and running with “The Avengers,” and they’re gambling right now that “Guardians Of The Galaxy” will not only work as a team, but that it will help them establish the larger, stranger cosmic side of Marvel on film. So why would a book full of lesser-known characters like “Inhumans” become a priority for the studio?

In the original comic series, created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, there was one group of prehistoric humans who were genetically modified by the Kree as an evolutionary experiment. Since then, anyone descended from those original proto-humans is predisposed to a certain strain of superpowers. Right now, Marvel is gearing up for another of their company-wide crossover events, focused on the Inhumans, in which they plan to reveal that there were way more people descended from the original Inhumans than originally believed. In doing this, Marvel gives themselves room to essentially reinvent the idea of mutants in their comic universe.

Why would this matter to Marvel Studios? Well, one of the few outstanding deals in place that seems to be frustrating them at this point is 20th Century Fox’s ownership of all things related to “X-Men,” including the word “mutant.” While that deal doesn’t look to be ending any time soon (Fox can keep making films as long as they want under the current terms), this big event, written by uber-smart Jonathan Hickman, which leads to a new regular book next year called “Inhuman,” written by the equally uber-smart Matt Fraction, could allow Marvel to simply shut Fox out altogether. Bill Rosemann, one of the editors at Marvel, explained it like this on Marvel.com earlier this year: “Imagine if one day you realize everything you know about yourself is wrong and, oh yeah, you have spike sprouting up out all over your body and your hands spray acid. It’s up to the students of the Avengers Academy and the Jean Grey School to save these young adults before they destroy everything around them.”

It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out. If it works, and if Marvel Studios finds themselves able to finally make the movies they’d like to make with the characters they’d like to use without ever once saying the word “mutant,” it’s more than just a canny creative work-around. It’s also a pretty clear indication that coordination between the comics and the movies could pay off in all new ways, and I’d be shocked if it didn’t lead to more situations like that. Right now, the movie universe and the comic universe feel very different, but that could certainly change, and it wouldn’t shock me if this becomes a test case for both sides to study as they make decisions about their future.

“Inhumanity” arrives in stores to shake up the status quo in December 2013.

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