Like a vengeful Atlantean monarch rising from the sea, whispers surfaced this week that a fabled Sub-Mariner movie, starring Marvel’s mighty Prince Namor, could finally wash ashore, and sooner rather than later.
This possible fish tale began Wednesday with a tweet by Reel News Hawaii that, “There’s buzz around the island that two rival productions” — Warner Bros.’ “Aquaman” and Marvel’s “Sub-Mariner” — “could be swimming on our waters.” That was followed Thursday by a listing in Production Weekly for “The Sub-Mariner.”
They’re certainly surprising developments, considering both Namor’s long, somewhat-tortured history with Hollywood and the complete lack of evidence that Marvel Studios has such a project in the pipeline, let alone one far enough along that there’s “buzz” about potential filming locations. Keep in mind, there have been no stories about the hiring of screenwriters or the search for a director; if Marvel is inching close to production, the studio has maintained an impressive veil of secrecy to rival “10 Cloverfield Lane.” (Tangentially, principal photography for James Wan’s “Aquaman” will take place in Queensland, Australia, although it’s indeed possible Hawaii is being eyed for additional sequences.)
When contacted by CBR, a Disney representative declined comment.
While it’s been barely eight months since Joe Quesada, Marvel’s chief creative officer, confirmed the company now holds film rights 78-year-old antihero, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige suggested as much two years earlier, amid speculation that Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures were plotting a Namor feature.
“Let’s put it this way — there are entanglements that make it less easy,” Feige told IGN in 2014, when asked about a possible Sub-Mariner film. “There are older contracts that still involve other parties that mean we need to work things out before we move forward on it. As opposed to an Iron Man or any of the Avengers or any of the other Marvel characters where we could just put them in.”
Those entanglements most likely date to the late 1990s, but the Sub-Mariner’s Hollywood aspirations stretch back further — some six decades.
Namor’s Soggy Hollywood Adventures
Introduced in 1939 by Bill Everett, perhaps better known for his later co-creation Daredevil, Namor debuted in “Marvel Comics” #1, and was an immediate hit for Marvel predecessor Timely Comics, despite — heck, because of — the character’s volatile, and violent, nature; he was as likely to threaten to sink Manhattan in his early appearances as he was to punch Nazis in later issues. Initially far more popular than DC’s Aquaman, who didn’t arrive on the scene for another two years or so, the Sub-Mariner headlined his own book beginning in 1941, while also maintaining a feature in “The Human Torch,” and appearing as part of the short-lived All-Winners Squad (a post-war team reimagined in 1969 as the Invaders).
Although his solo title ended in 1949, just as so many comic book heroes faded into obscurity, Namor seemed poised to make the leap to live-action television as early as the 1950s, hoping to ride “Adventure of Superman’s” wave of popularity. However, while those ambitions fueled a brief comic book revival beginning in 1953, plans for the TV adaptation never got off the ground. Namor was reintroduced again the next decade, in 1962’s “The Fantastic Four” #4, which led to his own segment on the short-lived 1966 animated series “The Marvel Super Heroes,” alongside Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk, and two appearances on the “Fantastic Four” cartoon.
If Marvel dreamed of another shot at live-action fame for Namor in the 1970s — and there are sources that suggest it did –those dried up with Patrick Duffy’s turn as NBC’s “Man from Atlantis,” about an amnesiac with exceptional abilities who believed himself to be the sole survivor of Atlantis. (You can likely see the problem.) Aside from a handful of later animated appearances over the next couple of decades, proud Prince Namor seemed doomed to live out his colorful life in comic books. That is, until 1997, when Hollywood came knocking again, this time with plans for a live-action feature directed by Philip Kaufman (“The Right Stuff”) from a script by Sam Hamm, who co-wrote 1989’s “Batman” and its sequel “Batman Returns.”
But that film never materialized, of course. Neither did Saban Entertainment’s planned adaptation, written by “Road to Perdition’s” David Self. That’s when, around 2001 — between the release of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” and Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” — Universal entered the picture, with Chris Columbus (“Home Alone,” “Harry Potter”) coming on board three years later to produce and direct. He didn’t stay, though, and was replaced in 2006 by Jonathan Mostow (“U-571,” “Terminator 3”). Although that Sub-Mariner film went nowhere as well, the rights apparently remained with Universal until 2013 or so.
So, What About That Marvel Movie?
That brings us, and Namor, back to Marvel, and the latest rumors of a Sub-Mariner film.
While the Marvel of today is a Hollywood powerhouse, producing blockbusters that are the envy of its rivals, there was a time not all that long ago when the company relied entirely on others to bring its superheroes to television and film. That dependency resulted in licensing agreements that met with mixed results and, on more than a few occasions, legal action, with little payoff for Marvel. The movie rights to Spider-Man, for instance, were sold in 1985 for just $225,000 (about $508,000 by today’s standards), a deal made even worse by a web of often-confounding contracts that ultimately required an eight-year legal battle to untangle.
Those old deals continue to haunt the studio, with Sony and Fox holding the film rights to Spider-Man, the X-Men and Fantastic Four in effective perpetuity, Marvel sharing Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and other characters with its rivals, and Universal apparently maintaining a grip on distribution rights to any Hulk solo movie.
With that in mind, you begin to get a sense of what Feige may have meant when he referred to the entanglement of older contracts: The Sub-Mariner rights changed hands just as Marvel was digging its way out of bankruptcy, and passed from studio to studio and producer to producer; there are undoubtedly a lot of names on a lot of agreements. That’s not to suggest that, over the past three years or so, Marvel couldn’t have untangled that particular legal bramble; after all, this is Marvel, and it has the might of Disney at its back. Plus, the studio’s go-to screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, have said they’d love a shot at Namor.
But, again, this is Marvel, which has announced its slate of films stretching into 2019, each release a piece of a puzzle that is the expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. What’s the likelihood that, even with all of those old contracts squared away, the studio has quietly developed a Sub-Mariner movie to suddenly plop onto its carefully crafted schedule?
OK, Is There Another Possibility?
Let’s say there is something to that “buzz” circulating around Hawaii — but what if it doesn’t originate with a Sub-Mariner feature but instead with a television project? This is purely speculation, of course, but it may not be exactly wild.
Let’s not forget that John Ridley, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave,” has been developing a mysterious TV project for Marvel since at least 2015, when it was described as “reinventing an existing Marvel superhero character or property for ABC.” Neither Ridley nor Marvel Television has offered any additional details, but we do know he’s working on a rewrite after focusing for a time on production of his acclaimed ABC anthology series “American Crime.”
It had been speculated that Ridley was hammering away at the proposed “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” spinoff, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Then it was thought the “Inhumans” series announced in October just might be his mystery project, but that wasn’t it either. So what if — just if — Ridley is reinventing the Sub-Mariner?
Before you dismiss that possibility, consider one more thing: ABC and Marvel Television plan to transform at least part of a former 37,000-acre Naval airbase in Kalaeloa, Hawaii, into a production facility for the “Inhumans” IMAX movie and TV series. It’s difficult to imagine, particularly given Marvel’s famed frugality, that the studio is going to be devoted exclusively to production of “Inhumans.” We can rule out the New York City-based heroes of Marvel’s Netflix dramas uprooting to fight crime in Hawaii, and it’s highly unlikely that, after four seasons, the cast and crew of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” will be abruptly forced to search for new accommodations on the Big Island.
So, why not a “Sub-Mariner” television drama? Marvel did, after all, keep its “Inhumans” TV plans relatively secret until the official announcement. And that’s a lot easier to pull off than, say, stealthily moving a big-budget feature into production.