What's the Story With Namor's Movie Rights? It's "Complicated"

With CCO Joe Quesada's seeming confirmation that Marvel Studios does indeed hold the film rights to Namor the Sub-Mariner comes renewed hopes among fans that, after 77 years, the character might at last make a splash on the big screen.

Of course, it's been fairly clear for at least a couple of years that, contrary to widely circulated reports, Universal Pictures no longer ruled over the prince of Atlantis. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige indicated as much in 2014, amid rumors that Universal and Legendary Pictures were plotting a Sub-Mariner movie.

He characterized the situation at the time as "complicated," a term used again and again to describe byzantine, and sometimes decades-old, rights deals that resulted in Quicksilver appearing in both Marvel's "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and Fox's "X-Men: Days of Future Past," and apparently make another Hulk solo film unlikely.

"Let's put it this way -- there are entanglements that make it less easy," Feige told IGN at the time, 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."

That's par for the course for Namor who, like so many other superheroes, has a long, complicated history with Hollywood. Debuting in 1939, more than two years before DC Comics' Aquaman, the Sub-Mariner was at one point expected to ride the "Adventures of Superman's" wave of popularity onto television in the 1950s, but that never materialized. The character did, however, receive his own segment in the short-lived 1966 animated series "The Marvel Super Heroes," where he was perhaps overshadowed by his co-stars Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk. Perhaps Namor just needed a better theme song...

However, the Sub-Mariner's modern Hollywood history doesn't really come into play until the late 1990s, just as Marvel was beginning to emerge from bankruptcy. Long before 2008's "Iron Man" was even a glimmer in its eye, Marvel licensed its characters to film studios and producers in a web of frequently confusing deals that occasionally led to legal action (Spider-Man and the X-Men were both subjects of lawsuits) and sometimes little payoff for the company.

But even as MGM, Marvel and Sony Pictures were trying to iron out who controlled the film rights to the wall-crawler, "The Right Stuff" director Philip Kaufman was pursuing a Namor movie, with Sam Hamm ("Batman," "Batman Returns") attached in 1999 to write the script. That, of course, didn't pan out. Neither did Saban Entertainment's planned adaptation, written by "Road to Perdition's" David Self (who also penned a "Deathlok" script). That's where Universal entered the picture, with Chris Columbus coming on board in 2004 to produce and direct. That one didn't materialize, either.

See? It is complicated.

Universal had designs on Prince Namor until at least 2006, when Jonathan Mostow ("Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines") was hired to replace Columbus. After that, though, the waters get kind of murky.

While some of the early contracts granted film rights in effective perpetuity (hence, why Fox holds so tightly to "X-Men" and "Fantastic Four"), others are tied to a ticking clock, requiring the property to go into active development within a certain period, or else those rights revert to Marvel (hence, the mad dash in 2012 by Fox to do something with Daredevil). In either scenario, however, after nine years of no movement, time would seem to have run out for Universal.

So what's the holdup with Marvel? As Feige said in 2014, the Namor contracts still involve "other parties," which likely means producers or production shingles that had signed on at various points between 1997 and 2006. There's also a matter of figuring out what -- if anything -- to do with the character once those agreements are untangled.

Although "Captain America: Civil War" screenwriters Chris Markus and Steve McFeely have said they'd love to introduce the Sub-Mariner into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film slate is pretty packed for the next several years. There's also the matter of Warner Bros.' 2018 "Aquaman" movie, which would certainly seem to take some of the wind out of Prince Namor's sails.

That said, there's always a chance the Sub-Mariner could play a role in the two-part "Avengers: Infinity War." But that's probably only a slight chance.

Yes, "complicated" seems about right.

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