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Illustration of two characters crossing out names on a giant whiteboard Illustration: Sonny Ross for Polygon

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Who gets thanked in superhero movie credits is a mystery — even to superhero creators

‘I appreciate the gesture, but it exists in a void’

They’re a common sight for those who sit through the seemingly endless stream of credits at the end of superhero movies, waiting to find out if there’s a short scene at the end of it all setting up the next installment in the series: credits offering “Special Thanks” to a number of names, the majority of which are recognizable only to long term comic fans.

DC’s recent The Suicide Squad, for example, lists no less than 47 names in its Special Thanks section. Marvel’s Black Widow thanks some 21 people. For the past decade, a Special Thanks section in the credits has become as common in a superhero movie as a post-credit scene teasing the next installment in the overall universe worth of adventures.

While the practice of Special Thanks in movie credits stretches back decades — traditionally ensuring that those who helped a movie’s creation in some unspecified manner get public recognition for their efforts — the first incarnation of Superhero Movie Special Thanks as we recognize them today dates back only as far as 2011’s Iron Man 2.

This wasn’t the first time comic creators had been thanked in movie credits — Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were thanked in the credits for 2000’s X-Men, and Paul Dini and Bruce Timm were mentioned by name in 2005’s Batman Begins — but Iron Man 2 was the first time creators had received their own, unique, Special Thanks section in a movie’s credits, setting an unfortunate precedent for years to follow.

Sam and Buck get ready for a fight in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier Image: Disney

Much has been written about the way that Marvel and DC have treated comic book writers and artists when it comes to translating their comic book creations onto the screen, especially when the creators themselves have spoken out on the subject — something that happens with depressing regularity. Most recently, former Captain America writer Ed Brubaker wrote in a March edition of his newsletter, “For the most part all Steve Epting and I have gotten for creating the Winter Soldier and his storyline is a ‘thanks’ here or there, and over the years that’s become harder and harder to live with,” prompting a number of articles in response.

It’s not that the big comic book publishers never offer any kind of financial bonus; Marvel reportedly gives a one-time bonus of around $5,000 to a small number of creators, while DC has a longstanding Special Character Contract that guarantees creators royalties based on merchandise and media adaptations. Such arrangements are, however, viewed as “shut-up money” even by the creators who receive payments — and, it should be remembered, not all creators get the chance even to be offered shut-up money.

For many, Special Thanks sections mark the only recognition that their work is part of building a massive blockbuster movie enjoyed by millions of fans around the world — a movie that they, themselves, have likely had to pay money to see. It is, to paint things in the most positive light, an imperfect system.

“I appreciate the gesture, but it exists in a void,” Devin Grayson told Polygon via email. Grayson was thanked in the credits for Marvel’s Black Widow, a movie that features Yelena Belova, a character she co-created with artist J.G. Jones for 1999’s Black Widow miniseries. “To this day, aside from that one piece of copy in the film and the answer to an email I sent asking about contractually guaranteed remuneration — which I have yet to receive — I haven’t had direct communication from Marvel or Disney about any of it. And I do find that disappointing, mainly because even the smallest heads-up would have made me feel like I was part of the team. That, in turn, would have allowed me to be so much more excited about the movie than I was able to be while wondering if anyone even knew about my contribution and trying to figure out where I could scrape together the thirty bucks to see it.”

Marvel isn’t the only company failing to give creators advance notice of being thanked, according to Karl Kesel, who co-created King Shark with artist Tom Grummett. “DC never officially contacted me to say I was being thanked in The Suicide Squad movie, and certainly never told me why I was being thanked,” he said. “I don’t think I knew for certain my name was mentioned until someone saw an advanced screening/cut of the movie and let me know I was thanked in it.”

Both creators were clear in their understanding of the reality of the freelancer/corporation relationship. “Look: I did that stuff as work-for-hire, and I knew the rules going in,” Kesel pointed out. “The Thank-You credit is certainly nice, and certainly the least DC can do for their creators. I do expect to see some money from the movie, and King Shark’s other appearances in other media — have seen some already. Of course, if I get a check for $10,000 DC [and] Warners is probably pocketing ten times that…”

Grayson wondered about the circumstances surrounding Marvel’s lack of contact, writing, “I do feel emotionally excluded and unclear about the reasoning behind that — does a corporation the size of Disney really not have anyone who could send out a friendly email? Are they concerned that more direct acknowledgment would give us legal precedent to renegotiate our contracts? Or does everyone assume someone else took care of it?”

She continued, “I’m a female creator with a social media presence and an established readership. I would have loved to be an upbeat cheerleader for the movie. Instead, I spent the lead-up to the film’s release feeling unenlightened and ambivalent. People ranging from reporters to my family would ask about things like whether J.G. and I were going to receive recognition in the credits, and I had to admit that I didn’t know. That just felt… unnecessarily bleak.”

Yelena (Florence Pugh) demonstrates an involuntary hysterectomy in Black Widow Image: Marvel Studios

Neither DC nor Marvel were willing to reveal just how they decided which names ended up on the list for any given project — though Marvel did confirm that both publishing and Marvel Studios is involved in the process. But a quick review of movie credits offers up a few clues, and maybe a few more questions, in the process.

While there’s a common understanding that the Special Thanks are there specifically to credit the creators of the characters in any given movie, that’s not always the case — while it might be true in movies like The Suicide Squad, with even the minds behind truly obscure characters like Kaleidoscope (who has only ever appeared in two comic books, both published in 1982) getting mentions, it’s actually far more likely that those receiving the Special Thanks will be a mix of character creators and writers and artists who have worked on particular comic book storylines that have acted as inspirations for the movie itself.

That would explain the inclusion of Julie and Shawna Benson, and Claire Roe, as well as Chuck Dixon and Gary Frank in the Special Thanks for last year’s Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — the creative team behind the 2016 relaunch of the Birds of Prey comic series, and the original creators of the concept. 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, meanwhile, includes both the creators of Thanos’s minion super team the Black Order (That would be Jonathan Hickman and Jerome Opeña) and Don McGregor, Christopher Priest and Ta-Nehisi Coates, three writers with fan-favorite runs on Black Panther across the past four decades, despite the fact that none of their work seems to actually appear in the movie itself.

To complicate matters somewhat, some creators get special Special Thanks credits on some features. Jim Starlin, who created Thanos — and, later, wrote The Infinity Gauntlet, which heavily influenced both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame — gets the credit “the producers would like to thank Jim Starlin for his significant contribution to the film” in both Infinity War and Endgame, entirely outside of the Special Thanks area, for example. This may be the result of a now-resolved public conflict between the creator and filmmakers, although Starlin remains on the outs with Marvel publishing.

Additionally some characters’ creators are singled out by name: Endgame, for example, lists the creators of Captain America, Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Thanos, Gamora, Drax, Groot, and Mantis, while Zack Snyder’s Justice League credits creators for the Fourth World, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Justice League of America… Although, curiously, only Gardner Fox receives credit for the JLA, with artist Mike Sekowsky mysteriously absent.

The Justice League flying in formation Image: HBO Max

So, who’s responsible for choosing which names appear, and where? No-one’s really willing to give specifics — but the answer is likely the legal departments of the companies, working off pre-existing contractual obligations and agreements worked out with specific creators, based on input from filmmakers about which characters and storylines proved important enough to reference. It’s neither a glamorous solution, nor a perfect one, as Chris Eliopoulos — who designed the logo used in Sony’s Venom movies — pointed out on Twitter recently.

For an industry veteran like Kesel, the lack of attention — and compensation — paid to creators on matters such as this have pushed him further towards creator-owned work, such as Section Zero and Impossible Jones. “I don’t expect to get rich — but I get by,” he explains. “I say I’m following the Iron Man business model: exist in obscurity for 40 years, then become an overnight, world-wide sensation. So maybe my kids will reap the rewards of an Impossible Jones movie…”

Kesel, notably, shared the above before the current legal battles between the estates of multiple Marvel characters and Disney came to light. Grayson, meanwhile, is appreciative of the chance to see her creation brought to the screen, even if she’s somewhat less enamored of the method in which it happened.

“I adore Florence Pugh and think she did an utterly fantastic job bringing Yelena to life. Still, it is a little weird to consider the vast disparity between the value placed on the people who invent the characters versus the value placed on the people who play them,” she wrote. “And that’s not even getting into the value of the people who script what the characters say and do in the movies — off the top of your head, do you know who wrote the Black Widow film? I am willing to bet that most viewers do not. As a former theater student, I have nothing but respect for the work actors do. I just wish executives understood that acknowledgment doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game.”

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