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The secret to every summer blockbuster lineup: Comic book licensing

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Or, why can’t the X-Men meet the Avengers?

The Avengers. Spider-Man. The X-Men. The Fantastic Four. Characters who, in the world of Marvel Comics, regularly interact, fight, team up and even date each other. But in our own reality, they’re four pillars of a superhero blockbuster system that’s fundamentally defined by who shares a continuity and who doesn’t.

Today, on Issue at Hand, we examine the Gordian knot of the film licensing of Marvel Comics characters and point out where the divisions lie — and on the way explain why you’re not likely to see a solo Hulk film anytime soon, and why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a villain problem.

Film licensing — and a studio’s desire to hold on to a valuable legal right to use a character — is the whole reason why we’ve had three Spider-Man franchises in the past two decades. Sony Pictures Entertainment’s license to the character had a hard deadline: If they did not have a Spider-Man film in production by the end of 2012, the rights would revert to Marvel. After a poorly received third film and creative struggles with director Sam Raimi, Sony pushed ahead with a full franchise reboot — exactly a decade after 2002’s Spider-Man.

And when Sony’s attempts to expand the Amazing Spider-Man franchise to a wider cinematic universe, including a series of films focusing on Spider-Man villains, failed to garner the audience excitement that the company had hoped for ... another new, unexpected plan was developed.

But I’ll let you watch the video to find out.