As the resident nerd in the office, I get this question a lot.
Or some iteration of it.
Is Batman Marvel or DC? Why are there so many Spider-Man movies? How do you know which studio owns the rights to which hero?
It's not irritating, far from it! I actually enjoy being appreciated as the authority on all things nerdy. And I'll be honest, keeping track of all the convoluted contracts and agreements can be kind of a headache. So hopefully this guide will help new comics fans keep track of what's going on.
Also known as Action Comics, DC comics was originally Detective Comics (so you're really saying 'Detective Comics comics'... don't worry, we all are). The company introduced Batman and Superman, created by Bob Kane and Joe Schuster (respectively).
A good rule of thumb to go by now is that if it's a solo hero, it's probably DC. If it's a team, it's probably Marvel. Obviously there are exceptions. Plenty of the Marvel heroes have had solo films, and Spider-Man and Daredevil are generally regarded as a solo heros. But heroes like Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and of course Superman were introduced as solo characters before joining forces as the Justice League. If you're new to comics and you remember a character more for their solo character arcs than for their group stories, you can generally assume that they were created by DC comics.
Stan Lee is probably one of the most famous early comics personalities today, but when he started working for Timely Comics he was just an assistant. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created the memorable characters like Captain America and The Human Torch (both, incidentally, have been played by actor Chris Evans- I'll get to that in a minute).
Now known as Marvel Comics, you'll definitely recognize their famous characters. The Avengers (including Iron Man, the Hulk, and Black Widow), the X-Men (including Wolverine, Storm, and Rogue), and the Fantastic Four were all conceived by the teams working for Marvel. Less well-known are characters like Namor and Man-Thing.
So what's going on with the studios?
Too much friend. So I already mentioned that even though most of the well-known comics characters today were created by two major publications, the film rights aren't all owned by the same groups. Warner Bros. owns the rights to the DC characters, but Marvel's history is a little more convoluted.
In the mid 90s, Marvel almost went bankrupt.
So Marvel licensed the film rights to some of their most popular characters (Spider-Man and the X-Men) to Sony and 20th Century Fox. It's hard to imagine this now, but in the 90s it didn't seem like superhero movies were going to have much success. The popularity of comics- not just Marvel's- was decreasing rapidly. Marvel has since turned it around. They weren't making much money off the financial successes of Blade or Spider-Man. So why not open their own studio?
A major breakthrough came in 2005, when Marvel managed to make a deal with Merrill Lynch. The details of the deal sounded risky: Marvel was essentially offering up the jewels of its business - characters like Thor and Captain America - as collateral. If the films didn't make money, those superheroes would suddenly belong to the bank. Nevertheless, Merrill Lynch gave Marvel access to a huge reservoir of cash: $525m over seven years, which it could use to spend on 10 movies with budgets ranging from $45m to $180m. With their newfound clout, Marvel managed to reacquire the rights to characters it had sold over the years, including Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, and Hulk. Shortly after the deal with Merill Lynch went through, Marvel announced that Iron Man would be its first independent production. Finally, a character who'd languished in development hell since the 1990s (Universal originally owned the rights, before they passed to Fox and then New Line) was finally getting a shot at big-screen stardom.
So the reason you've probably been confused about who owns what isn't due to some personal failing on your part. Unless you have more than a casual interest in comic book characters, the convoluted history of these competing companies is really hard to follow. So, just to recap:
Captain America Iron Man Thor Black Widow Hawkeye
Marvel, film rights to other companies:
The Fantastic Four Spider-Man* X-Men* Deadpool Namor
Warner Bros & DC comics:
Superman Batman Wonder Woman Green Lantern The Flash
Which is why Chris Evans has played both The Flash and Captain America, and why Ryan Reynolds has played both Green Lantern and Deadpool. While to the layman it appears like they've been double-cast, they're actually working for competing companies. Which is totally confusing.
*The rights to Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver (two X-Men characters), as well as Spider-Man have been negotiated so the characters can appear in films by Marvel Studios.
Now you can walk with relative confidence, and feel slightly less alienated the next time your nerdy friends go on a rant about Sony Pictures and their insistence that they continue making X-Men movies. Just subtly refer to this card if you need a quick reference.