The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s relationship with the Incredible Hulk has been relatively awkward since the film was released in 2008. The was film met with terrible reviews and remains at the very bottom of most fans’ MCU rankings. Edward Norton played Bruce Banner in the original film, but Mark Ruffalo was given the role in 2012’s The Avengers and all subsequent appearances of the character.
Marvel Studios’ relationship with the Incredible Hulk and with the character of the Hulk generally is further complicated by the fact that Universal Studios retained the theatrical distribution rights of the original film and all sequels. This has made it difficult for Marvel Studios, and parent company Disney, to make Hulk-centered films. Disney and Marvel still hold the rights to develop movies starring the Hulk, but Universal has the first refusal opportunity to distribute the project and takes a significant chunk of the profits. This legal issue has led the MCU to limit Hulk to supporting roles and seemingly avoid solo projects altogether.
Still, it was reported back in October 2021 that a World War Hulk was in development and eyeing a 2022 production start. That prospect raises a lot of questions about how the Marvel-Universal legal relationship will come into play. Now, unearthed legal documents filed with the Security and Exchange Commission by Marvel may indicate that Universal loses its rights in Hulk films in June 2023.
As discovered by Reddit user u/vidoardes, a couple of SEC filings when read together suggest that the theatrical distribution rights to The Incredible Hulk and Hulk-centered films will revert to Disney next year. An official SEC filing by Marvel in December 2006 stated:
Universal Studios has agreed to distribute Marvel’s film The Incredible Hulk and sequels on essentially the same terms as those on which Paramount has agreed to distribute the other films financed and produced under the film facility…
Interestingly, the amended studio agreement, also available through the SEC, between Marvel and Paramount dictates a 15-year deal:
6. Distribution Term: Paramount shall have the right to exercise its Paramount Distribution Rights with respect to each Picture for an initial period of 15 years commencing on the initial Theatrical Exhibition of such Picture (the “Initial Distribution Term”);…
So while there is no apparent confirmation that Marvel’s deal with Universal also had the 15-year agreement, the fact that Marvel stated that the deal is on “essentially the same terms” as those with Paramount is some evidence pointing to the time limit of the Marvel-Universal agreement. If it also ends after 15 years, that would mean that Disney would regain the distribution rights 15 years after The Incredible Hulk in June 2008, which would be June 2023.
While the June 2023 date is not confirmed, it would make sense given that the World War Hulk film reportedly in development is eyeing a late 2023 or early 2024 release.
Source: SEC via Reddit