We need to stop watching Marvel movies (at least for a minute)

I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, I’m over mid-credit scenes, and I think it’s ridiculous that after over 13 years of movies the Marvel films are still dominated by straight white men (especially when the original Marvel TV shows were so incredibly diverse). I also thought the ending of “Loki” was a train wreck. (No one cares about your plans, Kang!)

But in general I admire the Marvel films and TV shows both for the great entertainment they provide and the aspirations of their storytelling. “Thor: Ragnarok” tried to say something about the experience of refugees, “WandaVision”about dealing with grief, “Black Widow”about the traumas endured by women and the community of support and strength they can build out of their pain. The world needs more stories like these.

Yet, I think we are at a point where people of good will need to stop engaging with the MCU for a minute, because most of the characters and stories that we are deriving so much pleasure from have been created by people who, according to reports, are not being properly compensated for their work by Disney/Marvel.

We are at a point where people of good will need to stop engaging with the MCU for a minute.

This summer the estates of artists Steve Ditko and Gene Colan and writer Don Rico, as well as writer Larry Lieber (Stan Lee’s brother),filed termination notices for the characters they created or co-created, which include, among others, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, the Black Widow, the Falcon and Captain Marvel. U.S. copyright law gives authors and their heirs the right to reclaim the publishing rights to material they created after a set length of time, and these creators are now exercising that right. In response, Disney’s Marvel unitis suing them, arguing that in fact Stan Lee was the creator of these characters.

The estate of Jack Kirby, who co-created Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk and Thor went through a similar process last decade. Although they lost the suit Marvel filed, Marvel decided to settle after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg signaled interest in considering an appeal.

Disney and Marvel should do the same now, because there is convincing evidence that these men actually were co-authors of all of these characters. The consistent testimony of those who worked at Marvel in its early days, as presented in books like Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story and Abraham Riesman’s recent Stan Lee biography, describes Lee as often simply suggesting general plot lines or ideas for characters and then leaving everything else—from costume to backstory to personality—to artists and other writers.

Lee himself regularly said the same at the time; so in introducing Doctor Strange, Lee said of Ditko “‘T’was his idea.” Or in a “Bullpen Bulletin” column in Marvel Comics quoted by Howe: “It isn’t generally known, but many of our merry Marvel artists are also talented storymen in their own right! For example, all Stan has to do…is give them the germ of an idea, and they make up all the details as they go along, drawing and plotting out the story.” To insist now instead that one man alone was able to develop dozens of characters, often at the same time and while also running Marvel Comics, defies credulity.

Disney “presents itself in many ways as the Catholic Church of secular companies; its brand is decency and the empowerment of humanity. And what it has done to its writers and artists is inconsistent with that.”

And this issue isn’t just about business practices from 60 years ago. This spring saw the release of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” on Disney+, which featured two of the most popular characters from the Captain America stories. The Falcon first debuted in comics in 1969, but the Winter Soldier is much more recent; he was created by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting in 2005. And much of what the MCU has done with the character—such as having him be a brainwashed adult version of Cap’s long-lost partner Bucky Barnes that Cap fights to save, to the “Falcon and Winter Soldier” story of someone having to replace to Cap—comes straight from their run.

And yet, other than a single offer of a small “thank you” check (which Brubaker refused), the two have never been offered any compensation for the massive cinematic success of their character and storylines. Marvel and DC contracts today stipulate that the characters created for their companies are their sole property. So even if their creators generate billions for the company, the original creative teams are given nothing beyond their original rates.

“I have made more on SAG residuals” for a single line in a MCU film that got cut,Brubaker said on the Fatman Beyond podcast, “than I have made on creating the character.”

“When I see ads for the show, it actually makes me feel sick to my stomach.”

This fall, Marvel is also releasing “Hawkeye,” about current Hawkeye Clint Barton, a new Hawkeye that he mentors while fighting Eastern European gangs, and a dog that loves pizza. Once again, all of these ideas come directly from the comic book “Hawkeye,” created by Matt Fraction and David Aja. And once again, Fraction and Aja will see nothing of its profits.

You could say that’s just business, baby. Creators know going in who they’re in business with and what the parameters are—which is part of the reason so manyjust took six figure deals with Substack to create their own self-owned stories there.

But Disney is not your typical company. In fact, it presents itself in many ways as the Catholic Church of secular companies; its brand is decency and the empowerment of humanity. And what it has done to its writers and artists is inconsistent with that.

Disney’s resistance is also unnecessary: The MCU has generated over $20 billion in box office revenue alone. The company has the funds to compensate these people properly. They just won’t.

Disney’s resistance is also unnecessary: The MCU has generated over $20 billion in box office revenue alone. The company has the funds to compensate these people properly. They just won’t.

“Work is fundamental to the dignity of the person,”Pope Francis has said. In fact, he says it “anoints” us with dignity. In some ways, that’s even more the point here than the money itself. When Disney and Marvel underpay or ignore the creators who generate the content that makes the companies so much money, it humiliates the creators.

Brubaker, who has had success creating other properties on his own, feels the same; it’s not about some massive payout. It’s about treating people right. As he said on the podcast,

“There’s nothing preventing anyone at Marvel from looking over how much the Winter Soldier has been used in all this stuff and calling me and Steve Epting and saying, ‘You know what, we’re going to try to adjust the standard thing so you guys feel good about this.’”

Now let’s get real: I know that if you are a Marvel fan, this argument is probably not going to stop you from watching Marvel stories. Even if you do genuinely feel bad for these creators, what are you going to do, not check out the new multiverse Marvel just started?

I get it. I’m not stepping off the ride now either. We haven’t even gotten to the X-Men yet.

But what if we were to temporarily hit pause on watching Marvel stories? “Eternals” comes out in a month. It looks great. What if we said that we’re not going to watch it for now because of how Disney treats its creators? Let Disney feel the impact of its choices on its own bank account.

Or more appropriately, we could refuse to go see “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which comes out in December. Steve Ditko helped create both of the film’s leads—Spider-Man and Doctor Strange—and yet was ignored when it came time to give due remuneration for these characters’ origins. So let’s stand by him and ignore this movie for now.

It’ll still be there in three months or six months. In fact, it’ll be cheaper to watch and also safer. And, if the pandemic has taught anything, it’s of our own capacity to wait.

In many of the Spider-Man films, there’s a moment near the end where everything has gone wrong for our hero. He seems about to fail completely. Then ordinary people—not other members of the main cast, but background players who we’ve never met—suddenly step forward and help Spider-Man. They save him, and then he saves the day. An underlying conceit of the Spider-Man films, in fact, is that we all have great power.

And with it comes great responsibility.