By Anthony Breznican
March 20, 2019 at 02:39 PM EDT
Marvel/Disney; Alan Markfield/Fox

On July 14, 2017, Hugh Jackman sent out a selfie that seemed seismic for Marvel fans.

Ultimately, it was a short-term false alarm that turned out to be ahead of its time.

“PARTNERS,” was all the tweet said, accompanied by a photo of the Wolverine actor inside Disneyland, standing front of a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse with the Magic Castle in the background.

Partners? That’s what it says on the statue’s plaque. But was there a hidden dimension to this message?

Fans were giddy with the possibility. The very next day, Disney was launching its D23 fan convention in Anaheim, and Marvel Studios was set to tease the first imagery from Avengers: Infinity War.

The company had previously struck a deal to share the Spider-Man license with Sony Pictures, bringing Peter Parker and Co. into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Was Jackman’s tweet a tease of a similar arrangement with 20th Century Fox, allowing Wolverine and the X-Men to crash through the barriers of licensing agreements and time-space into what Nick Fury had once understatedly called “a larger universe”?

Was he in Anaheim to reveal Wolverine was joining the MCU?

As it turns out … no. Marvel’s showcase came and went with no news of Jackman, Wolverine, the X-Men or a character-sharing agreement with Fox.

Six months later, at the end of 2017, the Walt Disney Co. brokered an even larger deal, acquiring all the entertainment assets of 20th Century Fox, including all its film and TV divisions, for $71.3 billion. On Wednesday, all the regulatory approvals have concluded, and the merger is official: The Mouse now owns Fox.

The significance almost defies description. By comparison, Disney only paid around $4 billion for Lucasfilm in 2012, and $4 billion for Marvel in 2009. It paid $7.6 billion for Pixar in 2006.

Each of those is a powerhouse in its own right, but with Fox, Disney adds a staggering volume of stories and characters to its collection — everything from John Ford’s 1941 Oscar-winner How Green Was My Valley to last month’s Alita: Battle Angel, just to choose two random bookends. Today, The Walt Disney Co. changed the lead image on its corporate website to feature The Simpsons, Avatar, Deadpool, and last year’s Oscar-winner The Shape of Water in a collage alongside Captain Marvel, Toy Story, Star Wars, and Frozen.

The Walt Disney Company

What fans want to know now is: What does this mean for the characters and stories they love?

There isn’t much chance of Bart Simpson joining The Avengers, but it seems natural now that X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Deadpool will somehow return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the film rights were licensed away years ago.

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told EW last year that they hadn’t been given the green light to begin incorporating those returning characters into any upcoming films because they had to await government approval of the merger. “I will say just the notion of having what, frankly, most other companies with [intellectual property] have all along, which is access to all of their characters … that would be fun,” Feige said. They legally were not allowed to begin making plans.

Simon Kinberg, who has been overseeing the Marvel franchises at Fox, said the same thing to EW’s Tim Stack as recently as last month. “I haven’t had formal talks with Disney. I know Kevin Feige very well, but we haven’t had formal talks because until the merger is official, they’re not allowed to have those kinds of conversations with the folks at Fox or myself,” he said.

Now they can start planning for the future. But the past is obdurate. Things still need to settle. Films that have been in the works for years are awaiting release, and a grand scheme for the decades to come need to be mapped out.

In the short term, don’t expect Wolverine in Avengers: Endgame, which is out April 26.  And don’t expect Iron Man to suddenly turn up in Fox’s X-Men film Dark Phoenix, out June 7.

But beyond that…? Marvel Studios hasn’t said this, but conceivably they could add the weather-controlling X-Men character Storm to an upcoming Black Panther story. In the comics, she and T’Challa were married. The film license Fox owned would have restricted that before, but now the barriers are down.

Doctor Doom fighting the Avengers, who are joined by the Fantastic Four? Sure.

Wolverine (perhaps played by someone new) finally slashing his way into an MCU movie? Why not? The Fox-Disney merger is like the Infinity Gauntlet: Any kind of reality is now possible, including tearing open the barriers between imagination.

Most of Patton Oswalt’s geek-obsessive filibuster from Parks & Recreation, in which Thanos tries to conquer the Star Wars galaxy, is now on the table — although not necessarily a good idea. (As Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope declares: “Kids are not gonna like this!”)

With Disney and Fox united, anything is possible. But the question still stands: What’s likely?

Coincidentally, both the MCU’s Infinity Saga and Fox’s X-Men series, which began in 2000, are reaching what both creative teams describe as an endpoint.

“I approached the movie like it was the culmination in some ways,” says Kinberg, who wrote and directed Dark Phoenix. “Not that there couldn’t be other movies, but I did approach the movie as if, like, if you spent 20 years of living with this family, this is the movie where you see the family truly tested, fall apart, and hopefully come back together. There was something about that sense of closure for the family, that sense of test, that sense of loss. It felt like not this is the end necessarily, but this is it for them.”

Feige said something similar about Infinity War and Endgame: “It’s coming to a climax, coming to a conclusion … bringing what will be that first 22 movie arc to a finality. That doesn’t mean there are no movies after that. Of course not. It means the movies after that will be changed.” (Or as Tony Stark declares in the first Endgame trailer: “Don’t feel bad about this. Part of the journey is the end.”)

The Disney+ streaming service launching this year is a bottomless pit for new content, so the possibilities are endless there.

Deadpool is a new, vibrant franchise, so we’ll most likely see Ryan Reynolds’ raunchy anti-hero continue as-is. Plus, he doesn’t play well with others, so he may continue to exist in his own meta-plane.

But in terms of X-Men, Jackman and filmmaker James Mangold gave Wolverine such a strong send-off in 2017’s Logan that revisiting it seems like a mistake. You can bring back the heroes turned to ash in Infinity War, but most fans would agree that Logan — at least that version of him — should be left as is.

So, we may never see Wolverine and Walt become “PARTNERS” as Jackman tweeted. Instead, expect to see what fans always say they want: something fresh, something new.

Marvel Studios often takes its cues from the past. The comics. Hints from the earlier movies.

Peggy Carter’s words to Steve Rogers in The Winter Soldier, which are echoed in the new trailer for Endgame, may provide some guidance about what to expect from Disney’s X-Men.

“Sometimes the best that we can do is to start over.”

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