The battle between Stan Lee Media, Inc. and Marvel over the rights to The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and more of the company’s most iconic characters has gotten a bit more interesting.

The comic book legend’s former company has filed a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against Marvel and parent company Disney, demanding the maximum amount of damages available to them. And given the success of The Avengers, the stakes are high.

While Stan Lee himself has gotten his contracts with Marvel and Disney all sorted out, the nagging issue centers on two documents signed by Stan Lee in 1998: one handing the rights to all Lee characters, past and present to Marvel, and one signing them over to Stan Lee Media, Inc. (SLMI) The problem is, the Marvel agreement came second.

At least those are the claims made by the SLMI in the lawsuit (read it here, courtesy of Deadline) filed on their behalf with the Colorado courts. After having sought bankruptcy protection in 2000, the company now claims that Stan Lee signed the rights to both existing and future developed characters over to Stan Lee Entertainment, Inc. (which would ultimately become SLMI) in October 1998. Lee again signed a document “amending, modifying and confirming the validity of the 1998 SLMI Copyright Assignment” in 2000, which was filed with the Securities & Exchange Commission and the United States Copyright Office.

That may seem a bit jargony, but not out of the ordinary for a creative figure reinforcing the rights to their creations. Lee  was reportedly paid for the rights in shares of SLMI, and named Chairman of the Board. But here’s where things get potentially troubling. The lawsuit states that:

Oddly, in November, 1998, Stan Lee signed a written agreement with Marvel Enterprises, Inc. in which he purportedly assigned to Marvel the rights to the Characters. However, Lee no longer owned those rights since they had been assigned to SLEI previously. Accordingly, the Marvel agreement actually assigned nothing.

Since Marvel never filed such a transferal of rights with the Copyright Office when it the Disney merger was finalized, SLMI is claiming entitlement “to the billions of dollars that Disney has generated […]within the past three (3) years from motion pictures, and from other media and merchandising” based on The Avengers and others. $5.5 billion, to be exact. This legal quagmire has been brought to court and dismissed half a dozen times, leading one to believe that the same will happen again, but that kind of money is nothing to scoff at. A cash grab on the part of SLMI? Certainly. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a case.

This isn’t the first time that Marvel has encountered legal issues with some of its creators, having most recently snubbed Thanos creator Jim Starlin (that’s been patched over, luckily). As much as we can sympathize with Stan Lee (the shares of SLMI used to purchase the rights became nearly worthless when the company went bust), the case is a difficult one to weigh in on just yet.

Obviously, the validity of SLMI’s claims – and Lee or Marvel’s explanations (if they have them) – will need to be heard to get some idea of how the case will play out and what role the statute of limitations will play in the proceedings. It’s unlikely Disney will part with that amount of money freely, so expect this to be just the beginning of another chapter in the battle, not the final blow.

We’ll keep you up to date on the suit as it proceeds. Hopefully, it’s over sooner rather than later, since Marvel isn’t showing any signs of slowing down their film development.

Follow me on Twitter @andrew_dyce.

Source: Deadline