So, I see a few scenarios:
1 - The "family" thing is just for the individual character (aka, since they use Hulk, Universal has the rights to every directly connected to him, like Betsy Ross and the like, but not the entire Avengers.) That might have had to been defined by lawyers and the like.
2 - There is some sort of deal that allows Disney to use the characters Universal cannot use (due to the limitations of the deal, any character they did not use by a certain date they cannot use, but they might have the rights for.) If the term "family" does mean every single character connected to the characters they use, then a deal on the side to allow DIsney to use a character Universal has the rights to would be needed. This could be for anything from additional money, to some sort of agreement about the merchandise, to even a small trade of properties.
It is interesting they went after Thor first and not Iron Man. Make me wonder if, as part of any sort of deal between Universal and Disney, if Universal did not get permission to add to Marvel Super-Hero Island (which they cannot do under the original terms of the deal) and add in a Iron Man attraction or something.
Regardless, this is interesting.
[For purpose of this subsection and subsection iv, a character is “being used by MCA” if (x) it or another character of the same “family” (e.g., any member of THE FANTASTIC FOUR, THE AVENGERS or villains associated with a hero being used) is more than an incidental element of an attraction, is presented as a costumed character, or is more than an incidental element of the theming of a retail store or food facility; and, (y) in addition, if such character or another character from the same “family” is an element in any MCA marketing during the previous year. Any character who is only used as a costume character will not be considered to be “being used by MCA” unless it appears as more than an incidental element in MCA’s marketing.]
Now, I'm not a lawyer, but it seems the "Family" thing is pretty clearly defined. There are some elements of the contract where Universal could lose rights to the characters if not properly maintained or marketed in a couple of years, but I'm not sure I understand this entirely. But, it is possible that Disney could be trying to leverage that aspect as well.
My father used to own a grocery store/video store/pizza place kind of combination business in the 70s and 80s. He had a little bit of everything in that place. And he did well for himself. Every now and again, someone would try to open something up similar to what he had going on, to test the waters and kind of get into it with him. If my dad didn't push back when challenged, then people knew it was fair game to come in and do whatever they wanted. He was like junkyard dog with his turf though.
It feels like Disney wants a legal case and that the way things are in the status quo was no longer acceptable to them. They want Universal to either sue or just accept Marvel characters in the Disney parks. This is an opening salvo.
I'm not a lawyer, but I've followed a lot of legal cases through the years. It doesn't seem like Disney could ever sue Universal to get access to the Thor and other characters so it looks like the only way this could go to court is if Disney did something to cause Universal to sue. The litigation would be like Disney buying a raffle ticket when it really can't lose whatever the outcome: (1) if it wins outright, then Disney gets to bring Thor and other Avengers characters like Captain America to WDW and Hollywood Studios gets to have a Superhero area; (2) if Disney loses, then at least it knows the parameters of the deal and maybe Universal starts thinking about the future in that it can't ever upgrade or build anything new in Superhero Island (so maybe it would want to have Disney buy that out at a huge cost); (3) a judge might rule that Disney can't build any new rides but it can have face characters or that it can build rides only for certain characters (which would mean that Guardians of the Galaxy and other lesser known Marvel properties might be in the cards for the future).
It's been a plot point in lots of different TV shows where someone wants to be sued because they don't like the status quo and a lawsuit would free up options. This just happened in the show I watch, where some big company in China wanted to be sued over currency rates or something complicated because if it got sued then the government would have to change some kind of interest rate or something, and that would end up in the long run being more beneficial to the company. So, it's like they were willing to take this minor hit today for a big pay day in a year or two.
I like when Disney gets provocative and shakes things up. This tells me that someone at the executive level wants to get aggressive...and Disney being aggressive is a wonderful thing.
It reminds me of all the subterfuge and tricky legal maneuvers that went into purchasing all the land to build WDW back in the 70s. Disney was so smart back then and was always five steps ahead of other people. I want THAT Disney back again.
This could be a way to force the issue, make Universal come to the bargaining table when they have no reason to do so, but if Universal does sue, and does not want to settle, then this will just cost Disney money. It might be a way to bait Universal to bargain with them, but Universal still has no reason not to just see a court case all the way through. Why bargain, when you will just win in the end run?
Secondly, I disagree with Tim completely. Universal COULD pay the bad guy and not come to the negoting table, but I doubt that. It is in EVERYONE's best interest to come to some sort of agreement.
(Enter Rao in 5, 4, 3, 2 ...)
Most importantly, I love IOA's Spider-Man attraction and I don't ever want to see it changed or removed.
About Daredevil: Interesting one there, really. He can be somewhat associated with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Avengers, but it would be a stretch to put him with any of them in particular. And, Disney has the movie rights to Daredevil if I remember right, so this might be something to keep an eye on. But, and here is the issue, Daredevil is an extremely dark character when done right (like heroin addiction dark, really really dark stuff.) So, if Disney can do a good Daredevil film, and keep him relatively family friendly, he might be an option for an attraction at a Disney park. I would, however, bet against it.
About the Hulk being an Avenger: He was a founding Avenger, not just from the movie but from the comics. He very much *is* considered part of the Avenger 'family' (so much so that when the movie came out, he was there.) And, even if Disney could (somehow) successfully argue the Hulk should not be considered a member of the Avenger family, they also have a Captain America character in the park. Since the way the contract was written also extends to such characters, the Avengers are still off limits (even though, unlike Hulk, Captain America was not an original Avenger.)
This does highlight the problem with the idea of character 'families', as the Avengers pretty much encompass every Marvel character. By saying 'we own the Avengers', Universal can claim ownership over everyone from Captain America to Storm to Squirrel Girl. Seriously, membership in the Avengers has not been that exclusive. And, when you add in all of their villains...
If this does become a court case, I don't think Universal would be motivated to settle at the onset. If they have the law on their side, and have 2 outcomes here (either settle and gain some money, or win and gain a lot more money), I think it is clear where they would go. Universal is not hurting for cash, they could very well be willing to see a court case through till the end, especially if they believe they will win. I am not saying there is no deal that could be made to resolve this, on the contrary, I believe there are a number of things Disney could offer to Universal in exchange for characters Universal is not using. The question is, will Disney be willing to offer them, and if so, will that be enough for Universal?