[Updated to reflect Sony’s statement to The Hollywood Reporter about the breakdown of the Spider-Man deal.]
It seemed too good to be true.
In May 2015, Marvel Studios announced that Tom Holland had been cast as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War. For the first time, everyone’s favorite web-slinger was part of Marvel’s sprawling cinematic universe, after years of languishing at Sony with its two iterations of the superhero. Sony and Marvel’s highly improbable partnership proved to be wildly successful: Holland received rave reviews in Civil War, and his solo films have reached new box office heights under the direction of Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, with this past July’s Spider-Man: Far From Home crossing the one-billion-dollar mark in less than two months and becoming Sony’s highest-grossing film ever.
On the heels of that milestone, Deadline is now reporting that talks between Disney and Marvel to continue their Spider-Man partnership have stalled. Sony will move forward with two planned sequels directed by Jon Watts and starring Holland, but Feige won’t produce them, as he did Homecoming and Far From Home. Assuming they can’t work out an eleventh hour agreement, Spider-Man will be excised from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though Avengers: Endgame and Far From Home set him up to play a critical role in its future. The deal’s collapse is a major blow to the studio and their fiercely loyal fanbase, who turned out in billion-dollar droves three times this year (the aforementioned films, and Captain Marvel) to see how the conclusion of its decade-long cinematic experiment and how the franchise would move forward.
Speaking of billions, it is difficult not to view the breakdown of Sony and Marvel’s deal within the context of Far From Home’s incredible box office returns. According to Deadline, Disney wanted to enter a 50/50 co-financing agreement with Sony for the future Spider-Man films, which would mean that Sony and Marvel would reap equal financial rewards from the franchise. In return, Feige would continue producing them and potentially Sony’s other Spider-Man-related projects, possibly wrapping Tom Hardy’s Venom and Jared Leto’s Morbius into the MCU. Sony reportedly balked at the proposed offer, preferring instead to maintain its current agreement where Marvel received only 5% of the films’ first dollar gross, and all of the merchandising revenue. Deadline updated their reporting to note that Sony made an additional counteroffer, but Disney ultimately declined, leaving the future of Spider-Man on the table. [UPDATE: In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, Sony confirmed that Feige would no longer be a lead producer for the Spider-Man films and that they were “disappointed” by Disney’s decision, effectively laying the blame at their feet].
Sony’s fight for control of Spider-Man is understandable. With Holland as Spidey, the character is more popular and lucrative than ever, and handing over $1 billion over the course of two sequels (assuming they matched Far From Home’s success) to Disney seems like an unfair and unnecessary expense. Toss in the runaway success of last year’s Venom, and you could make a semi-reasonable argument that Sony could take back the reins of Spider-Man without Marvel’s support. That thinking ignores Marvel and Feige’s undeniable role in creatively and commercially reviving the superhero. Before they stepped in, Sony’s Spider-Man franchise was deader than dead, again: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, starring the under-appreciated Andrew Garfield, was a bloated, unfocused critical disappointment that performed worse at the box office than its predecessor. Meanwhile, Marvel was out mapping out a course that would change Hollywood forever. That Spider-Man, the most famous of Marvel’s superhero slate, couldn’t partake in that future because of pre-Feige era short-sightedness felt tragic. Sony and Marvel’s deal was a brilliant reconciliation, re-shaping the character through Feige’s singular vision and supporting him with Marvel’s rapidly-growing cultural capital. That, and the brilliant casting of Holland, turned Spider-Man from dead weight into heavy hitter. All Sony had to do was show up and watch the money roll in. Now, they’ve decided that they doesn’t need the man or the studio that practically handed them their biggest hit ever on a silver platter, film quality, let alone continuity, be damned. The level of unearned arrogance, and lack of sense, is astonishing.
Marvel and Disney aren’t without blame in this fiasco; in fact, theirs might be more risible. As much as they (and frankly the rest of the world) would prefer it, Sony owns the film rights to Spider-Man, which meant playing nice with the studio was critical to their plans for him in the MCU. And while outlining all of the ways Sony benefitted from from their deal, Marvel has gained just as much, on commercial and critical fronts. In hindsight, Tom Holland’s spirited take on Spider-Man has held up better than much of Civil War, and his subsequent appearances in Infinity War and Endgame are highlights of both films (“Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good” and “we won, Mr. Stark” are part of the pop culture lexicon). Spider-Man’s presence in the MCU has been a boon to the franchise, and Marvel clearly understood and appreciated his significance. Unfortunately, Feige’s intricate world-building didn’t account for Disney’s ravenous need for greater box office revenue share, even though they already have claim to four of this year’s top-grossing films worldwide. Even though they are largely responsible for this Spider-Man’s success, the money they are seeking from Sony form negligible drops in the bucket for a company that has a near-monopolistic stranglehold over pop culture. If there was one character that Disney could’ve made a compromise over, it was Spider-Man.
Studio avarice has now left Spider-Man in a worse state of limbo than he’s ever been in before. The upcoming films will have no mention of Tony Stark, Nick Fury, Happy, or any of the MCU characters that have been critical to Peter Parker’s development. Sony will have to craft a story without some of the character’s most important threads, and with their very spotty track record, the chances they fail are higher than what’s comfortable. For Marvel, the work is a bit easier: none of the films announced at last month’s Comic-Con require a Spider-Man tie-in, but the inevitable Avengers team-up that will conclude Phase 4 will have an unfortunate, teenage superhero-sized hole in it. Like all of the most frustrating pop culture disasters, this one was wholly avoidable, if Disney and Sony were able to table their collective egos to find a resolution to a problem that didn’t even exist. Studio greed is nothing new, but for a franchise that hinges greatly on the devotion of its fanbase, this stings.
Disney and Sony could still reach a deal, especially if the backlash is particularly great (multiple topics related to the news were trending on Twitter this afternoon). If they don’t, it will be a massive loss for all parties involved, and may beget questions, particularly for Disney, about how comfortable audiences are with the outsized amount of power they have.