Like the saying goes, this is why we can’t have nice things: as widely reported yesterday, Sony Pictures and Disney have ended the landmark, three-year partnership that allowed both studios to share Spider-Man, arguably the most popular character in the Marvel Universe.
While this is an almost stereotypical example of the greed and ego that permeate Hollywood and get in the way of the actual process of making good movies, it’s a little hard at first to determine just who the villain here is.
Here’s why: after Sony ran Spider-Man into the ground in 2014 with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a botched attempt at launching a shared “Spider-Verse” that became the lowest grossing of Sony’s five Spider-Man movies up to that point, the company turned to Disney’s Marvel Studios and its president, Kevin Feige, in 2015 to see if they could help bring Spidey back to glory.
The deal called for Sony to keep financing the standalone Spider-Man films’ production and marketing, while allowing Spidey to show up in Marvel Studios films. Disney got 5% of the first-dollar box office gross and retained all the merchandising (which it owned from the start). The results so far have been stellar: Marvel produced two excellent movies for Sony — 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and this year’s Spider-Man: Far From Home — while Spidey played important roles in Marvel’s own Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Avengers: Endgame (2019).
Each of those films except Homecoming has grossed a billion dollars or more at the box office, with Endgame becoming the all-time box office champ and Far From Home becoming the highest-earning film in Sony’s history. Fans and critics have, for the most part, enjoyed young Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in his standalone movies, while embracing him as a future face of the Avengers now that Iron Man is dead and Captain America has retired.
So now Disney has asked for a larger share of the box office take — 50% — while offering to co-finance the production and marketing of the movies and perhaps have some more involvement in Sony’s Spider-Man spinoffs like the Venom series and Morbius. Sony’s Rothman reportedly refused that flat-out, and while some reports indicate that Sony sees this as a standard negotiating tactic, Disney has allegedly shut down the talks completely and is not interested in entertaining counter-proposals.
One could argue that Disney is being greedy from a financial standpoint, while Marvel Studios is being overly ambitious from a creative perspective: Marvel president Kevin Feige would certainly love to keep Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while also having a bigger say in Sony’s other Spider-Man-related movies to retain some kind of consistency and continuity with the MCU as well.
Sony has thus far tried to spin this as a disagreement over Feige’s ability to keep producing Spider-Man movies while running the rest of the Marvel slate. But the studio is essentially saying this: we like making the money we’re making right now, and while we appreciate your help with Spidey, we don’t need Marvel taking a piece of Venom movies or Morbius or Kraven the Hunter or anything else Spidey-related that we want to develop. And that’s where Sony is making a huge mistake, because the company has screwed up Spider-Man twice before, and doesn’t grasp the essence of Spider-Man the way Marvel Studios does.
Without Feige and Marvel Studios’ involvement, Sony would likely never have made Spider-Man: Homecoming or Spider-Man: Far From Home. And even if the company had managed to produce a couple of new Spider-Man movies, they would not have benefited from the character’s high visibility in Marvel’s Civil War and the last two Avengers behemoths. In other words, whether they see it this way or not, Sony owes the resurrection of the Spider-Man franchise to Marvel — which should be enough to give Marvel and its corporate owner, Disney, leverage for a bigger stake going forward.
But Rothman apparently believes Sony can do it on their own now. Except that Sony’s last three live-action Spider-Man films before Marvel’s involvement were all varying degrees of awful, and the company’s sole Spidey spinoff to date, Venom, is — while admittedly an inexplicably huge hit — a nearly unwatchable and incoherent mess that Rothman himself worked to salvage in the editing room (with, allegedly, some help from Feige).
Rothman, meanwhile, presided over the creation of such gems as X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), and Fantastic Four (2005) during his reign at Fox. It was Rothman who allegedly ordered the deaths of as many X-Men as possible in The Last Stand because he wanted to end the franchise, and it was Rothman who reportedly held up the development of Deadpool and didn’t want to make it (a point driven home by Ryan Reynolds’ “hi Tom!” that ended the leaked Deadpool test footage widely credited with finally getting the film made). The man is no friend to superhero movies, and now he is willing to blow off the creative partner that revitalized his current studio’s single biggest franchise.
Will Sony make more Spider-Man movies? Of course. They have Holland signed up for two more, although it’s unclear if Holland was signed by Marvel or Sony (what a fuck-up it would be if they had to let him go too). Less certain is whether Homecoming and Far From Home director Jon Watts will return, since he has yet to ink a new deal. Sony also have plans to make as many movies as possible starring members of Spidey’s rogues’ gallery, with Venom 2, Morbius, Kraven the Hunter and more on the way. You can count on Venom and Spider-Man facing off — possibly as soon as Venom 2 — if Marvel remains out of the picture.
But these movies won’t have the Marvel touch, nor will they have the links to the MCU that have made them fun for fans. Tony Stark acting as a mentor and father figure to Peter was a major plot point in Homecoming, while his death — and Spidey’s growing alignment with Nick Fury — triggered the events of Far From Home and set up a third movie that may not quite happen in the same way now. Don’t expect to see Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan or Samuel L. Jackson as Fury show up anymore, and forget all mentions of Iron Man, Thanos, the Skrulls, Captain Marvel or anyone else from the MCU.
Likewise, Spider-Man will now just vanish from the MCU, even though he was being positioned as a major part of the universe’s future. In retrospect it was telling that a third standalone Spidey film was not announced during Marvel’s Phase 4 rollout at Comic-Con last month. But now the wallcrawler won’t make a surprise appearance in, say, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, won’t help introduce the Fantastic Four, and won’t join any future fights with the rest of the Avengers.
Who stands to lose more from this? Probably Sony. Even though it will feel the loss of Peter Parker, the MCU still has plenty of popular heroes to feature and a vast array of new ones to introduce or reboot. Sony only has Spider-Man, so if they fumble his next movie, the studio may well be right back in the hole it was trying to climb out of in 2015. So far the response on social media seems to have leaned in Marvel’s favor as well. And despite Venom’s inexplicable runaway success, I maintain that movies based on lesser-known (to the general public) villains like Morbius and Kraven won’t have the same impact.
There is one X factor that could tip the balance for Sony: producers/directors/writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller were the creative force behind last year’s truly remarkable Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the only animated superhero movie to date to win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Lord and Miller are already developing a number of properties for Sony — including a TV iteration of Spider-Man — so if the studio was smart it would ask them to oversee the live-action films as well. The pair could be the one creative force aside from Feige and his team who could successfully guide Spidey through this. They have a keen sense of the character’s decency, humanity and youthful innocence that Marvel has also tapped into, not to mention a flair for creating a comic-book universe onscreen.
Who loses the most? The fans. Unless Sony and Disney somehow come back to the table, all the goodwill and excitement generated by their partnership — not to mention the thrill of seeing Spidey fight alongside Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Strange, Captain Marvel, and the rest — will drift away like the dust motes left behind by Thanos’ Snap. It is one nice thing we will no longer have.
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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye