In the battle over Spider-Man, everyone may lose
Peter Parker has long history as loveable loser throughout his adventures as Spider-Man, the comic book superhero who pioneered the notion that the good guy might win the day against the supervillain, but still come up short paying the rent or inadvertently standing up a date.
Now, the movie incarnation of Spider-Man faces his biggest losing proposition yet, caught in a creative divorce between Sony, the studio that has long controlled his film rights, and Disney and its subsidiary Marvel Studios, the film wing of the comic book company that launched Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation back in 1962 and the creative team who helped turn the character back into a billion-dollar film property after a decade of missteps.
But while the audiences who’ve embraced the wall-crawler of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — as played by Tom Holland, creatively steered by filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo (in the crossovers) and Jon Watts (in two solo adventures) and overseen by Marvel’s uber-producer Kevin Feige over five films in three years, with Sony financing the “Spider-Man” titles — may be the ones who stand to miss out on the most if Sony and Disney do walk away from their landmark pact that allowed for synergistic sharing, there’s plenty at risk for the two Hollywood colossuses as well.
Sony, in its long-tightly gripped hold on the film rights, may well be feeling confident after the huge box office returns on “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” the well-reviewed films made with Marvel oversight, as well as the performance of “Venom,” the Spidey-less spin-off starring the popular villain, despite universally tepid critical response. And then there’s the glowing, awards-heavy reception for the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” starring the Miles Morales version of the character.
But Sony should look to its own history for lessons of hubris: after trusting director Sam Raimi’s creative instincts on the first two wildly successful “Spider-Man” films, the studio tried to impose its will on the third installment (namely, shoehorning in Venom), resulting in a compromised vision that satisfied neither the filmmakers nor the audience, essentially bringing the franchise’s momentum to a dead halt.
A subsequent rebooted take with the two “Amazing Spider-Man” films recruited a promising filmmaker, Marc Webb, and an eager rising star, Andrew Garfield, the resulting movies felt tone-deaf to the particular charms and formulas that had made its lead hero a sensation for so many years. Again, the Spider-brand suffered — including mostly scuttling plans for a cinematic Spider-Verse full of solo films for supporting allies and nemesis included in the film rights.
Spider-Man’s not the only legacy franchise Sony has struggled to get right in recent years: it badly botched its handling the otherwise novel notion of an all-female-led “Ghostbusters” film, and more recently its bid to re-launch the “Men In Black” series flopped creatively and commercially. The studio’s current head, Tom Rothman, has a spotty history managing franchises during his previous long tenure at 20th Century Fox —
consider the “X-Men’s” erratic quality, most notably in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” a film that so utterly misunderstood the quippy, motormouth appeal of Deadpool that the character’s mouth was sown shut.
Sony may also be massively underestimating both Marvel Studios’ ability to “get” Spider-Man, and the studio may not fully understand just how important his appearances in the MCU were to bringing ticket buyers into his solo films.
Meanwhile, after so warmly reclaiming a creative stake in the film fortunes of the signature superhero that has essentially been Marvel Comics’ equivalent of Mickey Mouse as a brand ambassador for the better part of six decades, fully integrating the character into the rich fabric of its MCU, and re-ingratiating him to audiences through the invaluable casting of Holland, Disney and Marvel stand to lose the one heavy-hitting headliner poised to hold the center together, now that Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Steve Rogers) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) have exited or are about to depart the multi-franchise.
Holland’s youth and star appeal, the character’s rich mythology and Watts’ deft, John Hughes-ian sensibility and ability to inject surprising, welcome tweaks to the character’s tropes seemed to suggest that audiences might be in for a long and significant big screen run as Spider-Man matured into an increasingly more able and important hero, one whose publishing history has shown to be uniquely suited to pair alongside just about any other Marvel character. Now, there appears to be a Spider-Man-shaped hole at the center of the MCU.
Watts, who has hinted at long range plans for Spidey, is apparently not under contract for a third “Spider-Man” film with Sony; should he prefer to continue on with Marvel instead (the creative team that elevated him from promising indie director to A-list filmmaker), Sony may find themselves struggling to find a suitable successor — especially among filmmakers who don’t want to risk alienating Marvel and its parent, Disney — just, y’know, the most successful filmmaking combo of the modern moment.
(Note to Sony: if you do continue down this road, back the money truck up to the offices of “Spider-Verse” producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, probably the non-Marvel-affiliated creatives best suited to build out an actual cinematic Spider-Verse.)
Sony has suggested that the central issue of the negotiations breakdown was less about Marvel’s interest in a significantly larger monetary interest in the sub-franchise and more about Marvel president Kevin Feige’s inability to actively personally shepherd the next Spider-film to the screen, due to a full plate charting the next phase of the MCU (including possible Fantastic Four and X-Men films, newly reunified into the company thanks to its acquisition of Fox, and a roster of television series for the Disney + streaming service).
Given Feige’s demonstrated ability to keep his eye on the bigger MCU prize and Spider-Man’s importance to Marvel as a whole and, presumably, the film universe’s next iteration, that explanation seems, at best, unlikely. Even if true, Feige has cultivated perhaps the most successful team of lieutenants in modern Hollywood history, including the producers who handled the day-to-days behind mega-hits like “Black Panther,” “Captain Marvel” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Surely amongst all that talent, Spider-Man would not go neglected and unnurtured.
So here we are. Can Sony make a Spider-Man movie without the guiding hand of Marvel. Sure — they can try, though history suggests it’s not as easy as they might think. Can the MCU move forward without its friendly neighborhood web-slinger front and center? Of course, but it sure sounds like it’ll be a lot less fun without him. All in all, it looks like a scenario where everyone involved — the studio, the character and especially the audience — could end up as losers.
Of course, things looked pretty grim for Spider-Man at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War,” too, and look how that turned out. Here’s hoping that, as with Peter Parker, the demoralizing dusting of the Sony-Marvel deal can be undone, and Spider-Man comes back on top again.