IF YOU THOUGHT superhero movie titles were getting too long, try fitting Into the Contract-Verse: The Curious Case of Spider-Man and the Film Rights Impasse on a theater marquee. After months of negotiations between Sony Pictures and Disney, it appears that Spider-Man will no longer be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This particularly tangled web has been spinning for two decades now. Sony first got the rights to Spider-Man in 1999, the year before the success of X-Men revitalized Hollywood’s appetite for superhero movies. The studio released a trilogy of Spidey movies in the 2000s, then rebooted the character for two more movies in 2012 and 2014. During that time, Marvel Studios—which Disney bought in 2012—still profited off the web-slinger, through merchandising rights and a small cut of the movie grosses. But with toy sales dropping, Marvel tried to buy the character back; the ultimate result was a 2015 compromise by which Sony allowed the character to appear in MCU movies like Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War and Marvel got to be a producer on Sony’s standalone Spidey movies, getting creative input without needing to finance the movies directly. It worked beautifully for two movies, Homecoming and Far From Home, which pulled in nearly $2 billion worldwide.
Then it fell apart. Exact details are still emerging (though that’s not stopping online contingents from gleefully skiing down social-media molehills), but The Hollywood Reporter has reported that Marvel wanted the ability to co-finance Spider-Man for a larger share of the profits—possibly 30 percent, possibly as much as 50. Meanwhile, Sony claimed that the real problem was that Disney wouldn’t let MCU architect Kevin Feige be lead producer on the future movies, thereby diminishing the value of Marvel’s involvement. Actor Tom Holland reportedly has an option to portray Spider-Man for one more movie; Sony reportedly hopes for at least two more with Holland.
But that’s all business. The reality for moviegoers is a little different—and quite possibly a lot worse. Most pressingly, they’re now staring down the barrel of a Sony pipeline that continues to ooze Spider-Man spinoff films: Morbius, starring Jared Leto as Marvel Comics’ “living vampire,” will be released next year, as will a sequel to Venom. Yes, Venom was huge in China; yes, that might be enough to convince Sony it’s doing the right thing; no, so-bad-it’s-good is not the same thing as actually good. (A ray of hope pierces all of this: Sony is also planning multiple animated features after the success of last year’s Oscar-winning Into the Spider-Verse, including a direct sequel and a Spider-Women spin-off.)
After that, presumably, comes the first current-era Spider-Man movie that Marvel plays no role in, and thus the first that can’t make any references to any MCU material that came before. Thankfully, Marvel has moved on to a new phase and ostensibly left Thanos references far behind, and as others have pointed out, freeing Spidey from Iron Man’s weighty legacy could be a very good thing. The issue isn’t what the movie can’t rely on—it’s what the studio can’t rely on. Namely, Kevin Feige and the painstakingly plotted power of the MCU’s narrative yarn map.
This isn’t fannish fealty; it’s what 11 years of movies have demonstrated time and time again. The MCU’s edge is that it’s flourished into an actual ecosystem, one that manages to encompass multiple species of tone and tack while still supporting periodic cross-pollination. It’s not the only studio to try such a thing—it’s just the only one that’s succeeded. Fox’s X-Men Universe? Close, but not quite. Warner Bros.’ DC version? After the joyless Justice League, it explicitly retreated to the relative safety of standalone movies. Sony may have had a few rounds of practice with Queens’ most famous teenage photographer, but even Holland’s Michael J. Fox-style charisma doesn’t change the fact Peter Parker has long entered been-there, done-that territory.
Which leaves the fate of the superhero movie squarely in the hands of the MCU, the juggernaut that’s sure to continue for at least another decade and span a dozen movies and just as many shows with some on Disney+ and some on Hulu and some on … OK, hold on just a second. Granted, Marvel’s future looks robust, but at some point sprawl turns to chaos—or at least fatigue. The studio’s mammoth Comic-Con panel last month hinted that Phase Four of the MCU would to be heading in all directions, and its presentation tomorrow at Disney’s D23 fan expo is sure to add some ordinals to those cardinals.
It’s not disorienting yet, but I’ve talked to enough people who have given up on keeping up to know that everyone has a threshold of clarity. The first step is always franchise partiality: Someone decides that keeping up with the Skrulls is too much work, so they restrict their focus to Black Panther, or Guardians of the Galaxy, or maybe just a director like Taika Waititi. That doesn’t taint one’s appreciation of those areas of the MCU—but it does jeopardize their buy-in to the crossover moments, once Phase Four’s Big Bad has raised its titanic hand and all 3.2 x 105 characters need to band together and defeat them, all the while trading oblique references to movies from years before.
None of this has happened yet. None of it might happen at all! Yet the kerfuffle over a single character like Spider-Man highlights just how interconnected the Superhero Era is. It’s strong, and it’s an engineering feat, and it’s ensnared many a competitor—but if the spider doesn’t work fast enough, all it takes is a well-timed swipe at a single gossamer thread for the whole thing to come apart.