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Why Sony should keep Spider-Man

| Wednesday, September 4, 2019

If you’re anything like me and spend way too much time thinking about comic book movies, you’ve probably heard the latest news. Spider-Man, who finally joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and who was poised to lead the next slate of films in the franchise, will no longer be a part of the MCU. 

The issue stems from the fact that the rights to all Spider-Man films are in fact owned by Sony Pictures. In the 1980s and 1990s, before Marvel Comics began its own film production studio, the company sold the film rights for its most popular characters to already-established studios. 

It was a great short-term solution for an entertainment company in need of capital. But when Marvel did start their own studio, and struck gold with 2008’s “Iron Man,” it began to pose an issue. Even with a lineup including Captain America, Black Widow and Thor, Marvel could not tell its greatest stories without its most central characters — among them Spider-Man. 

So Marvel Studios, now owned by Walt Disney Motion Pictures, sought to bring its greatest hero back into the fold. Producer Kevin Feige and Sony’s Amy Pascal brokered a deal: Sony would license Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios, and allow the character’s films to take place in the MCU and to participate in crossover films. The films would be financed entirely by Sony, and Sony would keep virtually all of the film’s profits. Marvel, however, would hold complete creative control over the projects. And Disney would retain all Spider-Man merchandise profits

The deal worked perfectly for Spider-Man’s two solo films and three crossover appearances in the MCU. But when it came time to re-negotiate on August 20, Disney and Sony failed to reach an agreement. Despite the fact that this version of the character has been well-established as a member of the MCU, despite the fact it seems his story would be central to Phase Four of the franchise, it seems that control of Spider-Man will be going entirely back to Sony Pictures.

It’s not exactly clear what happened. The most substantiated claims state that Disney attempted to increase its share of the profits and financing from 0% to 50%. Sony, likely confused and offended by such a dramatic change, offered 25%. Disney walked away from the table. 

I don’t see why, but comic fans seem to be siding with Disney on this one. #SaveSpiderManFromSony trended across social media as people praised the current iteration of the character and his most recent films. I’m with them there — Tom Holland is perhaps the best Spider-Man and the best Peter Parker, we’ve seen in a movie. Getting to see one of my favorite heroes interact alongside the Avengers was special.

But I’m with Sony on this one. 

For the life of me, I can’t understand what more Disney wants. They had virtual control of the character and most of his supporting cast. They did not share in the profits of the films, but they also paid nothing for their production — they essentially made a movie exactly how they wanted, with zero financial risk to themselves. And on top of all this, they kept every cent of profits from crossover films featuring like “Avengers: Endgame” (the highest grossing movie of all time) and from Spidey merchandise. And if my spending habits are any indication, Disney is doing just fine.

Far more concerning are the recent comments made by Joan Lee, the daughter of the late Stan Lee. When she was asked to comment on the recent Sony-Disney split, she did not mince words regarding the studios and her father’s co-creations: “When my father died, no one from Marvel or Disney reached out to me. From day one, they have commoditized my father’s work and never shown him or his legacy any respect or decency. In the end, no one could have treated my father worse than Marvel and Disney’s executives.” 

It’s heartbreaking to hear that Stan Lee, the only reason for the existence of the $22 billion franchise in the first place, was not treated with all the respect he was due. There would be no Marvel Cinematic Universe — there would be no Marvel Comics — without Stan Lee. That Disney apparently showed such a craven disregard for his genius and his family is reason enough for them to lose access to his most famous creation. 

Lee continued on to say, “Marvel and Disney seeking total control of my father’s creations must be checked and balanced by others. … Whether it’s Sony or someone else’s, the continued evolution of Stan’s characters and his legacy deserves multiple points of view.” I’m inclined to agree. Disney’s recent acquisition of 21st Century Fox means that the Fantastic Four and X-Men will soon join the MCU. Maybe there’s stories to be told outside of this franchise. Maybe some characters should come to us from a different perspective.

Again, it’s not that I didn’t love every second of Spider-Man’s run in the MCU. I probably saw “Homecoming” and “Far From Home” four times each. There has never been a Peter Parker more true to the comics than Tom Holland’s. His personality, his mannerisms, his motivations feel exactly like an amalgamation of all the best versions of Peter I grew up with. But there were times in both movies where Spider-Man felt less like his own hero and more like Iron Man’s sidekick. There were times where I wasn’t sure if I was watching a Spidey move or two hours of “Avengers” falling action.

This is one of the greatest heroes of all time — along with Superman and Batman, he has transcended the genre to become a cultural icon. His villains are some of the most terrifying, and fascinating, in comics. He’s saved New York by himself as a teenager, I don’t know how many times. There are plenty of great stories for Peter Parker to fly solo on. 

I’m sure the next time Sony and Disney meet, they’ll walk away with a new, mutually advantageous agreement that returns the character to his place in the MCU. But if they don’t, and Sony produces the next film themselves, I won’t be worried. The only thing you really need to tell a great Spider-Man story is Spider-Man. He’s used to standing on his own. 

Patrick McKelvey splits his time between being a college senior and pretending to be a screenwriter. He majors in American studies and classics, and will be working in market research in New York after graduating. If you can’t find him at the movies, he can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @PatKelves17 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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