Hollywood hegemony: Spider-Man’s greatest nemesis

Why the breakdown in negotiations between Sony and Marvel Studios isn’t as simple as it seems

Illustration of Tom Holland as Spiderman
Olivia Staser/Staff

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Up until last Tuesday, 2019 was a banner year for fans of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. April’s “Avengers: Endgame” saw the web-slinger get resurrected after he was infamously turned to dust a year prior. “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” which featured Jake Gyllenhaal as the delightfully manic Mysterio, grossed over $1.1 billion in July. Then Deadline broke the news that due to a breakdown in negotiations between Disney and Sony, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man would potentially leave the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, and all hell broke loose.

Facebook events made by fans are pleading attendees to storm the pair of film studios. Petitions currently entreat signers to boycott Sony until the character is handed back to Disney. The general narrative among diehards is that Sony needs to “put story over money” — a hypothetical restructuring of priorities that essentially requires Sony to hand over its highest-earning property to Disney, no matter the cost or ramifications. And although many nerds — the writer of this article included — give the Disney-owned Marvel Studios massive props for its creative stewardship of Spider-Man, painting Sony as a bunch of greedy monsters, as opposed to the artistic stalwarts over at Disney, is an oversimplified sentiment that fails to take into account the larger factors at play.

According to Deadline, the breakdown in negotiations came when Disney demanded a much larger financial stake in upcoming Spider-Man films. The agreement that stood for the first two Tom Holland-led solo Spidey films — “Homecoming” and “Far From Home,” co-produced by Sony’s Columbia Pictures and Disney’s Marvel Studios, with Sony distributing — allotted Disney around 5% of first dollar gross from the films’ theatrical releases and the merchandising rights for the character, which is a massive source of income on its own. When it came time to renegotiate after the release of “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” Disney upped its ask significantly, requesting that future Spider-Man films be a 50/50 cofinancing arrangement between the two studios. In addition, Disney reportedly mentioned involvement in Sony’s wider Spider-Man universe, which includes 2018’s “Venom” as well as other planned films. Sony justifiably refused.

Four of the five top-grossing films of 2019 were Disney properties — the lone outlier in the top five being Sony’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” Disney also currently holds some of the most lucrative intellectual property, or IP, in Hollywood with its ownership of Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm and now 21st Century Fox, having absorbed the latter studio in a controversial merger earlier this year. Disney’s domination of Hollywood means that other studios — including industry mainstays like Sony, Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers — are currently struggling to stay competitive as Disney continues to relentlessly consolidate IP, box-office revenue and near-absolute power of the entertainment industry.

That’s why it’s outlandish to think that Sony should give up half of the profits from its biggest franchise to Disney, the studio that essentially owns everything else America wants to see in movie theaters. Disney does not need Spider-Man to stay alive, while Sony — the studio that produced a middling “Men in Black” revival in June and subsequently relied almost entirely on “Spider-Man: Far From Home” to fuel its box-office profits this summer — does. Spidey allows the studio to stay financially independent in an increasingly mouse house-dominated Hollywood.

So, Spidey stays with Sony. Does this mean that the quality of future Spider-Man movies will grievously suffer? It’s a possibility. Sony’s two “The Amazing Spider-Man” films are largely accepted to be failures. Similarly, while 2018’s “Venom” found somewhat of a cult following online, most acknowledge the film’s overall lack of quality. Both of these films were produced without any creative input from Marvel Studios or Disney — but so was “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” winner of the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and arguably the best Spider-Man movie ever.

And while Marvel Studios has found a teen movie template for Spider-Man that has stayed true to the character and won over countless fans and critics, there’s nothing to say that Sony won’t be capable of continuing this mold in future films. What’s more, there’s actually been well-founded criticism from some Spider-Man fans concerning the lack of class awareness in the MCU Spidey films and the increasing Iron Man-ization of Disney’s version of Peter Parker. Perhaps there’s a best-case scenario here where Sony’s future Spider-Man films keep the tone, the humor and Tom Holland, but nix the persistent focus on Stark that has irked a certain faction of the fandom. There’s also a distressingly likely worst-case scenario where Sony tries to shove in a “Venom” crossover or a hasty Sinister Six origin story.

In reality, the best arrangement for both studios — both creatively and financially — is for the status quo to remain and for Disney to be content with the deal that stood for “Homecoming” and “Far From Home.” The hard truth of the matter is that Sony’s future Spider-Man films will probably make less money than they would have had they been part of the MCU. Mainstream audiences — people that have better things to do than worry about box-office monopolies — will be understandably confused by watching Spider-Man movies that continue to feature Tom Holland, but don’t follow the same continuity as the past two entries he appeared in. And, as “Homecoming” and “Far From Home” have proven, the collaboration between Marvel Studios and Sony produced some very popular, very profitable and almost universally lauded Spider-Man films. But in asking Sony to forfeit a large chunk of the only property that allows it to remain competitive as a studio, Disney made it impossible for that collaboration to continue.

Spider-Man not being in the MCU is going to be weird and downright sad for the legions of us that loved his father-son relationship with Tony Stark or longed for his appearance as a fully-fledged, card-carrying member of the Avengers. And there are still a lot of questions — one being the status of director Jon Watts’s continuing involvement with the franchise — that need to be answered in order for the cinematic future of the character to become less murky.

But nerds can still take solace in one thing. Amid all the confusion about the wall-crawler’s future, there’s one thing that nobody is questioning: Spider-Man movies are profitable and, as long as they remain so, the powers that be in Tinseltown are going to keep making them.

So, instead of condemning Sony for making the smartest business decision available to them or organizing impassioned protests via online petitions, let’s try instead to spend our time getting excited about the inevitable flood of Spider-Man and Marvel Studios  content that will continue to grace our screens in the coming years.

But if you still feel that you must make a petition about something related to Sony, please consider making one asking the studio to cancel “Venom 2.” Now that would be a true public service.

Grace Orriss is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].