Is the Spider-Man Deal Breakdown Disney’s or Sony’s Fault?

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BY September 2, 2019

Fans reacted strongly to the news that Spider-Man might be leaving the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but we’ve reached the “thinkpiece” stage of internet grief. Articles are appearing all over the place arguing about whether this is Disney’s or Sony’s fault. Some argue that Sony is to blame, while others blame Disney’s “greed.” Others can’t seem to even understand why fans would care, because what it all boils down to are two mega-corporations fighting over hundreds of millions of dollars. While opinions differ everywhere, including among the staff here at Comic Years, let’s try to take an objective look at the situation.

Why Fans Care About the Spider-Man Deal

The reason why any of us are asking if this is Disney’s or Sony’s fault is not because fans are interested in the fiduciary future of mega corporations. Rather, these characters are ones that people care deeply about. Marvel Comics movies take up a significant place in the culture of the last 20 years. This means people literally grew up with these films. For older fans, their attachment to these characters goes back even further. The chance to see Spider-Man teaming up with the Avengers in a movie hearkens back to the comic (or cartoon) crossover events of our youth. These studios gave fans something they thought they’d never get to see, and they want more of it.

Given that Spider-Man: Far From Home ended on a cliffhanger, the idea that this story will be ultimately unresolved bums people out. Sure, we’ll get more MCU and Spider-Man movies, but not seeing Tom Holland’s version of the character go on feels like a missed opportunity. The Marvel characters are like a mythic pantheon and allowing them to be a part of each other’s stories helps make their world feel more real. When people use #SaveSpiderMan, what they are hoping will be saved is their experience and enjoyment of films like the recent Avengers or Spider-Man solo titles. They don’t want to see a rebooted version of the character or the Tom Holland version in a different “world” than he already established.

Is the Deal’s Dissolution Disney’s or Sony’s Fault?

Ultimately, any “hot take” that ascribes some level of blame to both studios is correct, but only in the way that stopped analog clocks are right twice per day. If you are capable of thinking of Sony or Disney as anything other than “evil corporations,” you can recognize this. Yet, just because it is neither Disney’s or Sony’s fault alone doesn’t mean that both sides don’t have valid arguments. Both companies have to deliver the most they can for their investors. The quality of the stories told by their film divisions may be important to them but aren’t as important as that.

Sony’s Argument Makes Sense for Sony

Disney's or Sony's fault 1 Image via Sony Animation

Sony purchased the rights to their Marvel characters, Spider-Man and his “amazing” friends a long time ago. Since then, they’ve made six films featuring the character without any input from Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige. None of those films made less than $700 million at the box office, though that doesn’t necessarily translate to quality. The highest-grossing Spidey film is, arguably, the worst of the Raimi trilogy. Six of the top ten money-making movies they’ve made are Marvel films, seven if you only count domestic grosses. Spider-Man is a huge asset for them. So, giving away the profits from them is simply a bad business decision. Since Disney also owns 100 percent of the merchandising rights to the character, Sony executives likely feel that’s enough. It’s better for their investors (not the fans or the character) to keep Spidey in-house if that means keeping the profits.

Disney’s Argument Makes Sense for Disney

Disney's or Sony's fault 1 Image via Sony

While Disney does own the marketing rights to Spider-Man, the structure of such a giant corporation is such that this revenue might as well belong to a different company. Sony, however, is a completely different company, which colors Disney’s attitude towards the negotiations. Of the top three money-making Spider-Man movies for Sony, Disney, essentially, made two of them. The creative power behind the scenes, the talent in front of the camera, and the larger world the character inhabits all come from Disney, specifically Kevin Feige. Despite their record-breaking year at the box office, their investors actually lost money this quarter. To those folks, Spider-Man: Far From Home’s billion-dollar box office seems like money they made handed away to a competitor.

Disney doesn’t just want a cut of the film’s profits. They already get five percent from it. But arguably Disney’s human resources put much more into what is ultimately Sony’s movie. They also want to share the financial burden of making the film, meaning if it flops both studios take the loss. Yet, since Disney took over the character’s creative direction, no Spider-Man movie flopped. The animated Into the Spider-Verse film worked without Disney input (official input, anyway). Yet, does that movie succeed without the MCU version of Spider-Man? The quality of the Feige-produced films only seems to get higher, whereas Sony’s track-record with solo Spider-films is sketchy at best.

Will They Work It Out?

Disney's or Sony's fault 1 Image by William Tung, via Flickr

The fact that we got a Spider-Man rights-sharing deal in the first place is itself a marvel. As the hacked Sony emails leaked by Wikileaks showed, these discussions happened over a period of years. They fell apart before but eventually the two studios worked it out. This could happen again, only there is clock on the negotiations. If Sony doesn’t develop a new live-action film in a certain period of time, they lose the rights to the character. Similarly, with so much set-up devoted to Spider-Man’s place in the MCU, the incredibly managed uber-narrative of that universe is disrupted (perhaps irreparably) with the character’s exit. The studios may not suffer the repercussions in a financial sense, but in terms of quality and legacy they might.

Ultimately, it’s the fans who suffer the most in this scenario, specifically the potential stories left on the table. Seeing Spidey hero it up with Daredevil, Deadpool, or the X-Men seemed inevitable, now it seems like an impossibility. The deluge of comic book movies will not stop, but fans will always wonder what could have been. And, if they make enough noise on social media, the skittish studio executives will do what they always do. They will give the mob what they want (in exchange for the mob’s money).

What do you think? Is this problem Disney’s or Sony’s fault? Or do you also think it’s both? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.

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