Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Does Whatever Disney Can’t

WOAH WHAT THE FUCK

The above is vaguely reminiscent of my initial response to last night’s news that Sony and Disney’s deal to creatively share Spider-Man, enabling him to feature in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (operated by Disney/Marvel Studios) while still being owned by Sony, is dead.

It was a landmark deal back in 2015: after years of clamouring for Spidey to “come home” (Spider-Man: Homecoming was always a very on-the-nose, double-pronged title), Disney agreed an arrangement which put them at a creative advantage and generated significant fan goodwill but nonetheless represented a financial liability to what they are otherwise used to and could achieve (or, as we know now, thought they could achieve with regards to Spider-Man).

Marvel Studios won’t pay Sony Pictures for the rights to put Spider-Man in “Captain America: Civil War,” the “Avengers” franchise or its other superhero films, as part of its new partnership with the studio, according to sources with knowledge of the deal. At the same time, Marvel won’t receive a cut of the box office for any of Sony’s films that feature Spider-Man. Sony won’t receive a percentage of the revenue Disney makes from Marvel’s films that have Spider-Man, either.

There may be some opportunities for Marvel to benefit financially from the Sony films, with payments tied to certain box office milestones. The financial relationship is likened by sources to the kind of compensation structure a producer would receive.

Marvel had originally wanted to buy back Spider-Man from Sony. But its resulting partnership, which was in the works since October, is just that — an arrangement that enables both Sony and Marvel to mutually benefit at the box office by having Spider-Man appear in their movies.

As per Variety’s 2015 write-up on the news. As it turns out, this wasn’t wholly accurate. From Deadline’s exclusive yesterday:

Disney asked that future Spider-Man films be a 50/50 co-financing arrangement between the studios, and there were discussions that this might extend to other films in the Spider-Man universe. Sony turned that offer down flat. Sources said that Sony, led by Tom Rothman and Tony Vinciquerra, came back with other configurations, but Disney didn’t want to do that. But Sony did not want to share its biggest franchise. Sure Disney would be putting up half the funding, but the risk is in how much you are going to make back in profit. Disney wasn’t at all interested in continuing the current terms where Marvel receives in the range of 5% of first dollar gross, sources said.

So, under the terms of the deal, Sony financed 100% of both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Far From Home but received 95% of their respective grosses, and was responsible for 50% of the creative decisions made. Disney paid for none of the production costs but nonetheless had to devote significant institutional energy and resources towards the creative development and marketing of films which were ultimately not their’s to make, given that equal energy and resources were going into every other MCU film, from which Disney receives 100% of the grosses. The difference between 95% and 100% of the revenue is, err, quite small, but clearly big enough not to satiate the Mouse.

This was a deal rooted in the creative possibilities of Spider-Man existing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which could only come about due to three unique contextual variables, two of which remain the case over four years on.

  1. Sony Pictures was in a dire reputational and financial state. The Amazing Spider-Man series had failed to catch on, critically, creatively, commercially, there were reports that the film division would be gutted altogether, and the company had been publicly embarrassed as a result of the 2014 hacking from North Korea, a moment in political history which ultimately had greater repercussions within the film industry because it directly led to the Spider-Man deal. The Interview, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, was a comedy about the two being hired to assassinate Kim Jong-Un. Obviously, North Korea, took issue with this, hacked into Sony’s computers and leaked heaps of emails and information which jeopardized the studio’s reputation, financial standing and many of the jobs within. Sony chief Amy Pascal got fired. Most pertinent were emails regarding Spider-Man, which revealed the absolute dearth of creativity and cluelessness about the direction to take the franchise (an Aunt May spin-off prequel, where she was a super-spy in the 1960s, was discussed. Yeah.). The emails also revealed attempts at cooperation between Sony and Disney but talks had broken down. Their publicizing, and the pits which Sony found themselves in, engineered the perfect situation for Sony to doff their cap and re-open talks.
  2. Kevin Feige is the most successful movie producer in Hollywood history, who carries significant sway at Disney. And “Feige loves Spider-Man,” as Deadline wrote yesterday. He is, at heart, a massive nerd who got big in the film business, and every decision made for the MCU has been a delicate balancing act between satisfying fan desires (including his own) and the corporate checklists imposed by Disney. Out of the top ten highest-grossing films of all time, four of them are Avengers movies, with Endgame the biggest ever. Black Panther was the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture. The MCU has a total box office gross of $22bn, putting it lightyears ahead of Star Wars, Disney’s other big cash cow, which has made $9bn. If Feige wanted to put Spider-Man in his MCU then Disney was going to find a way to accommodate him.
  3. Bob Iger’s long-term project as CEO of Disney has been to dramatically expand and invest in cinematic output through acquisitions of film studios. He oversaw buying Pixar for $7bn in 2007 (in hindsight, they could have paid less), $4bn for Marvel in 2009, another $4bn for Lucasfilm in 2012 and, most recently, $71bn for 20th Century Fox in 2019. Intentions have varied over time; buying Pixar made sense given their pre-existing distribution deal, and making Marvel and Star Wars movies was always about diversifying the Disney brand and appealing to boys (while Disney has always held a family-friendly image, being ‘just for girls’ is still relatively recent history). Buying Fox, however, was purely about enshrining Disney’s position as an entertainment monopoly which had come about as a result of those prior purchases and the exponential box office growth which they produced. Iger’s business plan has been innovative, noticing the financial potential which resided within these geek franchises, and reliably conservative, as franchises inherently are, even more so when taking into account the remakes of beloved animated movies from the back-catalogue. It is the ‘geek’ prefix which is vital here, though. Almost every cinematic property, franchise or not, under Disney’s belt has a devoted fanbase who will act as an unofficial, unpaid marketing division across digital media for every new release. Furthermore, geek culture was going mainstream (thanks to Blade, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings): membership of fan communities became highly coveted and the social stigma of association with these stories that went beyond passive engagement was rapidly being eradicated. Iger was, and is, well aware that keeping ‘the fans’ on-side has paid dividends in their commercial and cultural capital through A) passing fan-mandated purity tests of storytelling, thereby ensuring that sweet free marketing, and B) normalising the really-quite-bad monopoly Disney now has by focusing on the creative possibilities afforded through unilateral ownership (isn’t it great that the X-Men and Fantastic Four can meet the Avengers?). Pissing off the fans with The Last Jedi resulted in months of bad press and queries over the wisdom of Lucasfilm’s top branch (I love The Last Jedi and I’m well aware that it still made $1.3bn, was a critical success and the controversy was rooted in anti-progressive criticism which snowballed into mainstream discourse, where it remains, but that doesn’t change the fact it was negative press that Disney didn’t need), and I’m sure Iger is pleased the same has largely been avoided with Marvel.

BUT SONY AREN’T IN THE PITS ANYMORE

Venom earned a lack of critical success and lots of commercial success ($856m worldwide, which is incredibly high for a Spider-Man spin-off that doesn’t star Spider-Man) whereas Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse garnered lots of critical success and not a lot of commercial success ($375m worldwide, which is incredibly high for a Spider-Man movie which features multiple Spider-(wo)Men). But it nonetheless got Sony the coveted Best Animated Feature Oscar, and thus represented a significant shift in Sony’s fortunes. Both films proved, in their own ways, that Sony could independently produce successful Spider-Man movies without the help of Disney and Marvel, and the recent news that Andy Serkis will direct Venom 2, alongside Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s (creative geniuses behind Spider-Verse, The LEGO Movie, the good parts of Solo) upcoming Spider-Verse TV shows, demonstrates an ability to attract top talent to a creative universe which does not immediately seem to be particularly vast or appealing.

The feeling from Sony was that they bounced back to a place where they could strike on their own. “Tom is thinking ‘Okay, we’ve learned everything we need to from Kevin’s playbook. We did Venom on our own and we did Spider-Verse,’” comments a Sony insider.

As per tonight’s deep-dive into the mess from The Hollywood Reporter. Do two successes (only one of them being critically so) overrule the years of mismanagement of the Spider-Man franchise? Is there definitely no element of brashness and self-appraisal in walking away from a historic deal of inter-studio cooperation? The answer to both of those questions is no.

My initial reaction to the news was, as previously illustrated, one of surprise, given the equally-recent news that Spider-Man: Far From Home is the first Spidey movie to hit $1bn and the highest-grossing Sony movie ever. Why on earth would Sony walk away from the arrangement which allowed that to happen, one where they received almost all of that sweet money with minimal creative legwork? Especially when Men in Black: International, their other big franchise offering and attempt at a reboot, flopped. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will do just fine, and Jumanji: The Next Level may well hit the $1bn its predecessor just missed. But Spider-Man is their only other big bet, and it is without question that the overlap between ‘Tom Holland’s Spider-Man in the MCU’ and ‘$1bn+ box office success’ is rather significant, growing all the more distant once you lose those last three words from the first article.

It was also one of frustration. I placed the blame for the fallout squarely at Sony’s feet, seeing it as part of that same long-term pattern of poor brand management.

But perhaps that initial reaction was a misjudgement. Perhaps – and this goes against everything I had ever wanted as a child, when I dreamed that I could one day be Spider-Man, because I was a toddler with no concept of discerning between reality and fantasy, as well as everything up to February 2015 when my creative hopes were realised – Spider-Man is better off outside of the MCU.

SPIDEY IN THE MCU

I find it impressive, even a little admirable, that Sony chief Tom Rothman (who also oversaw all of those terrible X-Men and Fantastic Four movies in the 2000s) chose to walk away from the deal which rejuvenated the live-action Spider-Man franchise with Disney’s help, without which it is likely the opposite of rejuvenation would have occurred. From Disney’s perspective, Peter Parker was one character amongst many in Infinity War and Endgame. It’s difficult to quantify to what degree their successes can be owed to Spidey’s inclusion, ditto for Captain America: Civil War and the broader successes of Marvel’s Phase III.

Difficult, but not impossible. The death of Spider-Man was the most memorable emotional beat of Infinity War, thanks to Tom Holland’s improvised, “Mr Stark, I don’t feel so good…”. The line became a meme and a cultural touchstone in the year leading up to Endgame‘s release, something which surely influenced the decision to have Spider-Man swinging back to life as a key visual in the movie’s incredible Portals sequence.

Additionally, the decision to end Spider-Man: Far From Home on a cliffhanger signposted that Spider-Man had (has…?) a major role to play in the storytelling of the MCU going forward. To my knowledge, Kevin Feige nor any of his fellow producers said this on the record, but it was pretty evident that the character was being geared up as the post-Iron Man Marvel flagbearer, given Spidey’s real-world popularity and his in-universe role as Tony Stark’s protege. The thematic text of Far From Home revolves entirely around the death of Tony Stark and Peter Parker’s attempts at grappling with a world without his father figure, and the inclusion of Stark in Homecoming provided an MCU-friendly substitute for Uncle Ben by making him instrumental in Parker’s character development.

That development applied aesthetically, too. Rather than being hand-fashioned like Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s iterations before him, Holland’s Spidey outfits came from Tony Stark. Even from beyond the grave Parker designed a new suit using Stark tech on a Stark private plane and almost killed one of his classmates with Stark tech glasses bestowed upon him, in what has got to be one of the worst scenes Kevin Feige has ever signed off on.

Spider-Man has become so firmly embedded within the makeup of the MCU that it is going to prove a mighty task to take him out of it. It’s not impossible to conceive of a sequel where Peter Parker just never mentions Tony Stark, where Happy Hogan conspicuously disappears and where the public revelation of his secret identity by a Stark-inspired supervillain is never addressed, but it will be jarring and a clear indication of corporate malaise trickling down into storytelling. Equally, it’s certainly not impossible to conceive of the MCU course-correcting and forgetting about Spider-Man altogether – there are more than enough franchises, many of which share no narrative or geographical relation to Queens, Parker’s home – but it will feel weird, with a very evident hole in the middle of the story.

A story I am largely ambivalent about. I had always wanted to see Spider-Man in the MCU, but Homecoming and Far From Home are two of my least favourite MCU movies. They fail to be as visually or thematically interesting as Sam Raimi’s original trilogy, and they fail to faithfully adapt the trials and tribulations of Peter Parker (which Raimi’s movies also do very well). Instead of a poor-but-brainy kid from Queens, the MCU’s Parker is thoroughly middle-class and unremarkable. He attends what appears to be a private school (because no public one could afford field trips across Europe), relies heavily on Tony Stark’s technology in order to execute the most basic acts of heroism we’d expect from Spider-Man, and Uncle Ben, a character and a death which is unequivocally essential to visualise in any Spider-Man iteration in a way that just isn’t true for other orphaned superheroes, has been excised entirely. And then there’s also the terrible drone scene I mentioned earlier, along with the public reveal of his identity, removing one of the few defining individual characteristics which Spider-Man had left within the MCU (something that only occurred in the comics in 2006, after 43 years of web-slinging).

I think Tom Holland is fine. He seems very sweet in real life and his Peter Parker is broadly sweet too, albeit a little annoying from time to time. But this is all dragged down by the depiction of high school friendships in both movies, which feels very “how do you do fellow kids” rather than like the tone of The Breakfast Club that director Jon Watts had initially envisioned (remember the game of ‘F, Marry, Avoid’ in Homecoming?). Maybe I’m just stubborn, but nothing in either movie holds a candle to Raimi and Maguire’s Spider-Man movies. If this is Marvel’s big vision for Spider-Man then I don’t think I’ll be missing out on much to see him return to solo adventures.

DISNEY OWNS TOO MUCH STUFF

Disney owns too much stuff.

Is the vast majority of it good? Yes. Disney has bankrolled some truly fantastic blockbuster films throughout the 2010s and has overseen an eruption in innovative storytelling. They have set a creative and commercial benchmark which all other studios have struggled to reach. Even now, they are still the only film studio that truly understands the simple reality that in order for your film to make a lot of money then it has to be good.

Disney’s demand for a 50/50 split in production costs and box office revenue was incredibly risky, given that they do not own the property, but it is emblematic of how emboldened they feel as a result of the Fox acquisition. Disney knows it now wields a tremendous amount of power, maybe more than it has done at any point in its history. Disney knows it can play hardball. And Disney was told that it can’t have what it wants.

Spider-Man is not so essential to Disney’s box office dominance that his loss will inflict significant wounds, but it is the case that more money is to be made making Spider-Man movies than there is in not making Spider-Man movies. For all intents and purposes, the original deal, which the THR report also revealed was “only a four to five-page document,” was very good for both Disney and Sony. Given that Sony either doesn’t receive or receives something akin to Disney’s 5% of the box office gross of non-Sony movies featuring Spider-Man (which have so far constituted the majority of his appearances), there is nothing stopping Disney’s film chief Alan Horn from telling Kevin Feige to shove Peter Parker into many MCU movies as possible. Their decision to demand a leap in financial compensation from 5% to 50% (although the report also says that Disney were “looking for at least a 30 percent stake“) seems absurd, given that they already own the merchandising rights, the TV rights, and all rights that aren’t live-action movie rights to Spider-Man, as well as at least the lion’s share of their own movies’ grosses, if not the tiger’s share too…

…as well as all the other money Disney makes from owning almost every $1bn+ grossing film franchise on the planet that all generate equal amounts and more in merchandising and theme park revenue. It was an unequivocal act of hardball against a much, much smaller studio.

So let’s flip back to my opening three points explaining how that four to five-page document was created: Sony needed a hit, Kevin Feige was in the ascendency, and Bob Iger wanted to build a monopoly of geek franchises while keeping their fans happy. Sony has now got hits, relaxing its most immediate incentive for cooperation with Disney. Kevin Feige, though, has now concretely ascended, and if Disney’s monopoly is going to work out then it’s more important to keep the fans happy than it ever has been.

Ultimately, it is in Feige’s interest to avoid the storytelling headaches which extracting Spider-Man from the MCU will create, and he is now in a sufficient position of power within Disney’s cinematic hierarchy to lobby for talks to reopen. I will be surprised if he hasn’t been doing this today. Equally, perhaps this is what he’s been doing already, and, seeing that a deal wasn’t going to be made, he has made his peace with a Spidey-less MCU once more.

But the fans are angry. In a PR coup for Disney, the anger is being directed at Sony as the bad faith actor in the talks, likely fuelled partly by that aforementioned history of mismanagement and the intense passion they have for the MCU (in their minds, Disney would never jeopardize that, so it must be Sony’s fault). Of course, such fan anger is irrational and fluid, and there’s no reason that several days of discourse can’t turn Disney into the villain of the story.

The reality is that Disney does not need a 30% stake of another studio’s property, let alone 50%, and their aggressive negotiating tactic has resulted in losing a character who was clearly instrumental to Marvel’s short-and-long-term storytelling strategy. It is also the reality that Disney’s best interests, in terms of box office receipts and in pleasing fans, are to forge a deal with Sony to keep Spider-Man in the MCU; but, at the end of the day, it’s not impossible that this won’t happen and these fans will have to come to terms with a Spidey-less MCU as well, and it’s equally not impossible to envision the wells of anger at Sony running dry once tangible storytelling impacts come into play, particularly if Sony make more successful spin-offs. If they do a good job with Venom 2 and delving deeper Into the Spider-Verse, will fans mind as much? They will mind a bit, for sure, but I’m not sure Disney will keep escaping the blame in this scenario.

I think a deal will be reached eventually. The pressure from Feige, from the fans, and from the talent themselves (if Tom Holland speaks out against the move then it nullifies Sony’s entire negotiating position) will bring both sides back to the table, where they will recognise that it’s better for both of them to work together than it is to split up. But that’s not necessarily the best course, with Disney’s monopoly over the entertainment industry being a serious cause for concern, encompassing jobs, creative development and opportunities, the cinematic landscape, and even copyright.

Ironically, had Disney not lobbied extensively for alterations to the copyright law in the late 1990s, they’d be able to make as many Spider-Man movies as they liked. The very laws which govern what entertainment is made and how were shaped, in part, by Disney, the most obvious demonstration of how deeply the company has embedded itself within American industry. Its deep embedding extends to our cultural psyche, too. Disney has achieved what no other company on the planet, sans Apple, has achieved: it has a personality. ‘Disney film’ is its own genre, and the name itself evokes warm nostalgia for our childhoods and imagery of fantastical worlds. We are coded to respond positively to Disney, which is why I initially lashed out at Sony, because how could Disney be in the wrong? All of my favourite superheroes live there.

It is not healthy for any industry to be dominated by one actor, and I’m of the belief that a democratised economy (whether we’re talking socialism or just sticking true to the actual principles of free-market capitalism) makes for a better economy. The global film economy would grow a little less democratic were Sony to acquiesce to Disney’s demands, and maybe we should be thankful for that.

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