By the end of the year, Marvel Studios will have released four films and six Disney (DIS)+ television series. With that prodigious volume, particularly in a COVID compressed year, it’s fair to ponder whether or not the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown too big to fail or, if like everything else in Hollywood, no good thing can last forever.
In the grand scheme of the diligently interconnected and meticulously planned MCU, December’s Spider-Man: No Way Home marks a rare blind spot shrouded in the unknown. The film will fulfill the public pact between Disney and Sony that allows the two studios to share the rights to Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. What comes next for Marvel Comics’ most famous character on the big screen is anyone’s guess.
On Friday, Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group President Sanford Panitch vaguely admitted that “there actually is a plan” to bring Holland’s Spidey into Sony’s fledgling universe of Marvel characters that encompasses Tom Hardy’s Venom, Jared Leto’s upcoming Morbius and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s recently announced Kraven the Hunter. “I think now maybe it’s getting a little more clear for people where we’re headed and I think when No Way Home comes out, even more will be revealed,” Panitch told Variety.
To better understand the nebulous situation, we want to explore the different routes that could be taken and what they might mean for the future of the character and beyond.
Why Disney & Sony should keep sharing Spider-Man
Before we dive into the deep end, it’s worth remembering that we don’t yet know how the character’s journey will play out within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Spider-Man: No Way Home—which is heavily rumored to delve into the multiverse, feature characters from various Spidey-franchises such as Jamie Foxx’s Electro and Alfred Molina’s Dock Ock, as well as previous iterations of Peter Parker—could go in a completely unexpected direction that sets up the next stage of the character’s journey. Disney and Sony’s collaborations have proved extremely fruitful for both sides in a way that could set a precedent for more creative agreements between them, and even other companies and franchises, moving forward (more on that in a bit).
“When you get the combined power of bringing two entities that serve as the custodians of Spider-Man together, it is a very powerful combination that individually may not have enough heft on the creative and marketing sides,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, told Observer.
“The idea of actually removing Spider-Man from the MCU seems like a big potential mistake.”
Spider-Man: Far From Home, which served as an epilogue of sorts for Avengers: Endgame, became Sony’s highest-grossing film in studio history with $1.13 billion worldwide while Spider-Man: Homecoming earned a healthy $881 million in global ticket sales. Of the eight theatrical Spider-Man movies released by Sony, they rank first and third in unadjusted total gross. The standalone MCU Spidey flicks average $362 million at the domestic box office, dwarfing The Amazing Spider-Man franchise ($232 million) yet still behind Sam Raimi’s original trilogy ($371 million), per Comscore data. Far From Home is the second leggiest solo Spidey flick ever with a 4.2x domestic multiplier, or the multiple of the film’s final gross to its debut numbers. It was also the eighth most-profitable film of 2019, per Deadline, while Homecoming was the seventh most-profitable flick of 2017.
Long story short: the Disney-Sony deal has been immensely successful. Of course, that doesn’t preclude Sony from exclusively reclaiming the character.
“Ultimately, having Spider-Man be part of the MCU has been a tremendous fulfillment of fan wishes and audience satisfaction,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro, told Observer. “It should always remain on the table as a viable storytelling option, but so should the ability to let the character and all related creative assets enjoy their own time in the sun.”
Robbins notes that the lore of Peter Parker is rich enough to justify both approaches and, given the trajectory of the MCU’s bigger story arcs, it’s always possible that there could be more than one version of Spider-Man traipsing across the big screen. This was the basis for Sony’s Oscar-winning animated hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which is arguably the greatest of all the Spidey flicks. Even DC has proven that contemporary audiences are open to multiple versions of the same hero across different mediums and storylines. The comics themselves provide the easiest solution as most comic fans are aware of multiple Spider-Men running around all at once (Spider-Man Unlimited, Untold Tales of Spider-Man, etc.).
“The idea of actually removing Spider-Man from the MCU seems like a big potential mistake,” Kendall Phillips, a professor at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts who teaches Rhetoric of Film: Marvel Cinematic Universe, told Observer. Phillips acknowledges the previous success Sony has enjoyed with standalone Spidey flicks, but notes that many current fans associate the character closely with Tony Stark, Star Lord, Thanos and the MCU. He does, however, see the potential in a multi-Spider-Man set-up.
“The prospect of a continuing Spider-Man adventure related to the MCU and separate from other more Spider-Man centered films would fit with that long-standing comic book tradition,” Phillips said. “Of course, this assumes Tom Holland is willing to sign-up for a long tour of duty in the red and blue tights.”
Why Disney and Sony should not continue sharing Spider-Man
Spider-Man is widely considered the most popular Marvel Comics character of all, so enthusiasm surrounding the property is largely evergreen. Sam Raimi’s trilogy in the 2000s proved that the character has enough audience goodwill to thrive on his own in much the same way that standalone Batman franchises have succeeded without any crossover elements from other DC properties. Yet now that fans have become accustomed to seeing Spider-Man interact with their other favorite Marvel characters, a clean break may not be so simple.
“Sony needs Spider-Man more than Disney does. Desperately so.”
“In my book, everything comes down to strong storytelling centered around a core vision,” Robbins said. “That’s true for standalone films, contained series and broader movie universes alike. I don’t doubt that a universally beloved character like Spider-Man can succeed on his own again without having to play a role in mass-ensemble movies, and if events of the MCU organically lead him away from the Disney side of the Marvel brand for awhile, it might not be such a detriment to the Spider-Man brand so long as the custodians of it remain committed to a high narrative quality.”
At the same time, Hollywood is a bottom-line business and the cynic in us all would be remiss if we didn’t at least entertain the possibility that Panitch’s comments were a public negotiating tactic to get a better deal for continuing the partnership with Marvel. Sony has long been trying to get its own shared cinematic Marvel universe off the ground, yet expensively ambitious development plans were discarded after The Amazing Spider-Man 2 underwhelmed financially and critically. That’s what led Sony to negotiate with Disney in the first place.
But if Sony truly isn’t interested in eventually selling off Sony Pictures, a notion CEO Kenichiro Yoshida reinforced last week, then why continue splitting the profits of its most valuable property with a rival?
“As far as IPs go, there are none on the Sony lot that are comparable to the Web Slinger,” Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told Observer. “Sony needs Spider-Man more than Disney does. Desperately so. In terms of pop culture relevance, it’s the only way Sony can compete with the likes of Disney and WB. Why share in those profits, honestly?”
Staying in partnership with Disney means Sony is also under the constraints of Marvel’s strict guidelines, Bock explains. On a long enough timeline, it could become creatively stifling. Ultimately, it comes down to money and that is the deciding factor in regards to commercial entertainment.
“If Into the Spider-Verse proved anything, it was that Sony could venture far from what comic book movies are ‘supposed’ to be and still have unquantified success,” Bock said. “I like the path Sony is on, even if it means less crossovers with characters outside the Spidey Universe.”
What the “Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters” (SPUMC) tells us
As previously mentioned, Sony has long lusted after its own shared cinematic universe populated by the 900 Marvel characters it owns the rights to as a result of its Spider-Man acquisition. This includes a planned Sinister Six spinoff set up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that was ultimately cancelled.
However, the trailer for Morbius teased an appearance from Michael Keaton’s Vulture, who first appeared in the MCU’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. September’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage hopes to build on the 2018 film’s shocking success ($856 million worldwide). And January’s Morbius will expand the burgeoning SPUMC. The connecting webs have only just started spinning.
“The connected universe approach can be hugely successful. But it also constricts you.”
Yet the success of 2012’s The Avengers kicked off a heated race across Hollywood to chase Marvel’s shared cinematic universe success. It was an endeavor that proved bumpy for DC Films (the upcoming Flash film will serve as a soft-reboot of sorts to set things right) and disastrous for Universal’s Dark Universe. It’s fair to wonder if Sony is now chasing a trend it would be better off not trying to replicate.
“Universes are very fragile,” Dergarabedian said. “It’s not just connecting the dots between a ton of characters and easily recreating another Avengers. The connected universe approach can be hugely successful. It expands the realm of characters and where you can go creatively. But it also constricts you by locking you into a shared universe that has to connect narratively and logistically. It’s both limitless and limiting.”
On one hand, Sony creating its own Marvel-verse could enhance the brand value of each and every individual Sony picture if fans know it is one episodic chapter in a wider sprawling narrative. On the other hand, Sony knows all too well after The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that the strength of your franchise is usually based on the quality of your last movie. One misstep and you’ve lost hundreds of millions of dollars.
At the end of the day, it really comes down to what’s best for the characters and movies and what’s best for the fans. If you don’t get the fans on board, you lose. This is not an audience that will show up for everything (sorry: Bloodshot, Hellboy reboot, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, etc).
Could more rival studios collaborate?
Zooming out from an industry perspective, we begin to wonder whether or not Disney and Sony’s successful partnership may inspire other entities to follow suit. Much in the same way that we’re seeing new dynamic windows, hybrid releases, and shared universes across the big and small screen, the rules of business have changed so fast and so dramatically in recent years. Now, both standard and unusual times often call for unique strategies no one saw coming. Overall, working together can often result in a more profitable situation.
“We’ve seen comic book universes develop, and those are now supposedly branching off into multiverses,” Robbins said. “Who’s to say at some point in our lifetime there isn’t a cinematic crossover of even more epic proportions featuring both Marvel and DC characters? The legal, business, and creative legwork to make that work between Disney and Warner Bros. would be earth-shatteringly complicated, but given the evolution of these types of movies so far, it doesn’t seem impossible to me.”
Movie Math is an armchair analysis of Hollywood’s strategies for big new releases.