Split + Spin: Why Marvel and SONY are between Arach and a hard place…

John Mosby tries to make spider-sense of the complicated rights issues at the heart of last weekend's Disney / SONY spin...

It wasn’t meant to last forever...”  So shrugged Marvel Studios‘ head honcho and guiding hand Kevin Feige during a presentation at D23 when the inevitable subject of the imminent split between Marvel and SONY over future  Spider-man movies (original report further below) was raised – after an eventful week for the two empires and their joint-custody radioactive arachnid.

That’s all well and good but it’s clear that it was meant to last a lot longer than it has…

Though the now-likely (but actually, not-quite-definite) divide is being handled with all the grace of responsible parents who want to assure anyone who’ll listen that ‘mummy and daddy studio don’t love each other the same way anymore, but they’ll still always love you’ the fact is that IF it really is the end of Peter Parker in the MCU, then are there are quite massive repercussions on a creative and wider business level to consider? Some levels of adjustment or even redevelopment or at least some awkward shuffling?

Creatively, the newest version of Spider-man (seen to date in  Spider-man: Homecoming, Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers movies and Spider-man: Far From Home) has been intrinsically linked to Marvel, to the extent that Peter quickly became a protege who looked to Tony Stark for fatherly advice and it was the billionaire’s tech that helped equip the web-slinger with his costume and tools of the trade… not to mention the fact he’s basically qualified as a fully-formed Avenger  and his aunt is dating Tony’s right-hand man. It’s entirely possible to tell Spider-man stories without other Marvel Studios characters in the mix (indeed, it might be good for Peter and his alter-ego to prove their worth in a standalone story) but the sheer supporting framework and latest version of the mythology means you can’t simply remove all the inherent DNA you’ve used to get this far.

One factor that needs to be clarified is that the SONY/Marvel situation applies to the films only, which is a pivotal detail going forward.

One of the D23 announcements was with regards to Marvel‘s upcoming What If..? animated series for Disney+ which borrows its premise from the Marvel comic of the same name (which would regularly take ideas and stories from the ‘main’ Marvel comics and then change an outcome or factor and ask what might have happened in that alternate story).  The series plans to take various scenarios, many familiar to MCU audiences, and give them that twist (such as different outcomes to Civil War, the Infinity saga and an idea inspired by the comics infamous Marvel Zombies apocalypse) but  that’s for television not for film. That means the character of Spider-man can be used by Marvel without SONY‘s involvement – because of its platform and, arguably, the source material was in the comics before the movies took the same elements. To muddy the waters a little, though MCU stories will be reflected, it’s not entirely clear how many of the existing MCU cast will voice their counterparts for this (certainly some, such as Hayley Atwell  for a Captain Carter/Britain  story are lined up) but no-one is confirming if Tom Holland will reprise Peter Parker for the Spider-man episodes. Interestingly, SONY had apparently mused on having a series based on its hugely successful  and Oscar-winning animated film Into the Spider-verse. They can’t do that without Disney permission because it’s not for the big-screen.

One also needs to note that the webslinger forms a major part of the ‘Avengers‘ experiences that are spreading out at key theme parks across the globe. Removing Spider-man from such exhibits and attractions would have been problematic and take out a key, popular element. But leaving him front and centre also has repercussions, reminding attendees of the somewhat acrimonious split everywhere else. It seems the latter is the current, pragmatic course of action with Spider-man staying in proposed place at the venues – the D23 event detailing plans for the initiative that still include the wall-crawler in a variety of ways.

So far we know that the ‘Avengers Campus‘ will open in 2020, first in Anaheim’s California Adventure location and later with a similar set-up at Disneyland Paris. The US site location appears to be taking over the real estate area previously taken by the A Bug’s Life exhibit and, according to press releases, will see a ‘Worldwide Engineering Brigade‘ (aka W.E.B, geddit?)  involved in the new area, it’s theme is of helping shape the next generation of Avengers and will also have visitors collecting rogue ‘Spider-bots’. It’s not entirely clear if the branding will lend itself more to the comics characters than the movie characters (though that movie-universe was obviously the first, practical intention) – but that may be a large-writ, small-print issue for the lawyers and marketeers to decide.

It’s unlikely that Marvel Comics will react in the same way as they did over the rights problems they had with Twentieth Century Fox. After the near-bankruptcy of Marvel in the 1990s, Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights to put out a Fantastic Four movie. The studio made two FF movies (with Michael Chiklis, Jessica Alba, a pre-Captain America Chris Evans and Ioan Gruffud)  which both got a mixed reception. They then rebooted the concept with 2014’s almost total-reinvention with an all-new cast and origin story. Though denied at the time, it’s now generally accepted that the cancellation of Marvel ComicsFantastic Four (a signature mainstay of the company for decades) in the same year was not because of sales issues but because the owner of the company, Ike Perlmutter, descended from his office into the office bullpen and decreed that Marvel weren’t going to print stories that could aid the profits of a rival company.  There was also a downplaying of both the FF and X-Men (another Fox film property) in many aspects of that year’s 70th Anniversary events at Marvel when it became almost impossible to ignore their absence.It was only after Fox‘s latest efforts to reboot the characters spectacularly crashed and burned that the FF returned to the mainstream comics. (Subsequently, that specific problem was rendered moot when Disney, who now owned Marvel, also bought Fox). While ‘losing’ the Fantastic Four was no little thing for the company – and remained highly controversial even within the company itself – a petulant fit cancelling Spider-man comics  is NOT going to happen – it wouldn’t just be unwise but more akin to business insecticide.

Tom Holland was front and centre at D23, scheduled to appear long before the split to promote animated film Onward. He deftly avoided serious or detailed comments, simply thanking fans for their support. (“It’s been a crazy week,” he noted, “but I want to let you know I’m grateful from the bottom of my heart. I love you 3,000”). Career-wise, it’s possible the Marvel situation could hit his pocket, though he and SONY indicate that they fully intend for him to continue in the role in some way shape or form. Equally, Holland has other projects such as the big-screen version of hit adventure game Uncharted.

Realistically, while the situation is serious and there’s some jostling of egos and narratives to get through in the short term with fallout for some time to come, it’s almost certain that some accommodation will be come to – either a last-minute compromise or, at least – mirroring the ‘parks’ situation – a longer-term practical workaround of sorts.  Why, because the alternative is unthinkable – there’s too much for everyone to lose, fans and business alike. But will we see Peter  continue to be a main player in the MCU, will Aunt May and Happy Hogan get to continue their romance..?  Jon Favreau himself remains optimistic, but in the end, any solution will perhaps be more likely to be an arrangement to remain polite and mend fences rather than remove the fences entirely.

The future could be still amazing, astonishing, spectacular or superior.  Only time and negotiators will tell. In the meantime, there’s an extended cut (around nine extra minutes of material!) of Spider-man: Far from Home playing in some US cinemas for this weekend…which will likely make SONY and Marvel proud.

And money.

 


*ORIGINAL REPORT*

There’s little doubt that integrating Spider-man (Marvel Comics‘ flagship character) into the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a major success for both the studios involved and the audiences who flocked to watch the movies involved.  For a long time it ahd seemed impossible – the problem being that Marvel had sold off the screen rights to their key characters in an effort to avoid bankruptcy in the 1990s.  SONY owned the likes of Spider-man, Twentieth Century Fox had The Fantastic Four, The X-Men etc. However when Marvel‘s literal fortunes changed and their fledgling Marvel Studios began to hit big,  producing cutting-edge films, the divides were apparent. The likes of Thor, Captain America, The Hulk and Iron Man could interact and become The Avengers – but they could never meet Wolverine, Phoenix, Peter Parker or Reed Richards. In some cases, characters such as Quicksilver DID appear in different studio movies (because, comics-wise they could be considered to be supporting characters in both X-Men and Avengers stories)  but they were interpreted in completely different ways by different actors.

Finally a deal was done, with SONY agreeing to let Spider-man appear in the Avengers-related movies and a deal was struck to share some of the profits of his solo films. Kevin Feige, head honcho at Marvel Studios, helped shape some of the Spider-man stories and made the character a key element in the recent Avengers movies and with notable MCU elements in the Spider-man outings. With Disney then acquiring Twentieth Century Fox, it appeared that everyone was getting along nicely and the possibilities were endless.

Not so much.

In a situation that largely comes down to the profit-sharing side of the equation, it now looks as if Spider-man will no longer play any active part in the MCU films and vice versa and – in a blow to multi-studio romances –  that any coupling between Aunt May and Happy Hogan has been nixed. While the studios shared the cost of making the recent Spider-man movies featuring Tom Holland as Peter Parker ( Spider-man: Homecoming and this year’s Spider-man: Far from Home), SONY weren’t happy with the amount of money Marvel would take in profits from SONY‘s most successful money-earner. Though huge profits were being made, it looks as if Sony has decided that a far-ranging deal involving integrating not just Spider-man but his supporting cast in to future MCU movies would see them losing control of their prize while feeling uneasy about giving Disney MORE money than they already had from an earlier agreement. With the rights to make and keep all of the profits from the solo Spider-man outings (and any supplementary titles and supporting characters like Venom) by not maintaining the wider  Marvel/Sony agreement, it looks as if they feel they don’t need the Avengers and extended Marvel cast to keep the franchise going. Indeed, it is believed they are already greenlighting TWO more Spider-man / Tom Holland movies

Some are suggesting this is just a negotiating tactic in a longer-game strategy and – with negotiations apparently not totally concluded – that a resolution may still come about to suit all concerned and industry pundits are pointing out that both studios have some solid reasons for maintaining their new stances (Disney’s certainly efforts raised Spider-man‘s profile and profitability and SONY would likely have maintained the existing deal if Disney didn’t want to change the terms) – so time will tell if the growing Marvel Universe splinters once again over dollars and dimes…

SONY‘s official response came later in the day:

“Much of today’s news about Spider-Man has mischaracterized recent discussions about Kevin Feige’s involvement in the franchise. We are disappointed, but respect Disney’s decision not to have him continue as a lead producer of our next live action Spider-Man film. We hope this might change in the future, but understand that the many new responsibilities that Disney has given him – including all their newly added Marvel properties – do not allow time for him to work on IP they do not own. Kevin is terrific and we are grateful for his help and guidance and appreciate the path he has helped put us on, which we will continue.”

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