Spider-Man is the most famous superhero on the Marvel roster. Before the big screen Marvel Cinematic Universe made household names of heroes like Iron Man, Black Widow and even Ant-Man, the webslinger was definitely the marquee name from Stan Lee's back catalogue. DC Comics had the trinity of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in their favour, but Marvel was the house of Spider-Man years before they put Robert Downey Jr. in a cave with a box of scraps.
With that in mind, it's fair to say fans are furious at the news that Spider-Man might be on his way out of the MCU, just a few years after he arrived. Sony and Marvel Studios owners Disney are currently locked in a very public impasse – and this is one that no one believes can be solved by Boris Johnson waving a kipper above his head.
Marvel Studios and its fans rejoiced in February 2015 when a deal was reached with Sony to allow Spidey to enter the MCU. Columbia Pictures – the movie production arm of Sony – has held the rights to produce Spider-Man movies since the turn of the millennium, years before the enormous shared universe was even a glint in the eye of the top Marvel bosses. Indeed, future MCU head honcho Kevin Feige had only just been hired to work as a producer on the X-Men franchise at the time.
The sense of celebration in 2015 was palpable. Soon, rising star Tom Holland had been cast as Spidey, making his first appearance a year later in Captain America: Civil War and headlining his own film with 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming. He quickly became a crucial part of the Avengers films and his most recent solo outing – Spider-Man: Far From Home – has earned the honour of being the first Spidey film to crack the $1bn mark at the global box office. It's the highest-grossing film in the history of Sony's lifespan as a movie studio.
But there is trouble in paradise. Reportedly, Disney is seeking to change the terms of the agreement, financing operation that would allow the Mouse House to split the profits with Sony and nabbing more than the 5% of box office dollars they currently bring in for Spider-Man films. Reports are inconsistent on how much Disney asked for and how much Sony was willing to give, but Sony is standing firm and this could spell the end of Spider-Man in the MCU. Certainly, Kevin Feige's words at the D23 Expo this weekend suggest that he is willing to let Spidey go, but the possibility that his every utterance is merely a negotiating tactic cannot be dismissed. Theories abound, in the conspiracy corner of Film Twitter, that Disney allowed the news of the stand-off to leak out, expecting their fans to put pressure on Sony.
Indeed, the backlash arrived quickly, passionately and firmly in favour of Disney, at the expense of the smaller studio. The hashtag #BoycottSony began trending on Twitter and even MCU star Jeremy Renner joined the chorus of voices urging Sony to back down and allow Spider-Man to return “home” to the MCU. For years, the ongoing thesis among superhero movie fans has been that it's best for these characters to exist under one roof, allowing them to interact, fight and mingle in all sorts of interesting ways.
It's a compelling argument but let's, just for a second, entertain the possibility that this isn't the worst movie news of the year. After all, Disney has started announcing sequels to those live-action remakes we don't need and they've also subsumed one other major studio already this year. The notion that Sony should simply roll over and let Mickey Mouse stomp merrily on its throat is, at the very least, one that seems misguided against the current landscape of job losses for former Fox staffers and bumpy box office for every other studio this summer.
Sony has been working hard in recent years on building its own Spider-Man universe, without the privilege of using Tom Holland's version of the webslinger. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature earlier this year, bringing the Miles Morales incarnation of the character to the big screen for the first time, as well as unveiling several very different takes on Peter Parker. There was also Venom, starring Tom Hardy, which transformed the titular villain into an antihero, rather than the straight bad guy he was when he appeared in Spider-Man 3, against the initial wishes of director Sam Raimi.
Into the Spider-Verse
Spider-Verse was nearly universally beloved by audiences and critics and, while Venom received negative reviews, it earned an impressive $856m at the worldwide box office and embraced a more adult tone than other recent superhero blockbusters. It's clear that Sony is willing to try different things in order to make its comic book universe work, with the upcoming movie featuring Jared Leto as Morbius the Living Vampire set to be something else entirely.
The elephant in the room – or, notably, not in the room – when it comes to these Sony movies is the absence of the live-action Peter Parker. One of the biggest questions going into Venom was how they would establish the character without Parker to oppose and, though the film does an enjoyable job of leaning into the weirdness of the symbiote, the inclusion of Spidey would certainly have added an interesting complexion to the world. With Andy Serkis on board to direct Venom 2, the prospect of a Tom vs. Tom scenario involving Hardy and Holland is mouth-watering.
While Sony is spinning the Spider-Man rogue's gallery off in dozens of directions, Marvel conversely has shown very little imagination in what it has chosen to do with the character, especially in his solo movies. These are stories that service the big, ensemble films rather than compelling tales in their own right. This year's Far From Home, especially, felt like a half-baked slice of silliness designed solely to take the form of a cool-down after the emotional hammer blows of Avengers: Endgame, just as Ant-Man and the Wasp did after Infinity War. It wasn't tied in strongly enough to the shared universe to feel essential just a few months after the biggest movie of all time, but it was also too closely wedded to the events of that film to serve its purpose as a straightforward adventure romp.
Andrew Garfield's first outing as the Amazing Spider-Man, which would go on to gain its own level of infamy
Disney and Feige have received a lot of the credit for the reinvention of Spidey, but do they really deserve it? It's certainly true that the underwhelming Amazing Spider-Man movies left the character flat on his proverbial backside, disappointing fans and critics while earning lukewarm box office totals considering the heft and name recognition of the character. The financial end of the bargain has certainly been spun around by Disney and the films have been well received, though they certainly suffer from sitting firmly within the well-established confines of the Marvel formula.
Creatively, it's Tom Holland who deserves to be lauded for turning Spider-Man into a superhero capable of reducing the world to a blubbering wreck in the final moments of Avengers: Infinity War. Holland's take on Parker and his friendly neighbourhood alter ego is effervescent and likeable in the extreme, marking the best union of Parker and Spider-Man that any of the actors to play the character have managed to achieve.
This positions Holland as a potential kingmaker in this ongoing studio scuffle. Depending on which source you're inclined to believe, Holland is contracted for either one more film as Spider-Man, or another two. This incarnation of Spidey can only continue to ride high for as long as Holland remains motivated to give the role his everything, so his continued commitment could be a big bargaining chip if there is going to be a thawing in the currently icy relationship between the two studios. Given Holland's ongoing relationship with Disney – he's appearing in Pixar's Onward next year and loudly supported the company at D23 – he may have hitched his wagon to a horse already.
The superhero fandom has seemingly chosen its side in the debate, with #BoycottSony the overriding message. It's a shocking example of people who love to watch underdogs win on screen choosing to back the side with all of the power when a real world scenario begins to play out.
But it's also interesting to note that we may be in a position where it's actually Disney that needs Spider-Man more. Sony has managed to build its universe without stepping on the MCU's toes, whereas Marvel has just positioned Spider-Man as a lynchpin of its new Avengers line-up – a replacement for his departed mentor. Spider-Man's disappearance will leave a huge void in the MCU, whereas Sony's universe has already managed to plug that gap by chucking Tom Hardy into a tank of lobsters and letting Jared Leto embrace his own latent vampirism. I expect he didn't need to have a costume made for Morbius.
It's true that excising Spider-Man from the MCU going forward robs cinema's biggest franchise of a huge cog at the heart of its all-consuming multiplex juggernaut. However, it also presents a whole raft of new opportunities over at Sony, if Tom Holland's universally beloved take on the webslinger returns to their world.
The most important thing to bear in mind for fans is this – whatever the studio arrangements, Spidey is arguably the most bankable superhero character on the planet. He's not going anywhere.