The rights to Marvel superheroes are kind of a confusing situation. Disney has the rights to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but not totally. Universal has the theme park rights to the Marvel comic characters in Orlando and a deal with Disney not to produce any Marvel theme park content too close to their parks. Sony still has some of the rights to Spider-Man. Is your head hurting yet?
Sony and Disney have struck a deal for the past few films that allows Disney to make Spider-Man movies — which is how we got Peter Parker in Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies like Avengers:Endgame. Then, in 2019, the dealings fell apart. It looked like Disney and Sony weren’t going to reach an agreement and that Tom Holland’s Spider-Man would be removed from the MCU. Until, suddenly, they DID make an agreement. Alright, alright, we’ll back up. How did we get here and what does it even all mean??
Did you know there are two totally different Spider-Men right now from two totally different companies existing at the same time? Any that, technically, is totally allowed and OK? It’s mega confusing if you don’t know the backstory and what’s going on. So we’re going to explain WHY Sony owns (part) of Spider-Man, WHAT they can do with him, and what that means for Disney.
Sony’s Ownership of Spider-Man
So, how does Sony have the rights to Spider-Man movies instead of Marvel even though he’s originally a Marvel character? Didn’t Disney get Spidey when they bought Marvel?? It all started back in the late 1990s when Marvel Entertainment Group opted to distribute the rights to their comics to various studios to be used in films.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Marvel optioned up the comics to studios from the 1970s through the 1990s. Spider-Man was picked up in the late 1970s, but the rights automatically returned to Marvel since a film wasn’t made in the allotted time period. Eager to get Spider-Man on the silver screen, Marvel sold the rights to Sony in 1998.
The deal between Marvel Entertainment Group and Sony meant that the studio could produce as many Spider-Man films as they wanted. Sony got the film and merchandise rights, while Marvel kept the comics rights. It was under this agreement that Marvel continued to produce comics and Sony brought us the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films.
The deal stipulates that Sony keeps the rights to Spider-Man as long as they continue to produce a Spider-Man movie at least every five years — which they’ve done so far. We’ve already seen Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). That’s why Sony still has the rights!
If Sony were to miss this window, the rights would revert back to Marvel. Now, Spider-Man has been one of Sony’s most successful and profitable film franchises of all time so those rights are a big asset to the company. In fact, the studio already has an Untitled Into the Spider-Verse sequel set for 2022 (but more on that in a bit!).
The Split of the Spider-Man Rights
Disney’s involvement came when the Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel Entertainment for approximately $4 billion in 2009, per CNN. Disney now owning Marvel meant they had the comic rights to Spider-Man but Sony still had merchandising and film.
The Marvel/Sony deal changed in 2011 when Sony sold the merchandising rights to Spider-Man back to Marvel (and therefore Disney), while the company was dealing with significant financial losses, according to Variety. It stands now that Marvel (Disney) owns the comics and merchandise rights and Sony still has those film rights. That’s why you could find Disney branded Into the Spider-Verse toys at a Disney Store. It wasn’t their movie, but they own the rights to the toys.
Still, as the MCU continued to flourish with hits over at Disney, Marvel’s head producer Kevin Feige was hoping to somehow get Spider-Man into Marvel films. Spider-Man is an ultra recognizable character in Marvel, and, particularly in the Civil War storyline from the comics, he was featured prominently. Disney wanted to get one of the cornerstones of the Marvel brand into their films.
Oh, and if the whole Spider-Man deal seems familiar, it’s because Disney ran into a similar problem with another set of popular Marvel characters — the X-Men. Fox owned the rights to X-Men (having purchased them much like Sony did Spider-Man) when Disney purchased Marvel. Of course, the solution came pretty easy to the X-Men issue — Disney bought Fox and all of its properties. Now Disney owned the X-Men. Problem solved. 😂
Unable to just buy their way out of the problem like they did with the X-Men, they needed to strike a deal. Per Variety, Sony and Disney agreed to team up on the Spider-Man film rights for a time. Sony was unhappy with the response to The Amazing Spider-Man franchise (AKA the Andrew Garfield ones) and the company was in need of a big franchise to give it a boost. The deal got Disney the use of Spider-Man in their films while Sony got Kevin Feige’s involvement and the leverage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe at Disney. Plus, they got a hefty cut of the profits from the Spidey is in.
Of the deal, Sony chairman Michael Lynton said, “This is the right decision for the franchise, for our business, for Marvel, and for the fans.” The deal means that Sony has “creative control, marketing, and distribution,” while Marvel produces its own Spider-Man movies that involve him with other superheroes owned by Disney.
The deal was initially struck in 2017 and since then audiences have gotten to see a number of Disney-made Spider-Man films. Disney has produced Captain America: Civil War (2016), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019), and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) with Spider-Man featured (played by Tom Holland).
Sony is Still Making Spider-Man Movies
Sony saw a lot of profits from the Spider-Man/Marvel deal. Far From Home was the studio’s most profitable film release of all time. Disney’s Marvel films have gone on to be the biggest film releases EVER. But that didn’t stop Sony from making their own take on Spider-Man without Disney’s involvement. Surprising fans and critics alike, Sony launched the Spider-Verse franchise in 2018 with Sony’s edgier animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
The film was a fresh take on the Spider-Man character, featuring fan-favorite Miles Morales as Spidey. It had a never-before-seen daring animation style and a gritty soundtrack. This wasn’t the Tobey McGuire or Disney Spider-Man movies, and audiences noticed. It was a massive hit for the company and the film beat BOTH Disney’s Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature — a category often won by Disney. Not surprisingly, Sony is working on a sequel now. Sony may have found a Spider-Man franchise that critics and audiences alike love without much of Disney’s help.
But What About the Theme Parks?
As a side note, you might be wondering how, if Disney and Sony have this complicated agreement over Spidey, is he represented over at the Universal Orlando theme park? And in Disney’s theme parks outside of Orlando, for that matter. Well, the theme park rights are different from everything we’ve talked about so far. Per Fortune, Marvel Entertainment (prior to being owned by Disney) and NBCUniversal signed a deal in 1994 that Universal Studios had the rights to use the characters in the theme parks as long as they were used in a certain geographic area (the Mississippi river was the divider).
Since Universal had a whole land of Marvel characters at Universal Orlando, Marvel (now owned by Disney) can’t use superheroes from any of the specific franchises (including Avengers) that are already represented in Universal Orlando in theme parks east of the Mississipi River.
Now, Universal hasn’t used any of the Marvel characters in Universal California, so west of the Mississippi River is wide open when it comes to theme park rights. That’s why Disney is able to launch Avengers Campus in California. If you’re wondering how we’re getting Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind in EPCOT — those characters weren’t on Universal’s radar when they built their Marvel land, so it’s fair game for Disney.
So, if you’re keeping score at home:
- Marvel/Disney owns the rights to Spider-Man comics and merchandising
- Sony and Marvel/Disney currently have a split deal on the Spider-Man film rights
- Universal has the rights to Spider-Man in theme parks east of the Mississippi River. Marvel maintains the theme park rights west of the Mississippi.
Whew. That’s…a lot.
The Sony and Disney Breakup
So we got all that? Theme park rights? Check. Merch and movie rights? Check. Well, buckle in cause Sony stepped in to throw a wrench in an already complicated deal. In August 2019, Deadline reported that a halt in communication between Disney and Sony had ended Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige’s involvement in Spider-Man. The disagreement happened, according to Deadline’s sources, due to money issues.
Disney was looking for a larger share of Spidey profits in exchange for Marvel and Feige’s continued guiding hand that resulted in the delivery of Sony’s biggest grossing film ever. Sony declined to meet those terms. Disney already owned the rights to Spider-Man merchandise, so Sony was hesitant to give up half of its most profitable franchise. As a result, Disney withdrew involvement.
Deadline said of Feige’s exit, “Sony will have to try to win a championship without Michael Jordan.” Had the split lasted, Tom Holland may have continued in the role of Spider-Man in the Sony-controlled Spidey universe — without the Avengers or the rest of the MCU involved ever again.
Of the split, Feige said, “It was never meant to last forever. We knew there was a finite amount of time that we’d be able to do this, and we told the story we wanted to tell, and I’ll always be thankful for that.”
Aaaaand The Makeup
Audiences were super upset about the loss of Spider-Man from the MCU, and Tom Holland spoke out per Entertainment Weekly saying, “It’s been five amazing years. I’ve had the time of my life. Who knows what the future holds?” The social backlash was SIGNIFICANT as folks negatively reacted to the idea of Spider-Man leaving the Avengers.
Then suddenly, we got the news in September, per CNBC, that Marvel Studios, led by President Kevin Feige, would produce a third film in the Spider-Man: Homecoming series (Yep, the one that comes out in late 2021!). Spider-Man will also appear in one future Marvel Studios film. Whaaah? So what changed!?
Well, with backlash abound, Sony and Disney got back in the negotiation room. Ultimately, a deal was made that allows Feige’s and MCU’s involvement for at least two more films featuring Spider-Man. The details of the deal were not disclosed. Of the agreement, Sony noted, “We have had a great collaboration over the last four years, and our mutual desire to continue was equal to that of the many fans. We are delighted to be moving forward together.”
Interestingly, Former Disney CEO Bob Iger said that Spider-Man himself, Tom Holland, was to thank for the deal. He revealed the actor called him and told him what the character meant to him and to fans. In response, Iger called the head of Sony and said a deal needed to be made. Iger said, “You know what happens sometimes companies when they are negotiating or people when they’re negotiating with one another, they kind of forget that there are other folks out there who actually matter, and that was the case here. There’s a whole Parker family out there.”
Feige’s thought? He said, “I am thrilled that Spidey’s journey in the MCU will continue, and I and all of us at Marvel Studios are very excited that we get to keep working on it. Spider-Man is a powerful icon and hero whose story crosses all ages and audiences around the globe. He also happens to be the only hero with the superpower to cross cinematic universes, so as Sony continues to develop their own Spidey-verse you never know what surprises the future might hold.”
But what about Tom Holland? Any deals he’s made to portray Spider-Man have been made with Disney/Marvel. Following the two agreed upon films, it would be up to Sony to work with him to keep him as Spider-Man, unless additional deals are made with Disney. Disney had previously expressed interest in working with Holland for many more films as the character before the deal fell through, so his fate as the web-slinger remains somewhat unclear outside of the two films we know.
Again, the details of the Sony/Disney deal are not public. It’s unclear whether Sony forked up the 50/50 or Disney agreed to lower the terms. Either way, fans won’t have to wonder what could have been following that cliffhanger of a mid-credit scene in Spider-Man: Far from Home (featuring a very notable SONY Spider-Man character!).
Speaking of interesting Sony Spider-Man casting choices, there have been rumors across the web that the upcoming MCU Spider-Man movie has cast Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield alongside Tom Holland for a multiverse crossover. Rumors also claim the return of Sony Spider villains Electro, played by Jamie Foxx, and Doctor Octopus, played by Alfred Molina. We already know that one brief character crossover we mentioned in Far From Home. Sony is all about that Multi-verse life now and if they’ve patched things up with Disney, that leaves some pretty cool possibilities for the next film.
Potentially ANY character from ANY version of Spider-Man over the years — Disney or Sony — could pop up in the film. Whether they will is a different story. In theory, you could even have an animated Miles Morales show up alongside Tom Holland’s character. It could happen, according to Spider-Man multi-verse science, at least 😂. Sony and Marvel have yet to confirm any of this, but a crossover between the two studios would be pretty monumental.
When Kevin Feige was asked about the rumors by comicbook.com, he said, “I’ve read some things. I’m not sure I’ve read all things. The fun thing about online speculation when it comes to our stuff is how sometimes it couldn’t be more off the mark and sometimes it’s shockingly close, and that’s held true for the last few years. But saying which is which would take all the fun out of everything.” That’s pretty vague, but we’re definitely eager to see if these rumors are true.
The Future of Spider-Man in the MCU
We’re also not sure what the deal means AFTER the upcoming Spider-Man movie and additional MCU film. Coverage of the agreement specifically notes that the 2021 Far From Home sequel and the one other (yet to be named) MCU appearance are the ones agreed upon in the deal. After those films are released, we may not see Spidey in the MCU again.
Instead, his film rights very well could end up the sole property of Sony once more, or we could have another drama-filled breakup/makeup situation. It’s hard to say. But Disney will still have Spidey swinging over buildings in Avengers Campus and headlining an attraction there as well. And of course, there will be oodles of Spidey merch. Spidey isn’t going away from Disney any time soon, but if we’ll see more movies beyond the current deal is unknown at this time. Whatever happens, we’ll be keeping an eye on the situation and any publicized changes in negotiations so stay tuned with us for those webby updates.
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