Sony and Disney Split Over Spider-Man: What It Means for Fans and the Future of the MCU

Will Spidey cross paths with Venom and Morbius in his own Spider-Verse? Who will emerge as the MCU's leader? What about Happy and Aunt May?

by | August 20, 2019 | Comments

What Will Happen If Spider-Man Leaves the MCU?

What will the MCU look like without Spider-Man? We’re breaking down what the Sony/Disney split means for fans.

Posted by The Rotten Tomatoes Channel on Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Fans of Spider-Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe now face a mid-credits scene more shocking than the one at the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home. According to various reports emerging on Tuesday, the character, whose films rights are held by Sony Pictures Entertainment, may no longer be available to Marvel Studios, nor will that studio’s president, Kevin Feige, be involved in the next two planned installments of the Spider-Man film series starring Tom Holland.

The whole thing feels like something pulled straight from a Marvel Comic, and it may leave some wondering what happened and why Sony would pull out of such a lucrative partnership (if, in fact, the move is indeed Sony’s doing). The behind-the-scenes tale of Spider-Man on film is a frequently confusing mess of legal wranglings, unlikely cameos, and the last vestige of a Marvel Entertainment that no longer exists. But let’s pull back the web of Spider-Man to see the players involved, what they can do by separating Spider-Man from Marvel, and what it all means for fans.

The Saga Of The Cinematic Spider-Man

Columbia Pictures

(Photo by Columbia Pictures)

Long before it became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, Marvel Entertainment was loose with its finances during the free-wheeling 1990s. The comics business was booming thanks to events like “The Death of Superman” and Marvel’s own X-Men #1 moving a million copies to retailers. But just a few years later, the market went bust, with plenty of those X-Men comics unsold on store shelves. Well, the stores that remained opened as the industry imploded and Marvel was in danger of going under. But alongside all of this, the Spider-Man film rights went on a journey from schlock film company Cannon Pictures to Columbia Pictures, which was, by then, a component of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Marvel, still limping out of bankruptcy, was more than happy to sell the film rights to the studio when they briefly held them again in 1999.

This led to Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, its sequels, and the short-lived Amazing Spider-Man film cycle in 2012. By the early 2010s, Marvel Studios’ success with a cinematic universe was noted by Sony, and the company plotted its own similar endeavor with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, setting up their ambitious plan… at least until that film proved to be a creative and financial misstep.

Sony, Marvel Studios, and Disney soon made a deal to introduce Spider-Man into the MCU. According to reports, Disney received a small percentage of the gross profits for Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home. And, from the view of Marvel fans, things were as exciting as swinging from a Manhattan skyscraper. But as corporations never prove to be easy bedfellows, a crisis was brewing.

A Duel of Corporate Titans

Jay Maidment / © Columbia Pictures / © Marvel

(Photo by Jay Maidment / © Columbia Pictures / © Marvel)

According to Tuesday’s reports, Disney was seeking a co-financing deal with Sony for two additional Spider-Man films. Co-financing means a bigger piece of those precious profits — in this case, to the tune of a 50/50 split. Sony was not interested in changing the arrangement, instead looking to maintain the profit sharing established with Homecoming. Initial reports suggested both companies dismissed these offers immediately without any hope of resolving the issue. This should not be a surprise, as both studios are quite secure in their positions. Avengers: Endgame is the biggest movie ever, while the successes of Venom and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse leaves Sony in a better position than when they made the Homecoming deal.

Since fans love Spider-Man in the MCU, it’s easy to dismiss Sony’s objection as hubris, but we also imagine some Disney-haters are waving the Sony banner right now.

By late afternoon on Tuesday, there were signs the companies may sit down and continue negotiations, but if no agreement can be reached, it looks like Spider-Man will once again be off in his own world while the MCU goes on without him.

Oh, and you’ll probably have to explain all of this to your relatives when they ask you why Spider-Man isn’t an Avenger anymore.

Marvel Without Spider-Man

Marvel Studios

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

As we keep track of Marvel Studios’ calendar fairly regularly here at Rotten Tomatoes, we noticed something interesting in its Phase 4 calendar of films and Disney+ limited series: the complete lack of Spider-Man. Since Phase 4 only covers the next two years of Marvel Studios releases, this didn’t seem too strange during the Marvel panel at Comic-Con. Now, Spidey’s absence screams across that screenshot of the release calendar. It seems they knew this was a possibility.

So what can Marvel Studios do if they really lose Spider-Man?

Well, a fairly obvious way to go is to just ignore it for the time being, since the Phase 4 films have nothing to do with him. The first one, Black Widow, is reportedly set before he made his MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War; two more are meant to establish new characters – The Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings; and the two sequels, Thor: Love and Thunder and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, will presumably take place far from the Manhattan where Peter was outed as Spider-Man and blamed for the chaos in Far From Home.

As it happens, that outing by J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) may provide all the explanation Marvel Studios needs to remove Spider-Man from the story: he’s in deep cover until he can clear his name.

Jay-Maidment / © Columbia Pictures

(Photo by Jay-Maidment / © Columbia Pictures)

Of course, it’s not a truly tidy solution, as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) was counting on Spider-Man to be part of whatever army he’s building in space — a plot point that reflects Feige’s own love for the character. All the talk in Far From Home of Spidey being “the next Iron Man” means something even if the character can’t really be the next Tony Stark. The implication throughout the film was clear: come Phase 5 or Phase 6, he would be holding the metaphorical Infinity Gauntlet, if not leading a new group of young Avengers himself. He was on a course to be the central MCU hero, and right now, that status is threatened by the dispute.

Perhaps that role will fall on Shang-Chi’s shoulders, should Spider-Man be snapped back by Sony. And looking at the production calendar now, it almost seems as though Marvel Studios embedded a contest of champions just in case they lose the Webhead. Could Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), Sersi of the Eternals, or Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) easily take Peter’s place?

Then there’s the worst case scenario: the MCU moves on without ever mentioning Spider-Man again. No explanation is offered because they do not have the rights to give one. In that case, there would be a permanent sense of loss that the films could never acknowledge.

Spider-Man Without Marvel

© Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by © Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

Sony, meanwhile, always had a plan. It’s right there in the name of its Academy Award-winning animated feature, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. As mentioned above, the studio has been hot to build a cinematic universe of its own since the successes of Marvel’s Avengers and its own The Amazing Spider-Man. At the time, the plan was to produce films centered on each member of the Sinister Six, the ensemble of Peter’s biggest foes whose formation was teased in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. That plan got shoved to the backburner when Amazing 2 killed all the goodwill audiences had for the cinematic Spider-Man and Sony agreed to lend Peter Parker out to Marvel.

Sony soldiered on with a Venom film – which turned out to be a surprise success – and Into the Spider-Verse, a true creative triumph that earned Oscar gold. But even before the one-two punch of Venom and Spider-Verse, Sony was already in development with films based on Spider-Man characters like Black Cat, Silver Sable, and Morbius the Living Vampire.

The latter’s feature debut, Morbius, is slated for release on July 31, 2020. Black Cat and Silver Sable’s journeys to the big screen, however, are taking a lot longer than planned. As it happens, they were supposed to share the spotlight in a film called Black and Silver, but that disintegrated as Venom neared release, and the two will now appear in separate projects.

Chuck Zlotnick/ © Columbia Pictures

(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/ © Columbia Pictures)

Should a deal never be struck between the two studios, Sony has a clearer path than Marvel does, in some respects. Director John Watts and star Tom Holland technically work for them, not Marvel. The scene-by-scene creative merits of Homecoming and Far From Home remain in place, even if a third film cannot reference what happened to Peter in any of his MCU adventures. We assume any mention of Tony Stark, the Snap, and the Blip will be struck from the record.

It may prove to be a bigger stumbling block than the studio thinks, though. So much of the story that set Holland’s Peter Parker apart from the two previous incarnations is baked with MCU ingredients. Tony took the place of Uncle Ben as a father figure and motivating force in Homecoming, and his ghost haunts Far From Home. Peter’s connections to Stark Industries, the budding relationship between Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May and Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, the five-year gap, and Mysterio’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) motivation in Far from Home all turn to dust if Holland’s Spider-Man should find himself marooned in Sony’s Spider-Verse. It still leaves the character outed, but without any underlying reasons why it matters.

The silver lining for Spider-Man fans is that Sony will, of course, continue to make Spider-Man movies. They will also likely build up MCU-style crossovers until it feels confident about making that Sinister Six movie.

Without An Agreement, Fans Lose

Chuck Zlotnick/ © Columbia Pictures

(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/ © Columbia Pictures)

Should the companies fail to reach an agreement, fans will, in principle, lose the third Spider-Man film promised by Far From Home’s mid-credit scene. They will also lose whatever Feige and Marvel had planned for the character in upcoming phases, but that third film – which we jokingly called Spider-Man: Homeless at one point – will be a materially different film — so much so that we cannot imagine the franchise would continue to use “home” as a key word in the subtitle.

Marvel will still have its MCU and Sony will have its Spider-Verse, but this jockeying for profits will result in a Spider-Man film starring Holland with all of the MCU texture scrubbed clean. Despite his great talent in the role, Holland’s journey as Peter Parker will be missing key aspects of his backstory, which new writers will have to work around. Also, Watts’ clever use of the MCU as a setting will also be lost; in its place will be the much shallower world of Venom.

At least, for the moment, this is still a mid-credit cliffhanger and not a funeral by a lake. Sure, the outlook isn’t so good, but things seemed grim for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 at one point, too. Because of its success, Marvel Studios gets almost everything it wants — admittedly, that’s a questionable prospect in its own right — and it may yet prove persuasive enough to make its parent company and Sony shake hands. Even in the span of one afternoon, the story has changed from “Spider-Man is leaving the MCU” to “anything is possible.” And, as in their films, Marvel Studios always banks on the hope of what is possible.

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