The webhead is now in the MCU, with solo outing Spider-Man: Homecoming following up Peter Parker’s impressive Captain America: Civil War debut to truly announce him as a (potential) Avengers member. But all this isn’t as simple as Marvel plucking an IP from the comics rack and giving it the big screen treatment – Spidey’s movie rights are owned by Sony, which for a long time barred him from being involved in the Disney-owned Marvel Studios’ franchise. That he now is in the mix is the result of an unprecedented cross-studio deal to “share” the character.

But what does that really mean? Although many tend to liken the whole affair to Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal sharing their toys, in reality it’s a complicated, intricate situation with very specific terms. After all, when it comes to the MCU the only thing more complicated than the myriad of multi-film actor contracts is the complex movie rights behind those characters. And to get to the bottom of Spider-Man‘s Sony/Marvel deal, we have to go right back to the start.

Why Does Sony Own Spider-Man Anyway?

Sam Raimi Spider Man 2002 Spider Man in the MCU: The Marvel/Sony Deal Explained

We accept it now, but it’s kind of strange that Marvel doesn’t simply own its character’s movie rights completely. That’s the case with DC, who are owned by Warner Bros. and can unite the Justice League with no legal problem. That’s not the only fundamental difference between the two competitors when it comes to film though; while DC had wholeheartedly embraced cinema since the 1970s (albeit just with stalwarts Batman and Superman), Marvel were initially trepidatious. Howard the Duck was their only big screen attempt and that failure pretty much cooled them on further exploration, with their properties mainly licensed out in other areas; TV with The Incredible Hulk, straight-to-video movies like Captain America and cartoons with X-Men and Spider-Man.

That changed in the 1990s. For a brief time comic books were a major cultural force, the result of maturing content in the wake of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns and the emergence of the speculator bubble – the idea that landmark issues would be worth something down the line a la Action Comics #1 et al. At the peak of this boom Marvel began to rethink movies and started licensing out their properties – X-MenFantastic Four and Daredevil to Fox, Hulk to Universal, Blade to New Line.

However, supply and demand ultimately dictated the base model flawed and after everyone realized a special edition was worthless when there were literally 100,000s out there, the bottom fell out of the market, leading to Marvel Comics filing for bankruptcy in 1996. This only increased the pushing for movies in an attempt to recoup profits. Spider-Man had previously been licensed to cheapo outfit Cannon Film (representative of how lax they were with their properties), then Carloco (who looked at making a film with James Cameron) so had been separate from the initial selling blitz, but when the dust settled everything was back with Marvel. And so, in 1999, they sold the rights to Columbia Pictures, a subsidiary of Sony.

Eventually, of course, Marvel got back in the black, by which point the superhero movie genre had exploded. They decided around 2005 to go into the production business, using their remaining characters to build a shared universe. And the rest is history: the MCU has become the biggest franchise of all time and in the ensuing decade has reacquired and incorporated several of the characters sold off – Daredevil heads up The Defenders and Ghost Rider has appeared in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But things weren’t as simple with the web-slinger.

What Was The Original Sony Deal?

Tobey Maguire in Spider Man 21 Spider Man in the MCU: The Marvel/Sony Deal Explained

The specifics of the initial Sony/Marvel deal aren’t public knowledge, but across nearly twenty years of producer interviews we have a pretty clear view of how it works. Sony owns the rights to make and distribute motion pictures based on the Spider-Man character and all associated elements (practically his rogue’s gallery – there’s less ambiguous crossover of characters as there is with X-Men and Fantastic Four), taking 100% of the box office profits. This option remains as long as they make a movie every five years, otherwise all the rights revert back to Marvel.

This is the reason why we got The Amazing Spider-Man. Many assume that the failures of Spider-Man 3 necessitated a reboot, but not only was the capper of Raimi’s trilogy a box office success and fairly well reviewed, a fourth movie got very close to production. It was only when that fell apart in 2010 and as the limit on the rights was getting tight that a top-down reboot (one that was originally intended to be a mid-range budget) came in.

An important clarification within this is that Sony own only the movie rights. Everything else – TV, gaming, merchandising – remained with Marvel. They, essentially, own Spider-Man’s place within the wider brand, which is great for them as he’s far and away the most merchandisable superhero (he outsells Batman by double) and it also means they can control his prominence alongside their outright owned properties, able to cap him alongside breakout hits like Iron Man in the comics. Marvel never quite circumvented the web-slinger like they did the X-Men or Fantastic Four (again, he outsells Batman by double) but they benefited from any film released while never having to really help Sony out.

The other key element of the deal is that there’s no definition on what Sony can do with Spider-Man and co., leading to them trying to spin a shared universe off from Amazing (in reaction to The Avengers) that focused on the villains (Sinister Six and Venom were officially slated). All of this is important as it brings us right up to the new – but not overriding – deal.

Next Page: The Shared Sony/Marvel Deal Explained

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