The Spider-Man deal between Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures has broken down - so just what can the separate studios do with the wall-crawler now? Marvel sold the film rights for Spider-Man back in the 1990s, and as a result their most marketable hero is technically a Sony property. All that changed in early 2015, when Marvel and Sony reached an unprecedented deal that allowed Spider-Man to be rebooted - for the second time - as part of the MCU.
That agreement has proven to be a profitable one, but unfortunately, the Sony-Marvel deal for Spider-Man has collapsed. Disney has different corporate priorities, namely the Disney+ streaming service and recouping the costs of their recent Fox acquisition. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is key to both of these; he's producing a wealth of Marvel content for Disney+, and he'll be rebooting the X-Men and the Fantastic Four as part of the MCU as well. That means the last thing Disney want is for Feige to be distracted with a property they technically don't own. For their part, Sony believe they've learned everything they need to from Marvel, and they aim to integrate Spider-Man into the developing Venomverse. The situation is something of a tangled web, with legal rights constraining both studios going forward.
Fortunately, it's possible to deduce just what Sony and Marvel can do with Spider-Man. Sony was hacked back in 2014, and a wealth of documents were distributed online. They actually included copies of their Spider-Man contracts with Marvel - including the last version before the Spider-Man deal. It's reasonable to assume that, now the deal has broken down, the rights have reverted to something similar to that 2014 contract. So let's explore just what each studio can do.
What Marvel Can Do With Spider-Man
The end of the Spider-Man deal is a disaster for the MCU. Marvel Studios no longer have the ability to mention Spider-Man at all, or Peter Parker, or indeed any character primarily associated with Spider-Man. In fact, they're even restricted from using many characters who were simply introduced in a Spider-Man comic book, with the exception of superheroes who became notable brands in their own right, such as the Punisher or Cloak and Dagger. There have been recurring rumors that Marvel was interested in developing Norman Osborn as the next major villain of the MCU, but - barring some sort of renegotiation - that can be ruled out.
Marvel can use storylines that Spider-Man appeared in, although obviously he can't be part of these plots; that means they're free to adapt some of his New Avengers arcs, for example, or storylines inspired by his time as a member of the Fantastic Four. The contract is silent about whether or not Marvel can adapt a plot lifted straight from a Spider-Man comic, perhaps substituting the wall-crawler with another street-level vigilante like Moon Knight. Presumably that would be a subject of discussion between Marvel and Sony.
Interestingly, there are a handful of characters who are shared between the two studios. Under this old contract, both studios had the right to use the Kingpin; that's probably still the case, given the Kingpin was the primary antagonist in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. Another anomaly is Jessica Drew; Marvel can use her as a private detective or spy, so long as they never give her the Spider-Woman codename. Meanwhile, Sony gets to use her as a fully-fledged superhero if they so wish.
What Sony Can Do With Spider-Man
Sony now has exclusive cinematic rights to Spider-Man. They can use Peter Parker, and they have the rights to all existing and future versions of the wall-crawler. Certain Spider-esque characters are exempted where they're tied to non-Spidey stories; for example, Ashley Barton's Spider-Girl exists in the dystopian "Old Man Logan" timeline, and Cosmic Spider-Man is a version of the wall-crawler who became Captain Universe. But, in general, the basic rule is that any iteration of Spider-Man belongs to Sony. Furthermore, Sony has exclusive rights to all Spider-Man's supporting characters, and even to all the various heroes and villains who have been introduced in books starring the web-slinger. The contract goes on to detail specific locations and organizations; the Daily Bugle, the F.E.A.S.T. homeless center, and even the Daily Globe are Sony properties.
But Sony does have certain limitations as well. They can never explicitly reference the MCU characters Spider-Man has encountered; while they can make allusions to them, they can never be too explicit about referencing characters like Thanos, Iron Man, Happy Hogan, SHIELD, Nick Fury, or Maria Hill. No doubt that will cause problems if Sony does wish to continue the narrative begun in Spider-Man: Far From Home's post-credits scene, but these may be manageable. Sony would probably still have the license to use EDITH, an artificial intelligence that was created for a Sony film and has no history in the comics. Meanwhile, it's even possible they may be able to use flashbacks from the previous films; both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home were technically produced by Marvel Studios on Sony's behalf, and thus are counted as Sony movies. That potentially means Sony could use flashbacks of Iron Man flying alongside Spider-Man, and simply never name the character; the average viewer wouldn't even notice, and the story would appear to be continuing seamlessly. This will likely be one for the lawyers to work out.
It's become clear that Sony has the rights to produce Spider-Man content across a range of mediums; as well as movies, they're known to have both live-action and animated Spider-Man TV shows in the works. This corresponds with the old contract, which allows them to produce both films and TV series, although every animated show must have episodes over 44 minutes in length.
Of course, there are certain caveats that have to be made. This contract is an old one, which means details could have changed; at the same time, though, they're unlikely to have changed much, given Marvel and Sony were focused on their new relationship. Furthermore, it has to be noted that the two studios could still come to other agreements. A deal between Marvel and Fox allowed Deadpool to switch up Negasonic Teenage Warhead's powers, while Marvel got to use Ego the Living Planet in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Assuming the relationship between Marvel and Sony hasn't soured too much, they could make similar micro-agreements that give both studios a little bit more flexibility.
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