The Spider-Man deal between Marvel and Sony has profound implications for the TV shows as well as the movies. In early 2015, Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures reached an unprecedented agreement allowing Spider-Man's reinvention once again as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Holland's newest incarnation of Spider-Man made his MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War, and proved to be an instant hit. His latest movie, Spider-Man: Far From Home, became the highest-grossing Sony film of all time.
The Spider-Man deal may have been lucrative, but there's a sense in which it could only ever have been a temporary thing. It happened because the stars aligned in a unique and unexpected way, with both Marvel and Sony profiting from the agreement. Unfortunately, business interests have now diverged, and the deal is over. It's always possible the two studios will return to the table, but the odds don't look good, given Sony recently announced their strategic plans for the Spider-Man franchise.
Naturally, attention has focused on how the end of the Spider-Man deal affects the character's future on the big screen. In the background, though, there's been a swell of interest in whether or not Marvel Studios can switch to developing Disney+ TV shows featuring the wall-crawler, as a way of continuing his MCU story. These have been accompanied by (usually quite basic and ill-informed) assessments of the TV rights. Let's take a look at the reality.
Sony Historically Owned The Spider-Man TV Rights
Spider-Man has a rich history on the small screen, most notably for his popular 1967 and 1994 animated series. As a result, when Sony purchased the Spider-Man rights from Marvel in the '90s, they also wanted to be able to make animated TV shows, leading to the launch of Spider-Man: The New Animated Series in 2003, a little-known show made using CGI and produced by legendary comic book writer Brian Bendis. It was intended as a continuation of the story from the successful 2002 Spider-Man film. Unfortunately, the series was canceled by MTV after just one season due to poor ratings.
Spider-Man returned to the small screen in 2008 in the much-loved Spectacular Spider-Man series. This show was a hit, proving the wall-crawler still had the potential to be an animated star, but it hit legal problems. According to showrunner Greg Weisman, Sony returned the animated rights to Marvel in order to win some concessions for the live-action films, meaning Marvel regained the Spider-Man rights, while Sony kept the specific design elements and distribution for Spectacular Spider-Man. Making matters worse, Sony and Marvel were still in negotiations when Disney purchased Marvel, and the House of Mouse wanted to make their own animations. Spectacular Spider-Man was over.
Sony Still Own (Some Of) The Spider-Man TV Rights
This seems to indicate the TV rights for Spider-Man - or at least the animated TV rights - sit with Marvel and Disney. The truth, however, is a little more complicated. In 2014, a copy of the Marvel-Sony Spider-Man contract leaked, and it revealed Weisman's summary wasn't entirely correct. Here's what it says:
"[Sony] has the exclusive rights to utilize the "Spider-Man" character... to (a) develop and produce live action or animated theatrical motion pictures (each, a "Picture") and live-action television series (and also animated television series with episodes longer than 44 minutes)."
According to the contract, Sony's rights encompass the following areas:
- Live-action and animated movies
- Live-action TV series
- Animated series with episodes longer than 44 minutes
At first glance, this appears to directly contradict Weisman's assertion, but it's worth noting he admitted the rights issues were "all very complicated." He would only be told about the aspects of the Marvel-Sony contract pertaining to his series, so it's important to note Spectacular Spider-Man's episodes were only 22 minutes in length. As far as Weisman was concerned, the animated rights really had been given back to Marvel.
This was the last version of the Marvel-Sony contract to be agreed before the studios reached their Spider-Man deal, and it's reasonable to assume the current contract is similar. Significantly, Disney has been producing a constant stream of Spider-Man animated series over the last few years, but they've all been less than half an hour in length.
Marvel & Sony's Plans For Spider-Man TV Shows
All this means the TV rights are just as complicated as the film rights, if not more so. Marvel and Disney have the right to use Spider-Man in any animated TV series, so long as the episodes aren't too long. That's why they can continue the current Spider-Man animated series, and they've also recently announced a new show as well - Spidey And His Amazing Friends, to air on Disney Jr. They clearly own the distribution rights for many of the past Spider-Man shows, given reports Disney+ will include the original Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends, 1981's Spider-Man series, the classic 1994 Spider-Man, and even 1999's Spider-Man Unlimited.
Meanwhile, Sony is now preparing to capitalize upon the TV rights they own. Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Tony Vinciquerra recently revealed that the studio is working on five or six TV shows set in the Spider-Man world. These would presumably be live-action TV series, and there's been some speculation they could explain strange reports Sony was interested in Z-list Spider-Man characters like Jackpot and Nightwatch, as well as the relative newcomer Silk. Sony have also signed a five-year TV production deal with Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the minds behind the animated Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse movie. There have been unconfirmed reports Lord and Miller are looking into animated TV shows spinning out of Into The Spider-Verse; if so, episodes would presumably be 44 minutes in length or more, and so could still be made by Sony.
Could Tom Holland Play Spider-Man In Marvel's What If...?
There's been intense speculation as to whether or not Tom Holland could reprise the role of Spider-Man on Disney+. According to the Marvel-Sony contract, he can't return for any live-action roles - but that doesn't necessarily mean he couldn't work with Marvel on What If...?. Not only is this an animated series, but there are also reports Marvel intends for each episode to be just half an hour in length, which would mean they have the right to use Spider-Man in this series. Holland wasn't mentioned in the cast list at SDCC, though, and he'd be wise to be reluctant to sign up without Sony's blessing. It would be a shame if he didn't join What If...?, but at this stage, it's by no means guaranteed.