How 'Spider-Man' Divorce Shows Ugly Side of Fandom

Spider-Man-Homecoming-Photofest-H 2019
Columbia Pictures/Photofest
Those casting the blame on Sony in the high-profile split from Disney have gravitated toward the hashtag #SaveSpiderMan. But save him from what?

Oh what a tangled web the film rights to Spider-Man have become. It was the breakup heard around the world. On Tuesday came the news that, in terms of where things stand right now, Spider-Man will no longer be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward. The deal between Disney and Sony, announced in February 2015, which saw the hero join the MCU under the guidance of Kevin Feige, has proved lucrative for both companies. Marvel Studios benefited from Spider-Man (Tom Holland) appearing in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Avengers: Endgame, while Sony Pictures had the added benefit of making use of MCU characters and continuity within its Spider-Man solo films, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), and Spider-Man: Far From Home. The latter, which concluded Phase 3 of the MCU, has grossed $1.1 billion worldwide, becoming the first Spider-Man film to hit a billion and Sony’s most successful film.

While both studios should be enjoying a victory lap after a successful summer, with Disney, hot off of their Marvel Studios Comic-Con announcements, set to make D23 this weekend’s event, and Sony releasing an extended cut of Far From Home over labor day weekend. Instead, Spider-Man has become victim of a messy custody battle that has dominated social media and shown just how ugly Disney fandom can get with #SaveSpiderMan and #BoycottSony hashtags trending this week.

Battle lines have been drawn on social media, and by way of willful ignorance on the parts of adults online behaving like children, Sony has been made the bad guy for refusing to give up its asset. While details surrounding Disney and Sony’s split have varied, The Hollywood Reporter reported that the breakup comes down to money. Disney, already possessing the merchandizing rights for Spider-Man and benefiting from the use of the character in the MCU, sought at least a 30 percent stake in future Spider-Man grosses. Others have reported figures as high as 50 percent. However you cut it, those numbers are a significant uptick from Disney’s previous 5 percent stake. It’s also worth noting that while Sony’s Spider-Man films may receive an uptick in box office grosses for their MCU connection, the studio doesn’t receive a share of the grosses for the Marvel Studios films in which Holland’s Spider-Man appears.

Sony film chief Tom Rothman and CEO Tony Vinciquerra walked away from Alan Horn and Alan Bergman’s Disney demands. It’s not hard to understand why. Spider-Man is Sony’s biggest asset, and that’s true even without Disney’s involvement. While many vocal defendants of Disney are clinging to the notion that Disney offered a 50 percent co-financing on the films, it's easy to see why Sony would reject it. Far From Home cost $160 million, before marketing, and made a little over $1 billion. Operating under the assumption that a third Spider-Man film would cost a similar amount and gross just as much, then Sony paying $80 million to give up anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent of its $1 billion gross is a game that no smart business owner would play. Even if a third Spider-Man movie makes a little less without the MCU connection, Sony still stands to profit more than it would by acquiescing to Disney's terms. No live-action, theatrical Spider-Man film has grossed less than $700 million worldwide. 

With #SaveSpiderMan and #BoycottSony having emerged as trending topics during the week, it’s concerning to see fans rally behind the multi-billion dollar corporation that is Disney, and position them as a noble underdog in this fight. Disney undeniably knows how to sell a product and get fans excited about properties that were once part of nerd culture and are now the world’s biggest media sensations. The buzz surrounding D23, the Disney fan event kicking off Friday, is evidence enough of that. And there’s no denying that Disney has done some great things with MCU, and Spider-Man specifically.

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is a skilled craftsman and he helped move the character in some directions we’d never seen before, adding a freshness and modernity to a character most audiences know inside and out. But Feige is only one cog in great machine that’s plowing over everything in sight. Disney’s dominance has come at the cost of swallowing other companies whole, eliminating the competition, creating a homogeny within our popular culture, and facilitating massive amounts of job losses. I can tell you as a Disney fan that being excited about what it's offering while also being aware of the company’s great appetite are not mutually exclusive terms. Five of the six highest grossing movies worldwide in 2019 are Disney films. The only one that isn’t is Sony’s Spider-Man: Far From Home. With Disney's Frozen 2 and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker still to come this year, it’s nearly a sure bet that seven of the year’s highest grossing films will stem from the House of Mouse. Coupled with the fact that Disney+ is launching in November, and Disney now has 20th Century Fox’s IP at its disposal, Disney’s dominance is alarming, made more so by fans who think the company can do no wrong, and will celebrate job losses if that means that get to see all of their favorite properties bundled under one roof.

Quality of film is, of course, subjective, but a narrative has emerged that supposes Sony will ruin Spider-Man without Feige. Bring up the well-liked Spider-Man (2002) or Spider-Man 2 (2004), and you’ll be told that those films happened a long time ago. Bring up the fact that Sony’s last non-MCU Spider-Man film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, won the Oscar for best animated feature, and you’ll be told, as I have been, that it’s animated so it doesn’t count, or that a broken clock is right twice a day. Those casting the blame on Sony in this situation have gravitated toward #SaveSpiderMan. But save him from what? Those voices love to point to Spider-Man 3 (2007), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), and Venom (2018) as examples of how Sony doesn’t get the character. And they’ve already made up their minds about the upcoming Morbius and Venom 2 that will further expand Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters. Those released films have their issues and messy aspects, sure, but in each of those are moments of greatness that capture Spider-Man just as well as any comic, whether that be the pathos of Peter Parker, the costume, the web-slinging, or the underappreciated humor of Venom’s early miniseries. Studios change and learn, and as THR reported yesterday, Rothman believes he’s learned enough from Feige to avoid making the same mistakes of the past.

The past is so often where studio fans dwell. Release a dozen good movies and everyone is quiet, but release one that flops or let a bad idea become public and that dominates the conversation. There’s a penchant for pointing to the ideas discussed in Sony’s 2014 email leak as signs of impending failure, like an Aunt May film featuring her as a secret agent. But not every brainstorming session is a greenlight, and ideas are reworked and find new contexts in which to work. Case in point: a baseball bat wielding Aunt May leading the heroes to their secret base in Into the Spider-Verse. Yes, Sony has made some choices different from the source material, and not everything works, but that’s also true of the MCU’s depiction of Spider-Man. We didn’t get Into the Spider-Verse or Far From Home by sticking to the rules. And ultimately, aren’t those differences and chances taken the whole point of adapting these characters?

The online response to the situation and the vitriol aimed at Sony, comprised of Facebook events to storm the offices and hopes that Disney buys the company, are part of a larger issue. We’ve seen similar tantrums thrown the way of Fox’s X-Men films and Warner Bros.' DC films. We’ve gotten away from loving these characters and their adaptability, to just loving branding. My theory is that if a Marvel Studios logo were stamped across Venom or Dark Phoenix, and contained a post-credit scene featuring an MCU connection, those films wouldn’t have received nearly as much criticism. We respond to brands, to the point where honestly evaluating the end result feels like a hard ask.

Quality is too often determined by fans before a movie is even made, as dictated by the studio. There was a time when we were excited to see these characters onscreen in good movies, regardless of what studio they came from. And while the MCU does have a great track record, it is not without their own flawed films and questionable handing of certain characters. I love the MCU and I’m there opening night for every movie, but no studio has a perfect track record. To suggest Disney is infallible while Sony is incompetent is a level of corporate investment that feels gross. Both Disney and Sony are capable of making good and bad movies, despite how much the box office grosses and the ownership of the former may lead some to think otherwise. And while Disney has sold this lovely idea of an unblemished cinematic universe comprised of characters and stories it really cares about exploring, it seems that if Disney really cared all that much about Spider-Man’s future it would have stuck with a deal that was clearly working instead of attempting to grab up more territory.

If this really is the end of the road for Spider-Man in the MCU, then it’s a sad fact and the hole he leaves will be felt for a while. Spider-Man being a part of the MCU has been great, and seeing him fight alongside the Avengers has been a true cinematic highlight. But the idea that Spider-Man, a character who has thrived for 57 years, needs the MCU to work is laughable. I hope to see a new deal worked out that will further Peter Parker’s emergence as a New Avenger in the MCU. But if that doesn’t happen, those who truly love the character and his world, will move on and find new cinematic highlights through which to enjoy the character. Regardless of the studio, we shouldn’t rally behind or condemn the quality of movies that haven’t been made yet, but we should keep slinging and swinging because the character, regardless of corporate disputes, has plenty of stories to be part of.