What if Sony Bought Marvel's Movie Rights in 1998?

Tobey Maguire Spider-Man 2002 - Photofest - H 2017
Columbia Pictures/Photofest
It could have happened for just $25 million, and likely would have doomed the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Marvel published a series of comics called What If…?, in which every issue saw a familiar storyline or plot point play out differently, leading to unexpected events and exciting adventures. (Or, as happened more than once, the death of a beloved character and/or the end of humanity itself.) Each issue opened and closed with the Watcher, Marvel’s cosmic voyeur-in-chief, explaining about the possibilities contained in parallel worlds and waxing lyrical about the roads less taken, like a bald, toga-wearing Rod Serling. To young readers, it was a thrilling introduction to string theory and a lesson to always wonder about what could have happened, in addition to considering what did, in fact, take place.

For example, what if Sony had bought all the movie rights to Marvel’s comic book line in the late 1990s?

As a new story in The Wall Street Journal reminds us, the Marvel of that era was so strapped for cash that it was willing to try and sell whatever it could in order to keep afloat. (The company had declared bankruptcy in 1996, following a number of bad business decisions and the end of the speculative comic market boom years earlier.) Indeed, as the WSJ reveals, Marvel was so desperate that it made an unusual counteroffer to Sony as the studio tried to negotiate rights to Spider-Man in 1998: If you want our entire roster, we’ll let you have it for $25 million.

The company wasn’t really offering everything — at that date, Fox already had the X-Men rights, and the Fantastic Four rights were… complicated. But what Sony was being offered was, essentially, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a decade before Marvel would turn that into a reality in its own right. As the Watcher would want us to ask, what if Sony had said yes …?

The obvious answer would be to suggest that Sony could have jump-started the superhero boom early, and enjoyed the fruits of that success for itself. Yet, that idea ignores a number of realities that would argue otherwise: It wasn’t simply that Iron Man, Thor and Captain America were fated to be successes, and to build a massive brand in the process — their success comes from the fact that Marvel made the right creative decisions in hiring the people responsible for those movies, cast the right actors and managed to appeal to the mass market without losing track of the elements that would appeal to the fanboy faithful — indeed, would manage to transfer that level of devotion outside of the existing fan base and onto the mass audience as a whole. There’s no guarantee that Sony would have been able to repeat that trick.

Indeed, it could be argued that Sony wouldn’t. Not to say that Sony’s theoretical Marvel movies would’ve been bad, per se, but a comparison of 2002’s Spider-Man, produced entirely by Sony, and last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, produced by Marvel and released by Sony, is an instructive comparison of the Marvel approach versus what Sony had been likely to do. As fun as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is — and it is — it’s clearly missing the Marvel DNA that audiences resonated so strongly with, suggesting that any other Marvel movies Sony made would have likely suffered the same absence.

Beyond that, there are mechanical elements to consider. Before Marvel Studios, cinematic “universes” weren’t really a thing — the Star Trek shared universe, which split across movies and TV existed, sure, but nothing as broad as Marvel. Would Sony have made that intuitive leap itself, and if not, could the Marvel properties have come so far without the shared universe setting? Moreover, would a studio that had other properties (and priorities) than superheroes have launched into the two-movies-per-year cycle that helped Marvel maintain its momentum …?

It’s easy to imagine a world where Sony had become Marvel before Marvel could, but to do so ignores the unexpected choices — some made through necessity, others through creative intuition and nerve — that Marvel made on its journey to becoming the dominant cultural force it is today. Instead, it’s just as possible, if not moreso, that Sony could have paid the $25 million, only to watch the movies become middling successes at best, before slowly fading into obscurity because, without Marvel Studios, the genre never quite takes off.

It’s a pessimistic future so downbeat that even the Watcher would be proud — but he’d have to do it from the pages of a comic book, because there’d be no way he’d ever made it to the big screen, even for a Stan Lee-related cameo.