The Spider-Man movie series can be a bit confusing. Not only do audiences have to contend with an ever-expanding list of films (which date back to the 1970s), but they are also faced with the question of who owns Spider-Man?
Sony has produced a string of Spidey movies, beginning with 2002’s Spider-Man, and continues to produce films such as Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019). But Marvel Studios also produce films featuring Spidey, including Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Endgame (2019) – so who owns what?!
In this post, I will explain the rights issues surrounding the Spider-Man movies, to provide an understanding of who owns the character on and off the big screen.
Who owns Spider-Man?
To understand the rights issue surrounding Spider-Man, I need to break the character down into three different categories: Spider-Man in comics, Spider-Man on film, and Spider-Man merchandise.
- If Spider-Man appears in comics it is under the control of Marvel Comics (and Disney – the parent company of Marvel Comics). So, Marvel/Disney owns the rights to Spider-Man comics.
- If Spider-Man appears on film it is under the control of Sony Pictures. Sony owns the rights to Spider-Man movies.
- Spider-Man merchandise is owned and controlled by Marvel Comics (and Disney – the parent company of Marvel Comics). So, Marvel/Disney own the rights to Spider-Man merchandise.
Why is there a shared ownership over Spider-Man?
In 1998, ten years before Marvel Studios released Iron Man (2008), Marvel Comics sold the movie rights to Spider-Man to Sony Pictures. Marvel Comics was keen to put Spider-Man on the big screen and at that point in time it did not have its own movie studio to help it achieve its goals.
The deal would grant Sony the opportunity to produce as many Spider-Man (or Spider-Man-related) movies as it so desired. The only stipulation being that it had to produce a new movie every five years.
When the deal was made it was for the film rights as well as merchandising (more on this later) – it did not include Spidey’s comic book career. Therefore, Marvel Comics could continue to publish Spider-Man stories, while Sony could make Spidey movies and produce Spider-Man merchandise.
With the deal in place, Sony began to produce movies in the early ‘00s, including Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007) – all of which were box office hits. Meanwhile, Marvel Comics published countless comics featuring Spider-Man, including One More Day, and Civil War amongst others.
Do publishers always sell the rights to their characters?
Publishers selling movie rights to characters is not uncommon, so it was not out of the ordinary in 1998 for Marvel Comics to make a deal with Sony. In fact, at the time, Marvel Comics made a number of deals with movie studios to help put characters into cinemas, including the X-Men, Daredevil, the Hulk, Ghost Rider and many more.
As mentioned above, in 1998 Marvel did not have a film division and therefore needed the help of a studio to produce movies based on its characters. Had the company not made this deal, or any other deal regarding Spider-Man, then from 2008 onward the character could have appeared in movies produced by Marvel Studios.
Why does Sony still own the film rights to Spider-Man?
As part of a licensing deal, when studios option a character from a publisher they have a certain amount of time with which to produce a movie. If they do not produce a movie within this allotted time then the rights to the character revert back to the owner.
In the case of Sony and Spider-Man, the studio has a five-year window with which to make a Spidey movie. So long as Sony continues to produce Spider-Man movies every five years it is able to retain the rights.
If you have ever wondered why there have been so many Spider-Man movies over the past few years it is because of this contractual obligation. The moment that Sony fails to meet its production window is the moment that the rights to Spider-Man revert back to Marvel.
This situation has happened with some of Marvel’s other characters when they were licensed out to studios. Ghost Rider, the Punisher, Man-Thing and a number of others have all found their way back to Marvel after their respective deals came to an end (i.e. when the studios ran out of time).
Will Sony ever give up the rights to Spider-Man?
Unless anything significant happens to affect the financial situation of the studio, Sony is unlikely to stop producing Spider-Man movies. All of the films have been box office successes, even if some of the movies (i.e. The Amazing Spider-Man movies) did not do as well as the studio had hoped.
If Sony was ever to give Spider-Man back to Marvel – and legally it has done nothing wrong by making the movies – it would have been around 2014/2015, following the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The film was viewed by Sony as a springboard for various Spider-Man movie spinoffs, but none of them came to pass when it was met with a lukewarm reception.
It was at this point in time when Sony had to make a very important decision about Spider-Man’s cinematic career. Continue producing Spider-Man films that may not succeed at the box office or take a break and potentially lose the film rights to the character – what was the studio to do?
In an unexpected move, a decision was made to work with Marvel. Sony partnered with Marvel Studios to produce Spider-Man movies, therefore maintaining its association with the character.
Why are Marvel/Disney and Sony working together on Spider-Man movies?
In 2015, Sony struck a deal with Marvel Studios/Disney that would allow both studios to benefit from Spider-Man. The deal would allow Marvel Studios access to Spider-Man, for inclusion in its hugely successful run of Avenger movies, and in exchange Marvel Studios would co-produce Sony’s Spider-Man films.
It was a win-win situation for both studios. Marvel Studios was keen to have Spider-Man take part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Sony was keen to keep Spider-Man on the big screen.
Now of course, Marvel Studios could have simply left Sony to its own devices in the hope that eventually the studio would give up the rights, but this was unlikely. Spider-Man movies – even potentially bad ones – have the power to make money, so Sony could have simply carried on rebooting the character over and over again in order to retain the rights.
But this isn’t good for the brand. Spider-Man is Marvel Comics’ flagship character, so Marvel was keen not to let the wall-crawler lose favour with fans. It also knew that having some access to Spidey was better than having no access at all.
What was the Sony/Marvel Studios deal?
The deal that was struck between Sony and Marvel allowed Marvel Studios to use Spider-Man in a select number of its films, which included Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Avengers: Endgame (2019). Spidey would appear as a guest star in the movies (not as the lead), but Marvel could pretty much use the character however it wanted.
In exchange, Marvel Studios would co-produce a series of Spider-Man solo movies in association with Sony. These movies would be Sony’s property; however, Marvel Studios would receive 5% of the box office.
In essence, Marvel would get Spider-Man back on a temporary basis and Sony would benefit from having Spidey associated with the MCU – a multi-billion dollar success story.
The two films that Marvel Studios co-produced were Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) – which made over $880 million – and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) – which made more than $1.1 billion!
How long does the Sony/Marvel Studios deal stay in place?
The deal had a finite lifespan, but in essence it could remain in place until such time as either studio decided to part ways – and in 2019 that almost happened. In August 2019 the partnership temporarily dissolved when renegotiations fell apart.
However, after a bit of discussion – and a little intervention from Spider-Man actor, Tom Holland – a new deal was struck and Marvel Studios and Sony moved forward together. This new deal allowed Spider-Man to continue to appear in the MCU for at least one more film, with Marvel Studios agreeing to co-produce another Tom Holland Spider-Man movie in return.
What happens when Marvel Studios and Sony decide to part ways over Spider-Man?
If or when Marvel Studios and Sony decide to dissolve their Spider-Man partnership, the original deal will come back into play. Sony will retain the rights to produce Spider-Man movies, so long as they do it within the five-year window.
The difference this time around is that since 2018, Sony has been busy developing its own cinematic universe which revolves around Spider-Man movie spin-offs. Venom (2018) was the first entry, which proved to be a huge box-office success, and this was followed by the Academy Award-winning animated movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018).
Sony’s cinematic universe is being developed so that in the future, the studio does not have to rely so heavily on films featuring Peter Parker. If these films continue to be successful, their association to Spider-Man will be enough to ensure Sony retains the Spider-Man movie rights.
Does Sony still own the rights to Spider-Man merchandise?
When Sony bought the film rights to Spider-Man in 1998, the deal included Spider-Man merchandise rights – an incredibly lucrative source of income. While the movies make a huge amount of money at the box office, the merchandise rights can (and often do) make even more.
But in 2011, when Sony was in need of a cash injection, it made the decision to sell the merchandising rights back to Marvel. And in doing so, Sony now only has the rights to make movies – it does not get a slice of the toy/apparel pie.
Speaking via the Wall Street Journal in September 2017, Sony’s Chief Financial Officer, Kenichiro Yoshida, said: “We had sold some assets of the studio, such as merchandising rights of Spider-Man, to raise short-term cash in exchange for long-term cash flow when the electronics units were struggling.”
This move was something which Sony needed to do in order to keep the studio running, but it has cost it in the long-run. Sony might receive the majority of the box office returns from each Spidey picture, but Marvel/Disney is still making a killing from the merchandise.
Should Sony give the Spider-Man rights back to Marvel?
Ever since Marvel began developing its own films via Marvel Studios, many fans have been vocal in suggesting that Sony should give the Spider-Man movie rights back to Marvel – but should the studio do this?
Legally, Sony does not have to give the rights back to Spider-Man, unless it fails to produce Spidey movies within the allotted time. The studio entered into a legal contract with Marvel during the late ‘90s – no one forced Marvel to sell the character – and Sony is well within its rights to continue producing Spider-Man movies as per the terms of the agreement.
While some will argue that Spider-Man movies should be under the control of Spidey’s publisher, Sony has made both a financial and a critical success of the Spider-Man movies, suggesting general audiences are largely happy with the films so far. Not every decision will be met with fan approval, and Sony has discarded a few Spidey pictures over the years – including Spider-Man 4, The Amazing Spider-Man 3, and Silver & Black – but it has still managed to keep Spidey on the big screen throughout.
I hope this information on the Marvel / Sony Spider-Man rights has proved useful to you. Please feel free to share the information as you see fit.
Should you wish to know more about the Spider-Man movie series, please take a look around this blog. Alternatively, take a look at one of the recommended reads below.