It’s official: After an ugly custody battle between Sony and Marvel, along with its parent company, Disney, Spider-Man is back in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a fan, this felt sudden and, shockingly, all came down to money.
The realization of Spider-Man pulled from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was financially illogical and unpopular with Marvel-comic devotees.
Yet, the “Spider-wars” are a very real symptom of repressive property laws and corporate consolidation in the media landscape. This is a story of media conglomerates squeezing the value from a piece of intellectual property that is dependent on the strength of the cast Spider-Man’s web.
In early September 2019, the Sony Pictures CEO said the “door was closed” to them renewing their intellectual sharing agreement with Disney/Marvel. According to a Deadline report, this was due to an impasse over which studio would get the most money.
Then, Sept. 27, it was announced that Spider-Man would swing back to MCU proper!
The actor who plays the titular character, Tom Holland, organized a meeting between the highest heads of Disney, Marvel and Sony and convinced them of what everyone knew: 1) Spider-Man’s MCU story was unfinished; 2) under Marvel Studios, Spider-Man has become a billion-a-movie franchise; and 3) they can still both make millions (hundreds of millions) from any future collaborations.
Cooler heads prevailed and agreed for Marvel to make two more films with the character: one solo and one team-up or cameo film.
Wait…Spider-Man is Marvel, right?
Kind of — the comics, merchandise, video games and even the animated rights (mostly) lie with Marvel, and the film rights lie with Sony Pictures.
This divide goes back to the 1990s and the near collapse of the comic book industry; particularly, Marvel was near bankruptcy and dissolving as a company. To stay afloat, the company sold the film rights to some of their most popular characters, including Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and even formerly less popular characters, such as Iron Man and the Hulk, to big and small film studios. Sony pictures bought Spider-Man’s rights and was even offered the film rights to Marvel’s entire catalog, which they rebuffed based on the reasoning that “the only character people care about is Spider-Man!”
Unbeknownst to the corporate heads at that time, this move would usher in an age of highly profitable superhero films and a resurgence in the public’s interest in them.
What’s the problem?
If you felt that director Sam Raimi’s final Spider-Man, “Spider-Man 3,” was a corporate collage of marketing and unfocused storytelling, thank Sony Pictures for that. The company must make a film of Spider-Man (or his related characters) every three years in order to maintain the film license.
In 2015, Marvel Studios (a Disney subsidiary since 2009) and Sony Pictures entered a historic arrangement in which Spider-Man and his ancillary characters would be shared between the two companies, with Sony maintaining the license to the character and keeping the profits (except 5 percent of the initial weekend box office, which went to Marvel) while Marvel would be allowed to use Spider-Man in their universe and helm two solo films with an option for a third. Marvel retained the merchandizing, TV and likeness rights, which generate billions of dollars for the company, even though they gave up profit from the character’s films.
The sharing arrangement was unprecedented because Hollywood is a highly competitive, non-diverse and corrupt Clue-game scenario: Anyone could stab you in the back at any time, so don’t, really, work together. Equate Hollywood culture with politics in Washington, D.C., or Olympia.
Sony Pictures was backed into this arrangement by the critical and financial failure of their previous attempt to reboot the Spider-Man franchise and a subsequent hack that publicized company emails, denounced as racist and moronic, and exposing the film studio’s meddling in the creative process.
It seemed that the new run of Spider-Man and Marvel films solved these image and profitability problems, but, in 2017 and 2018, there were a series of leadership and industry changes that made things more complex, particularly due to the intensification of corporate media consolidation.
What does Spider-Man have to do with serious media consolidation problems?
If you dislike the Marvel 2017 and 2019 iteration’s character development, relationships or action, I can’t help you with your clearly bad taste in film!
To be serious for a second, the larger issue is the conglomerate hold of media in our society monetizing formative creativity with fan’s devotion.
In March, Disney bought Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. for $71.3 billion, including their film and TV divisions, Hulu and a plethora more properties from the Rupert Murdoch empire. If you recognize that name, it is probably due to his history of political work for the right-wing and his corrupt business practices. This ushered in, as Vox put it, “a scary new era of media consolidation.”
In a parallel to the Disney/Fox merger, earlier this year, AT&T bought Time Warner for $85 billion, joining Warner Media’s assets (TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network, HBO and Warner Brothers Studios) with the telecommunications giant. AT&T-Warner Media announced it will launch a streaming service bundle in late 2019 to rival Netflix and the Disney+ streaming service due next year. These streaming services drive the public toward a paywall for more and more content.
All these moves show a trend toward mega-franchises similar to the critically and commercially popular MCU, building catalogues for potential products to compete in the streaming future.
What does this all mean?
In another piece I wrote for Real Change, I hailed “Black Panther” as an achievement, yet it wasn’t easily gained. In the film arena, the push for diversity is recent; there have been high-profile critiques of Hollywood, such as #Oscarssowhite, but behind the scenes, an Oscar award for a film headlining Black and Brown people won’t do much.
The 2019 report “Hollywood Diversity: Old Story, New Beginning,” from the UCLA social studies department, noted that only 1.3 out of 10 Hollywood directors are women or people of color. That trend was either maintained or only marginally better or worse among writers, major decision makers, producers and other critical leaders. In the television industry, the lack of diversity only improved slightly. Diversity in Hollywood is “in” only when the public demands it — with dollars or public indignation. This can quickly veer toward tokenization.
Storytelling can also be affected by the homogeny of creatives, not just in terms of identity but ideas; for example, “Deadpool” [insert a break in the “fourth wall” here]. As the story is told, it was due to the test footage leaked and Twenty-First Century Fox’s more “progressive” leads that the studio took a risk and greenlit the project. At Disney, however, they take few risks with both representation and story. Moreover, this lack of diverse voices means that important stories and discourses are lost.
So, why get this up in arms about two companies striking a second deal? Shouldn’t you be happy, nerd, you ask? Yes, but this is a loud reminder of how corporate greed triumphs over fans, artists or even downright good taste! This was a crass business decision that deprioritized the development of quality stories, equal representation and space for greater experimentation.
The fans will long have to pay for Disney and Sony’s impasse and the new streaming wars and blockbuster brinkmanship. So, true believers, as Stan Lee (R.I.P.) would say: nuff said.
Read the full October 30 - November 5 issue.
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