Last week brought us the first trailer for Madame Web, another in a long line of live-action movies about tertiary Spider-Man characters in which Spider-Man seemingly does not appear. The initial reaction has been, well, not great. Which begs the question: why is Sony—which controls the rights to Spider-Man and has two healthy franchises in Tom Holland’s version of the character and the Spider-Verse films—making all these Spider-Man-less Spider-Man movies? Do they have to do this for some reason?
The answer is yes, kind of. The answer stretches back to the ‘80s, and a deal that now looks more and more like a devil’s bargain.
Why in the world are we stuck with these weird Sony superhero movies?
That’s a big question that needs, sadly, a bit of preamble: In the ‘80s, Marvel went out to Hollywood to license some of their superhero characters to different movie studios to create films that would basically function as glorified toy commercials. The independent studio Cannon Films bought the rights to Spider-Man, tried and failed to make a Spider-Man movie, then went bankrupt; in 1996, so did Marvel. The rights to Spidey were lost in litigation until 1999, when Marvel recovered them and sold them to Sony. The success of Sony’s Spider-Man films, along with the Fox X-Men movies, helped pull Marvel out of a death-spiral in the early aughts.
Sony’s agreement with Marvel included a condition requiring the studio to commence production on a dedicated Spider-Man movie within a stipulated time frame that works out to once every five years and nine months. If Sony were to miss that target, the studio could lose a major piece of its IP portfolio. Remember when 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 pulled in less money at the box office than any previous Spider-Man movie, and how quickly Sony partnered up with a then-ascendant Marvel Studios to reboot the franchise with the MCU-set Tom Holland Spider-Man films? The five-years-and-nine-months deal is part of the reason why.
Whoof. So, are all these extra movies Sony’s way of leveraging the most from the Spider-Man IP now that Tom Holland is on loan to the MCU?
Yes, exactly. The licensing deal between Sony and Marvel means Sony also controls the film rights to roughly 900 characters from the Spider-Man universe—a rich portfolio of supporting characters who arguably become a lot less compelling once you remove the guy they’re meant to, y’know, support. In a 2014 email to a colleague surfaced by Wikileaks after the Sony Pictures hack, former Sony Motion Pictures Group head Amy Pascal lamented, “I only have the spidey universe not the marvel universe…And in it are only his villains and relatives and girlfriend.” The context: Pascal was trying to figure out how to move forward after the poor box-office performance of Amazing Spider-Man 2. “Unless I partner with marvel [a]nd have spiderman join their world,” she wrote in a subsequent email, “I’m running out of options.”
Sony did eventually strike that deal with Marvel, but also began exploring their “villains and relatives and girlfriend” options. The first Venom film, from 2018, was Sony’s initial attempt at leveraging the toys they had. It worked; the movie went on to massive success, to the tune of $856 million worldwide, and spawned a subsequent sequel, which also performed well at $506 million worldwide. There’s a third film on the way.
Of course. We all love Venom. But what about, uh, Morbius?
Ah yes, the good Doctor. The Jared Leto-starring vehicle, which focused on a third-tier Spidey foe, underperformed when it opened in April 2022, and even after it was re-released a few months later in a valiant attempt on Sony’s part to ride a wave of ironic appreciation to actual box-office success, it was never, in fact, “Morbin’ time.”