Sony Needs Spider-Man, But How Many Moviegoers Want Spidey Without the Marvel Touch?

"Spider-Man: Far from Home" was Sony's biggest movie ever, but Marvel's role was crucial. Will the studio be able to repeat that success without Disney?
"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"
"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"
Sony Pictures Animation

In an era where multi-billion-dollar franchise installments are studios’ standard for moneymaking, Sony Pictures needs Spider-Man. The studio wrote the modern super hero movie playbook with the 2002 film starring Tobey Maguire, which boasted an adjusted worldwide gross in excess of $1 billion.

It wasn’t long until Disney took over as leader of the superhero world, after purchasing Marvel for $4.24 billion a decade ago. “Avengers: Endgame,” may have brought in $2.8 billion worldwide, but Sony still has the rights to one of Marvel’s most well-known characters — Spider-Man.

Sony teamed up with Disney’s Marvel in recent years to make Spider-Man movies. But now, the studios have seemingly parted ways, with Sony planning to continue making Spider-Man movies without Disney’s involvement. Sony obviously feels confident that it has found its footing with its own franchise and doesn’t need to be splitting profits with a rival. That might be true to some extent, but how many moviegoers will turn out to see Spidey sling through another adventure if he can’t swing through the now-familiar Marvel world that dominates the global box office? The numbers tell a complex story.

There’s just one studio other than Disney in this year’s top-five highest-grossing movies — Sony, whose “Spider-Man: Far from Home” grossed $1.11 billion worldwide, making it the studio’s biggest movie ever. But that project would be nothing without Disney’s Marvel accomplishments, considering that the studio loaned out MCU super-producer Kevin Feige to Sony, starting with “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

Sony isn’t exactly some uncontested No. 2 to Disney, which owns 40% of the box office after the Fox merger. Sony’s second-biggest hit this year was “Men in Black International,” which only brought in a measly $253 million worldwide. That’s not nothing, but Sony would have to make four Men in Blacks to get to a $1 billion; meanwhile, Disney saw five films cross $1 billion worldwide just this summer.

The solution clearly isn’t expanding the Men In Black universe. (Though Sony was at one time planning an ill-fated franchise crossover between “21 Jump Street” and “Men In Black.”) Spider-Man is helping keep the lights on at Sony and executives know Peter Parker is a clear winner. The question is whether they can continue that success without Disney’s help.

Spider-Man is a Marvel character. The reason he belongs to Sony, not Disney, involves bankruptcies, mergers, and historic deals dating back to the 1980s.

But the two studios recently teamed up. On the last two Spider-Man movies, Disney took a smaller percentage of profits from each (roughly 5% of first dollar gross), in exchange for Sony allowing Marvel to use the character in “Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Endgame,” bringing one of Marvel’s most famous and beloved characters into the MCU.

According to Deadline, Disney recently offered a 50/50 co-financing arrangement — which wasn’t even met with a counter from Sony. The result? Disney loses Spidey from the MCU and Sony loses Marvel chief Kevin Feige, who will no longer be involved in Spider-Man movies as lead creative producer.

Sony in a statement said it was “disappointed” that it can no longer count Feige as a collaborator, but history shows that Spider-Man still could thrive without the official Marvel touch. For instance, the 2018 strikingly animated installment “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” It grossed $375.5 million worldwide, modest but still better than “Men in Black International.” It was met with universal acclaim and an Oscar win for best animated feature — one of only six non-Disney or Pixar films to do so in the last 20 years.

Feige’s credit is absent from another of Sony’s efforts to build out its parallel Marvel universe: the 2018 Spider-Man villain spinoff “Venom.” It received abysmal reviews and didn’t win any Oscars, but helped Sony’s bottom line when it grossed $855 million at the global box office.

Sony’s hoping to do even better with “Venom 2,” which will see Tom Hardy reprising the title role, motion-capture master Andy Serkis directing, and legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson as DP. Another Spider-Man villain, Morbius, is getting a film starring Jared Leto that’s in post-production, while spinoffs featuring Kraven the Hunter and Silver Sable and Black Cat are also in the works.

While the Sony-Disney split might piss off diehard Marvel fanboys (like “Endgame” star Jeremy Renner, who took to Instagram to beg Sony to bring Spidey home to Marvel), it remains to be seen whether casual fans will be able to tell the difference with good marketing of quality films.

If you ask the heir of longtime Marvel leader Stan Lee, his daughter Joan Celia (JC) Lee, she told TMZ her late father’s characters “deserve multiple points of view.” And she’s not the biggest Disney fan.

“When my father died, no one from Marvel or Disney reached out to me,” she said. “From day one, they have commoditized my father’s work and never shown him or his legacy any respect or decency. In the end, no one could have treated my father worse than Marvel and Disney’s executives.”

Spider-Man may be the biggest icon in Marvel’s history, but Disney has plenty of ways to work around his absence. The current three-year-old phase of Marvel movies have grossed over $11 billion worldwide, when when you subtract the Sony’s successful Spider-Man titles. And more are on the way: Marvel announced 11 new projects at this year’s Comic-Con, including “Black Widow” starring Scarlett Johansson due out next year and several Disney+ animated and live-action series, expanding the already seemingly infinite world of crossover potential.

As for Sony, Spider-Man remains the cash cow that, if executed correctly, could benefit from the superhero craze induced by Disney’s MCU — even if he’s no longer a part of it.

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