Remember when you were a kid and you liked somebody, but you weren’t comfortable asking that person out? So you told a few friends, and maybe they told the friends of the girl or guy you like, and those emissaries determined whether there was mutual interest. If it’s an affirmative, an actual overture could be made without fear of humiliation on either front. If one side isn’t interested, however, the other can safely deny involvement.
The same thing happens at the corporate level. See, for example, the world of Spider-Man, where delicate preliminary conversations between Sony Pictures (which owns the cinematic license on the character) and Marvel Studios (which would like its webslinger back, now that it has its own massively successful string of superhero pictures) are underway.
Will Spidey be joining Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Black Widow on the big screen in the near future? No. Sources on both sides confirm that much. But a few years from now… that’s a possibility, at least according to EW’s sources. (Official reps for the two studios both declined to comment.)
But that’s the extent of it: possibility. There are several variables that need to play out before anything concrete happens. Here are the facts as we hear them from several well-placed sources:
1.) Sony isn’t interested in sharing its Spider-Man toy. Sony’s license has a ticking clock. Every three years, the company has to make a film utilizing the character; otherwise, the rights revert back to Marvel, which is now not only a comic book company but also full-fledged movie production house (owned by Sony’s rival studio, The Walt Disney Co.). When studios fail to exercise their license, the characters return home—which is what happened with Fox and Daredevil when plans for a reboot directed by Joe Carnahan went “up in smoke.” Now Marvel Studios has turned the blind superhero into a Netflix series. Sony already released its hold on Ghost Rider—but that wasn’t much of a loss, and it wasn’t much of a gain for Marvel, which inherited a played-out franchise. Spider-Man is an infinitely more popular character, and although Sony has struggled to keep the franchise profitable after rebooting it with Marc Webb as director and Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, they resent the idea that now is the time to throw in the towel.
2.) Sinister Six is definitely happening. There’s already a new Spider-Man movie in the pipeline at Sony, a villain team-up teased in this summer’s Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s set for release in November 2016, which gives the project enough time to fix what might be broken in Sony’s current approach. If writer/director Drew Goddard (a Joss Whedon collaborator who made The Cabin in the Woods with the Avengers director) can crack the code, and this bad-guy team-up can put Spidey back in the good graces of audiences, Sony can place its thumb on its nose and wiggle its fingers at Marvel Studios.
3.) The Faceplant Scenario could happen too. Sony may be resistant to the idea of partnering with Marvel Studios, but it isn’t stupid. The leadership at the Culver City studio knows that five films and 14 years after Sam Raimi helped to galvanize the cinematic superhero renaissance with 2002’s Spider-Man, the web-shooters may be out of juice come 2016. Even Batman went south, alienating moviegoers with fatal doses of camp; the property disappeared for many years before being resuscitated by Christopher Nolan. If Sinister Six flops, those fingers wiggling in front of Sony’s nose could well morph into a handshake with Marvel Studios. Only then, amid dismal box office receipts more than two years from now, would any deep negotiations be had about forging a hero-sharing deal between Sony and Disney that could team up Spidey and the Avengers.
4.) Marvel wants Spider-Man, but doesn’t need Spider-Man. This is why no one should expect any deal-making to happen soon. Sony wants to keep its character, and Marvel has plenty of other characters to occupy its schedule. But it was the success of 2002’s Spider-Man (and Bryan Singer’s 2000 blockbuster X-Men), that made the comic book company realize it might want to stop licensing its heroes and start making movies on its own. Sony already traded back most of the revenue on toys and other merchandise for the webslinger, and Marvel could easily kick in financing for a Sony film if it meant getting its character back for cameos or supporting roles in ensembles like the Avengers movies. But time is on both studios’ sides: If Sony bungles Sinister Six, Marvel is in a much stronger position to say, “Let us come in and help.” That’s where a sharing partnership could come about. Or Sinister Six could crash so badly, and Spidey could become such damaged goods, that Sony simply surrenders the rights as other studios have with less-iconic properties. Marvel gets what it wants in both scenarios. The only way it loses is if Sony wins big with its next installment.
5.) This won’t be your father’s Spider-Man. Marvel can’t sit around counting on having Spider-Man in a movie. There are just too many variables at play, and Marvel has a full schedule through 2019 anyway. If the rights came back to Marvel tomorrow (which, remember, is not remotely possible), the best you could expect is to see Spider-Man become a supporting player in one of the movies that’s already in the works. Given that Sony will have to wait until 2016 before the studio knows what it wants to do with the license, you probably couldn’t see a stand-alone Marvel-produced Spider-Man picture until 2020, or more likely 2021 or 2022. People who saw Raimi’s original Spider-Man as little kids would be able to take their own children to this one, a full generation after the first movie hit theaters. Robert Downey Jr. would be 58. Still playing Iron Man? Maybe. But pushing 60, he’d be more like Iron Deficiency Man.
The point is, this is a long-ball game. Titanic corporations are in a tug ‘o war over this character, and solid developments will take a long time to play out. A few tentative notes have passed between them, yes. That much is certain. But with great box-office power comes great intractability.