Brow Beat

Spider-Man Exits the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Talks Between Marvel and Sony Collapse

Spider-Man flying toward camera.
“Bye!” Sony

Japanese tape recorder manufacturer Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation and California’s own Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio are locked in a dispute over intellectual property belonging to Timely Publications, a Manhattan-based pulp magazine publisher, Deadline reports. The three corporate entities, which today do business as “Sony Corp.,” “the Walt Disney Co.,” and “Marvel Entertainment, Which Is Also the Walt Disney Co.,” are considered legal persons under U.S. law, and, as such, are allowed to own property and enter into civil contracts, although as a practical matter all three entities negotiate primarily through human representatives. Unfortunately, those human representatives seem to have let their corporations down, because they have reportedly been unable to agree on a contract concerning the shared use of registered trademark No. 1163134, which governs entertainment services rendered through the mediums of television and film exhibitions under the name “Spider-Man.” Unless both parties can come to an agreement, the “Spider-Man” character will no longer appear in filmed entertainments produced by the Walt Disney Co., and Kevin Feige, a human employee of the Walt Disney Co., will not be allowed to participate in the Sony Corp.’s upcoming “Spider-Man”–related business ventures.*

The trademark in question was filed in Nov. 21, 1979, on behalf of the Cadence Industries Corp. (formerly the Perfect Film & Chemical Corp.) and was registered to the same entity on July 28, 1981. It was eventually reassigned to the Marvel Entertainment Group Inc., and today belongs to Marvel Characters Inc., a Delaware corporation with headquarters in Burbank, California. (The underlying intellectual property was created in 1962 by employees of Atlas Magazines Inc.) During the 1980s, the rights to produce film and television entertainment works derived from the Atlas Magazines Inc. material was licensed to New World Pictures Ltd., the Cannon Group Inc., and Carolco Pictures Inc.; all three corporations later filed for bankruptcy protection, and the corporations that absorbed their assets—most prominently, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Viacom Inc.—contested Sony’s rights throughout the 1990s, until a 1999 agreement between the warring corporations paved the way for Sony to exhibit a motion picture titled Spider-Man, authored by Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. for the purpose of copyright and other laws, in 2002.

Those long-ago settlements, crafted years before Marvel Entertainment’s human representatives began talking about the “Marvel Cinema Universe,” meant that Sony Corp. was in a strong negotiating position in 2015 when the Walt Disney Co. asked for the rights to create its own filmed entertainments derived from the “Spider-Man” material. The resulting deal, in which the Walt Disney Co. receives roughly 5 percent of the first-dollar box office gross of Sony Corp.’s “Spider-Man” business ventures, has come to be seen as unfavorable to the interests of the Walt Disney Co.’s shareholders, so human representatives of the corporation requested a new deal in which the Walt Disney Co. would receive 50 percent of the first-dollar box office gross in exchange for contributing 50 percent of future films’ production budgets and allowing one of its employees to serve both corporation’s financial interests as a producer. Human representatives of Sony Corp., acting on behalf of its shareholders, have rejected this proposition, and now the Walt Disney Co. says that its employee Kevin Feige will no longer be assigned producing duties on any future filmed entertainments authored for the purpose of copyright and other laws by Sony Corp. or its subsidiaries.

Reporting on the state of the negotiations between these two corporations, an employee of the Penske Media Corp.’s Deadline Hollywood subsidiary focused on the human element, writing that Sony Corp.’s position was “similar to saying, thank you, but we think we can win the championship without Michael Jordan.” (Michael Jordan is a human being who provided contractual services to the Chicago Professional Sports Limited Partnership during the 1990s that were widely seen as crucial to its success.) The Penske Media Corp. went on to praise Feige’s skill at making money for the Walt Disney Co., comparing him favorably to other human beings who also made money for the corporations that employed them:

After all, Feige’s first decade at Marvel is largely unblemished and his consistency has been nothing short of historic: even George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson haven’t seen everything turn into a hit, and so maybe only James Cameron has the success record that Feige has achieved. But Feige has done it all in the last 10 years, producing and overseeing 23 superheroes, with not a flop in the bunch. They’ve all been number one openers that have collectively grossed $26.8 billion. Feige this year became the producer of the top grossing film ever for two studios—Sony and Disney—and he produced three of the top four highest grossing films this year in Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Far From Home. This after scoring the first ever Best Picture Oscar nom for a superhero film last year with Black Panther.

Unless it is resolved, the dispute will put an end to the Walt Disney Co.’s future use of “Spider-Man”–derived material in its own filmed entertainments: An employee at another Penske Media Corp. branded website says this will “effectively remov[e] Tom Holland’s Spider-Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Sony Corp. was expected to move forward on at least two more derivative works focusing primarily on the “Spider-Man” character; it appears that those motion pictures, if they proceed, will not include intellectual property currently controlled by the Walt Disney Co. Sony Corp. is still expected to produce a sequel to Venom and new films derived from the Spider-Man-related intellectual properties commonly known as “Kraven the Hunter” and “Morbius, the Living Vampire.” None of the corporations involved in the dispute have commented yet.

At press time, it was still completely legal for human beings to create fictional stories about fictional characters that they thought up themselves inside their very own heads.