Anybody who’s been paying attention to the state of blockbuster cinema for the last decade has noticed what a tangled web the Marvel movie rights are. Because of their 1990’s bankruptcy and need to quickly recoup their losses from the comic book crash of the same decade, they sold off the film rights to all of their most valuable intellectual properties, leaving them with what, at the time, were considered the dregs. But they were a comic publisher, not a movie studio (at least at the time), so what did they care?
This is how Marvel franchises were scattered to the cinematic winds throughout the early 2000s. Fox got X-Men and Fantastic Four. Sony got Spider-Man. Others got Hulk, Daredevil and Ghost Rider. Marvel kept the rest.
And then Marvel made the multimedia leap that they had previously banked that they never would. After reacquiring the Hulk film rights back from Universal, they launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, sure, they didn’t have everybody’s favorite mutants or their own iconic first family, but they had the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, who they were able to transform into powerhouse movie stars over the course of their phase 1 of movies.
And with their newfound cinematic success – plus their newfound corporate masters in Disney – they started, piece by agonizing piece, rebuilding their superhero movie rosters from the properties that only they could seemingly make work on the big screen. Some lapsed back into their control when the studios holding them failed to use them before their contractual deadline. Others they bought back, or bought out the studios who held them.
Sony, however, was something of an interesting case. Even thought their film studio was hemorrhaging money like nobody’s business, they kept an iron grip on the Spider-Man film rights: correctly guessing that any short term setbacks were worth it for the long term gains they stood to earn with what might ultimately be Marvel’s most popular hero. Impatient to make use of their character, though, Marvel was willing to deal. The compromise gave Marvel the rights to their character back, but Sony could still make movies based on the property.
And this is where the current confusion comes into play. These Sony-branded Spider-Man movies – which evidently could not use Spider-Man himself, but would include all of his villains, peripheral characters, spin-off characters and love interests – were never supposed to be part of the MCU: Marvel’s shared cinematic universe mega franchise. They would be entirely separate entities with no narrative connections to one another aside from the source material from which they sprung. Sony always insisted otherwise, but Marvel made their case clear: Sony was not making MCU movies.
The matter was supposed to be settled last year, but recent developments have cast the Sony / Marvel relationship in a new light. Tom Holland – the young actor who plays Spider-Man Marvel’s multitudinous movies – was spotted on the set of Venom, Sony’s first Spider-Manless Spider-Man movie, for two days during filming. While there, he was seen both with Venom star Tom Hardy and director Ruben Fleischer. Filmmaker Jon Schnepp reported the actor’s unexpected presence amidst filmmaking, causing rampant speculation about some secret Spider-Man role – or at least cameo – in the film.
Now, this could just all be unrelated. As an actor in a presumably adjacent franchise, maybe it was a friendly visit, or stemmed from professional curiosity. Sony’s been so gung-ho to double-dip Holland into their off-branded Spider-verse that maybe they’re just trying to recruit him toward that end. Or maybe it’s as it appears to be: Holland’s Spider-Man officially crossing over into Sony’s peripheral films.
We just don’t know at this point, although it’s certainly a confusing development to unfold. A scant two days does seem suspiciously short for what would otherwise be a major role, and the only information we have currently is that he was on the set: not in costume and not performing himself. Either way, it’s a wrinkle that Marvel itself might want to iron out before these rumors get too far out of hand.