The Marvel Cinematic Universe could have been a very different place but for what may ultimately rank among the most short-sighted business decisions in Hollywood history.
The year was 1998, a full decade before Marvel Studios upended the superhero movie paradigm with the release of ‘Iron Man’, taking the first steps on its path to dominating not only the global box office but pop culture as well. At that time, Marvel’s future was anything but certain as the company had only just clawed its way out of bankruptcy. Sony Pictures, meanwhile, found itself in possession of the home video rights to Spider-Man, but needed to secure other elements of the license before proceeding with a film of his own. The Spider-Man rights had spent most of the past decade bouncing between production companies (most notably leading to the near miss of James Cameron’s aborted adaptation) before a court ruling returned them to Marvel.
Thus it was then that Sony exec Yair Landau went to Marvel to secure the studio’s missing Spider-Man rights. With Marvel’s position being as precarious as it was, newly installed CEO Ike Perlmutter made Sony a stunning offer: $25 million for the rights to not only the wall crawler but nearly every character to which Marvel had not already licensed out the rights in their search for quick cash. Landau took the offer back to his superiors, who insisted that he make a deal for Spider-Man alone. Who, they reasoned, would have any interest in a Thor movie? Perlmutter agreed and ultimately sold the Spider-Man rights for $10 million plus a paltry 5% of the box office take, as well as a percentage of merchandising.
With that deal in place, Sony began work on the film that would become Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’. That film would be instrumental in kicking off the twenty-first century superhero movie boom, and along with its two sequels gross a combined $2.49 billion. The later ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ films would add another $1.4 billion to that total. For obvious reasons, Marvel was never quite happy with this deal, even before they were forced to embark on their shared universe experiment without the rights to their flagship character.
The success of the MCU ultimately eclipsed that of Sony’s by then struggling Spider-Man films. And of course, this change of fortune (combined with Sony’s increasingly dire financial straits) would ultimately lead to the 2014 negotiations that ultimately brought the wall crawler back to Marvel, where he has since appeared (as played by Tom Holland) in ‘Captain America: Civil War‘ and ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming‘, and is set to return in this summer’s ‘Avengers: Infinity War‘. To borrow a phrase from another of Disney’s pop culture monoliths, “the circle is now complete.”
It would be easy to read this as a testament to Sony’s history of… let’s say “dubious” judgment with regard to its handling of superhero movies. But to be fair, who in 1998 would have ever guessed that a Thor movie would gross $853.2 million (as ‘Thor: Ragnarok‘ did last year)? In fact, I’d argue it’s a reminder of something that’s often overlooked these days, that being the sheer improbability of the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. It’s a point that’s underscored by the fact that virtually every major studio has attempted some variation on the shared universe concept since ‘The Avengers’ hit in 2012. With the notable exception of Marvel’s, none of those attempts have gained much traction.
More to the point, Marvel Studios not only defied the odds, they did so with one hand tied behind their back. Unlike Warner/DC, which has always had the benefit of having kept the film rights to their superheroes in-house, Marvel sold off the movie rights to several of their most popular characters (not least of which were Spider-Man and the X-Men) in the course of clawing its way out of bankruptcy in the latter half of the nineties. It’s easy to overlook now, but in 2008 the Hulk was arguably the best known (among non-comics readers, that is) arrow in Marvel Studios’ quiver, and much of that owed itself to the Bill Bixby TV series a generation prior. Iron Man was a B-list superhero at best. Ditto Ant-Man. And don’t even get me started on Guardians of the Galaxy.
That’s the truly impressive thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s not merely that their success has completely remade the Hollywood landscape, but that they did so with an assortment of characters that no other studio would have been likely to take a chance on (not to the tune of $150 million, at any rate).