Why Sony Pictures is stuck rebooting Marvel's Spider-Man forever and ever... : Planet Money Spider-Man isn't the first film franchise to be rebooted over and over again. But the infamous off-screen drama between Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures explains why it happens so frequently. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

The Spider-Man Problem

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Marvel Studios now makes some of the biggest movies in the world. But that is a relatively new business model for Marvel.


For most of its history, Marvel was a company that sold paper or plastic to people - paper comic books or plastic toys. Selling physical retail products was the Marvel business model.

MALONE: And, you know, that arguably started to change a little bit in 1993. This is when Marvel Films was created - not to make movies, but to license Marvel superheroes so other companies could make movies.

WONG: The idea was that Marvel would go find some big Hollywood studio. That studio would pay Marvel some money to use a superhero and then make a big, expensive superhero movie.

MALONE: Which conveniently would also be like a big, expensive superhero commercial for Marvel's comics and toys - the real Marvel business back in the '90s. And so licensing superheroes to movie studios was this low-risk no-brainer for Marvel. And license they did. To 20th Century Fox, Marvel licensed the movie rights to the X-Men.


ANNABELLE WALLIS: (As Co-Ed) Mutant and proud.

JAMES MCAVOY: (As Charles Xavier) Chin-chin.

WONG: To Universal Pictures...


LOU FERRIGNO: (As The Incredible Hulk) Hulk...

WONG: ...The Hulk.


FERRIGNO: (As The Incredible Hulk) ...Smash.

WONG: And to Sony Pictures went Marvel's most popular superhero of all...


TOBEY MAGUIRE: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) I will never forget these words.

WONG: ...Spider-Man.


MAGUIRE: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) With great power comes great responsibility.

MALONE: Our episode today is born from this "Spider-Man" movie deal made around the year 2000 between Marvel and Sony Pictures. And the basic details of the deal are this. Sony would pay Marvel $10 million for every "Spider-Man" movie that Sony wanted to make. Marvel would get 5% of the movie revenue. Sony and Marvel would split money from the "Spider-Man" movie toys. It was the right business decision in the moment. Marvel didn't make movies. They sold comic books and toys. What do they need the "Spider-Man" film rights for? Of course, later they may regret this decision. And this is what we shall henceforth call the "Spider-Man" problem.

WONG: The "Spider-Man" problem is not unique to Marvel. Any company can make the right decision in the moment without knowing the mess it will create in the future. It just so happens "Spider-Man" turned into a particularly entertaining mess.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Wailin Wong.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone.

Now, perhaps you've heard there's a new "Spider-Man" movie in theaters. And it has earned - just look at the box office numbers here - all of the money...

WONG: (Laughter).

MALONE: ...$1.7 billion and counting.

WONG: But for PLANET MONEY's purposes, the bigger "Spider-Man" story has been happening off screen for the past 20 years. It has questionable contracts, international espionage and exactly one food fight.

MALONE: Today on the show, we untangle the "Spider-Man" problem. You will never see a "Spider-Man" movie the same way again.


WONG: If you're a casual movie watcher, it maybe feels like there's been a new "Spider-Man" movie every other year for the last 20 years. And that's because there has been, on average.

MALONE: Yeah, so many "Spider-Man" movies starring so many different Spiders-Man - Spider-Men.

WONG: (Laughter).


MAGUIRE: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) Who am I?

MALONE: First, we got Tobey Maguire.


MAGUIRE: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) I'm Spider-Man.

MALONE: Then there were some Andrew Garfield movies.


ANDREW GARFIELD: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) Hey, my name is Spider-Man. You call me webhead. You can call me amazing.

WONG: And now we are in the Tom Holland era.


TOM HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker/Spider-Man) I mean, I'm just a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, sir.

SAMUEL L JACKSON: (As Nick Fury) [Expletive], please - you've been to space.

WONG: Untangling the "Spider-Man" problem will help explain why it feels like "Spider-Man" keeps starting over and over and over again.

MALONE: And to do this, we have brought in my personal favorite Marvel expert.

What is the nerdiest "Spider-Man" fact that you love?

JOANNA ROBINSON: Originally, Spider-Man was not going to be a spider-based hero.


ROBINSON: Stan Lee wanted to make him a fly. So...

MALONE: But that - so Fly-Man?


MALONE: This is Joanna Robinson. She's senior writer and podcaster over at The Ringer. And yes, apparently a literal fly on the wall inspired Stan Lee to eventually create Spider-Man.

ROBINSON: I think "Spider-Man" is a really good way to take a tour of the history of Marvel Studios. And this is its own little, like, Marvel drama. But the MacGuffin is not...


ROBINSON: ...Infinity Stone. It's poor Peter Parker.

MALONE: Yeah, that's right.

And so with Joanna's help, we're going to go Spider-Man by Spider-Man to tell this bigger story.

WONG: We pick up that story in 1999, which is when Marvel and Sony strike their "Spider-Man" deal. Sony Pictures gets to work, and about three years later, they have their first "Spider-Man" movie ready to go, starring Tobey Maguire.

MALONE: All right. Here we go. OK. Can you see my screen OK?


MALONE: Look at little baby...


MALONE: ...Tobey Maguire.


MAGUIRE: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) Hey.

ROBINSON: So tiny.


MAGUIRE: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) Can I take your picture? I need one with a student in it.

KIRSTEN DUNST: (As Mary Jane Watson) Sure. Yeah.

WONG: Now, important backstory here - Hollywood wisdom for basically all of time said that to become box office hits, movies need superstars. Like, maybe Sony would need Leonardo DiCaprio to play Spider-Man.

MALONE: I would not have minded seeing a Leo Spider-Man. However, Sony went a different direction. They instead...


MAGUIRE: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) Shazam.

MALONE: ...Hired Tobey Maguire. And this was a bit of a gamble because he was not a superstar in 2002. Wailin, feel free to disagree. I know you have strong Tobey Maguire feelings.

WONG: (Laughter).


WONG: I just think "Cider House Rules" is, like, a major movie.

MALONE: OK, sure. He had been in that, but he was not Leo. And yet, everyone, probably including Leo, went and saw Tobey Maguire's "Spider-Man" movie anyway.


MAGUIRE: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) Thanks.

ROBINSON: And there's a spider, and there's a bite.

MALONE: And we have a bite.

ROBINSON: The telltale bite. And I know that there have been a million origin stories since, and so it might all seem kind of...

MALONE: We're going to get into that. We're going to get into that.

ROBINSON: ...Kind of - yeah, it might seem kind of rote. But I think it's really interesting in terms of not being afraid to lean into what makes that comic book appealing, which for "Spider-Man" is sort of a wholesome, real story about a real kid. Really, it is that first "Spider-Man," which makes a mind-boggling amount of money - it really does change and kick off something new - a new wave.

MALONE: Sure, there had been superhero movies before, but "Spider-Man" kicks off a new magnitude of thing. It makes, like, double what any other superhero movie had made before - $800 million - and, again, starring a not-very-famous actor.

WONG: All of this revealed a massive change happening in Hollywood. That old industry axiom that you need superstars, maybe that did not apply to superhero movies. Maybe the real star of a "Spider-Man" movie is Spider-Man - the character, the intellectual property, the IP.

ROBINSON: We are moving out of the era of movie stars. It no longer makes sense for studios to have sort of a resonant movie star or two. What becomes king is IP over stars.

MALONE: What - is Marvel mad at this point? Like, what are you thinking if you're Marvel as the - as "Spider-Man" is ascending to the ranks of superhero greatness?

ROBINSON: I don't know if I would say mad. But I do think that this example of "Spider-Man," of, like, OK, sure, we're making plenty of money off the toys...


ROBINSON: ...But think of all - look at this box office. Why aren't we getting any of this money, you know, or more of this money, et cetera?

MALONE: I imagine in a boardroom somewhere, this is about the moment Marvel starts to realize they have created the "Spider-Man" problem. Back when they sold the "Spider" film rights, they were just a company that sold comic books and toys. But now it seemed like the better business was actually making superhero movies. And if so, then maybe selling away the movie rights to your most popular characters may be not the greatest idea in hindsight.

WONG: But Sony Pictures did have the rights. And, of course, they kept making movies. They had two more Tobey Maguire "Spider-Man" movies - one great, one less great.

MALONE: And then, in 2012, Sony introduced a completely new "Spider-Man."


KEITH CAMPBELL: (As Car Thief) You a cop?

GARFIELD: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) Really? You seriously think I'm a cop.

MALONE: Andrew Garfield.


GARFIELD: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) Cop in a skintight red and blue suit. You know, you're...

MALONE: Now, I feel like it was this Andrew Garfield movie where the general public started to wonder, wait; is there more to this Marvel-Sony deal than we know about? Because this "Spider-Man" movie appeared to be the same "Spider-Man" movie we had already seen. We had to watch Peter Parker get bit by a spider again.


GARFIELD: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) Ah, ah, ah.

MALONE: We had to watch his poor Uncle Ben die again.


GARFIELD: (As Spider-Man/Peter Parker) Uncle Ben, Uncle Ben.

MALONE: And then we had to watch Peter learn how to, like, use webs and sling and stuff again.

WONG: It was like Sony had forgotten it already made a bunch of Tobey Maguire movies.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Why does this film exist? I mean...

WONG: Angry fans took to the webcams.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's "Spider-Man." We're Sony. Just write whatever.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm giving this terrible movie a 2 out of 10.

MALONE: It was confusing...


MALONE: ...To, like - to me, to the general public.


MALONE: Like, what is happening?

ROBINSON: Yeah. And again, I am defensive of the Andrew Garfield "Spider-Man." But I remember being in a bar across the street from a movie theater as we were about to go watch "The Amazing Spider-Man." And a friend of mine, he asked me - he's like, why? Why are we getting Andrew Garfield's "Spider-Man"? We just...


ROBINSON: ...Said goodbye to Tobey. What's happening? And I said, yeah, in order to keep the rights, they have to keep making them in a timely, clip-clop fashion.

MALONE: For Sony to keep the "Spider-Man" rights, they apparently have to keep making "Spider-Man" movies per the contract.

ROBINSON: Here's a part of the Sony-Marvel contract. I'm going to read - are you going - I'm going to hit you with some...

MALONE: You got text?

ROBINSON: ...Contract verbiage.

MALONE: Oh, this is - this is it for us. We love reading from a contract. All right, let's - lay it on us, Joanna.

ROBINSON: All right. (Reading) Sony must commence production on a new "Spider-Man" film within three years, nine months and release it within five years, nine months after the release of preceding picture. Boom.

MALONE: Translation - if Sony does not release a "Spider-Man" movie every five years and nine months, the movie rights go back to Marvel, and Sony loses one of the most valuable pieces of intellectual property in the world? I - hard to fact-check. I'm going to go and say it.

WONG: So if you've wondered why there always seems to be a "Spider-Man" movie, it's because there kind of has to be one if Sony wants to keep the rights.

MALONE: And does this go on for eternity?



ROBINSON: This is the contract. This is what - this is the devil's bargain that Marvel's made with Sony.

MALONE: I remember what made the "Spider-Man" problem seem particularly bad was that at the exact same time the sad, confusing Andrew Garfield "Spider-Man" came out, the following movie also came out.


ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Tony Stark/Iron Man) Call it, captain.

CHRIS EVANS: (As Steve Rogers/Captain America) All right, listen up. Stark, you've got the perimeter. Thor, you got to try and bottleneck that portal. And Hulk...

MARK RUFFALO: (As Bruce Banner/The Hulk, grunting).

EVANS: (As Steve Rogers/Captain America) ...Smash.

RUFFALO: (As Bruce Banner/The Hulk, grunting).

MALONE: Marvel's "Avengers." Yes, Marvel, of course, had started making movies. And now their superheroes were in a movie together, fighting bad guys in New York City, where Spider-Man lives. But Spider-Man could not be there to help, which only made sense if you understood the eternal legal, contractual "Spider-Man" problem Marvel had created for itself.

WONG: After the break, Marvel tries to solve its eternal problem and gets in a food fight - a literal food fight.

MALONE: In 2005, Marvel took out a giant loan from Merrill Lynch to start Marvel Studios, to start making its own movies. The problem for Marvel was, at this point, they had licensed out most of their best characters. Spider-Man, of course, as we talked about for the past 10 minutes, but also X-Men, Fantastic Four - gone.

WONG: And so Marvel Studios was built from the benchwarmer superheroes. Easy to forget now, but Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man - these were not breakout comic book stars.

MALONE: No, Marvel Studios turned them into giant stars by making amazing movies. And as Marvel Studios got more powerful and then it was purchased by Disney, it has been able to bring back home its other characters. For example, the movie studio that was sitting on the "X-Men" and "Fantastic Four" rights, Disney just bought that studio. Problem solved.

ROBINSON: It's really just Spider-Man out there, swinging in the wind, that Marvel wants to bring home, so.

MALONE: One final toy that they lent around the neighborhood and they just are still knocking on the door saying, Jimmy...

ROBINSON: Come home.

MALONE: ...Can I have my toy back?

ROBINSON: Come home. Yeah.

WONG: And the story of how Marvel did kind of get Spider-Man back is a doozy.

MALONE: This is where the food fight happens. And just to set the scene here, the year is 2014. Marvel is making tons of movies that people love, though it certainly does suck that Spider-Man cannot show up in those movies because Sony has the rights.

WONG: And to keep those rights, Sony is stuck rebooting "Spider-Man" like Sisyphus. The confusing Andrew Garfield movie does not do great. The sequel to it does even less great.

MALONE: Marvel starts to wonder maybe - maybe now is our moment to try and get a little control back over Spider-Man.

WONG: A couple of names we have to introduce here. No. 1 - Marvel's big, important movie producer Kevin Feige.

ROBINSON: Kevin Feige calls an emergency meeting over at Marvel to say, OK, what if we got Spider-Man back? What would we do with him?

WONG: Feige goes off to meet with Sony Pictures, which not unusual. He often went to talk strategy with the big, important movie producer over there - Amy Pascal.

ROBINSON: "Spider-Man" played a big part in the fact that Amy Pascal rose up the ranks at Sony. Her association with "Spider-Man" is a part of her career's legacy.

And so Amy Pascal sits down with Kevin Feige over lunch. Sandwiches are ordered in in her office, I believe it is. She talks to him, and she's like, OK, what are we going to do next? We would like to keep going with this current arrangement. How's that going to play out? And Kevin basically said, that doesn't work for us, you know? This doesn't work for us anymore.

MALONE: And then Kevin Feige basically says to Amy Pascal, we know that you technically have the rights to "Spider-Man." We're not disputing that. But Marvel is very good at making superhero movies now. Maybe you should let us make the next "Spider-Man" movie for you.

ROBINSON: Amy Pascal has recently described her emotions here as resentful. She says she cried, and she threw a sandwich at Kevin Feige.

MALONE: I'm sorry. Did you say she threw a sandwich?

ROBINSON: She threw a sandwich at Kevin Feige in this moment. Listen. I've - now, I've never thrown a sandwich at someone, but, like, maybe I would if they came in and told me that I wasn't doing a good enough job with...


ROBINSON: ...This kid they asked me to babysit.

WONG: I hope it wasn't a hot sandwich.

MALONE: We don't know, though Amy Pascal has confirmed this story. But look at this from Sony's perspective. Like, giving Marvel creative control is embarrassing. It's publicly admitting that they need help, which maybe is the kind of thing you'd say privately, maybe in some emails to your colleagues. Not the kind of thing you really want getting out in the public.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tonight, Sony Pictures is fighting back against what they say is a brazen attack on their computer systems. At least...

MALONE: Yeah, Sony got hacked. And lots of private thoughts and private information were suddenly very public. And for Joanna Robinson, covering entertainment at the time, this was a humongous story.

ROBINSON: It was just, oh, my God. You know, I was at home. It was like, is this real?


ROBINSON: Oh, my God. This is real.

WONG: The best theory is that North Korea targeted Sony because of a Seth Rogen movie.

MALONE: Which is still one of the strangest sentences that is ever said out loud.

WONG: And the hackers leaked all kinds of very important and very embarrassing Sony emails. And these emails gave us a peek inside Sony and revealed that being a "Spider-Man" movie company was not always amazing.

MALONE: Yeah. For starters, the emails showed that Sony was jealous of Marvel. Like, they had watched Marvel Studios build a whole cinematic universe where superheroes can cross over into each other's movies. And fans now expected that kind of thing. But Sony was not in a position to offer it.

WONG: In one of Amy Pascal's leaked emails, she basically says, all I have is Spider-Man, his enemies, his relatives and his girlfriend. How am I supposed to build a whole universe out of that?

MALONE: Also in the leaked emails, we learned that Sony, like, had been looking to create a universe out of the non-"Spider-Man" intellectual property that it did have. But...

ROBINSON: They've got "Ghostbusters."


ROBINSON: They've got "Men In Black."

MALONE: OK, they've got "Men In Black" in 2014. Sure.

ROBINSON: And I don't know if you recall, but "21 Jump Street" was a thing.

MALONE: Right.

ROBINSON: So we start reading about all these, like, bizarre plans that they have - "Men In Black" in the "Ghostbusters" firehouse or, you know, "21 Jump Street" in "Men In Black." Like, how can we make - mix and match these various IPs?

MALONE: Oh, no. It's so sad.

ROBINSON: It's tough.

WONG: So the hack made Sony look desperate at best, incompetent at worst.

MALONE: Yes. And one other huge thing the hack did was confirm these rumors that had been circulating. You know, not everybody knew about the sandwich throwing incident, but there had been whispers that Marvel was trying to bring Spider-Man back into the Marvel Universe, and these emails seem to show it.

ROBINSON: The fans of the world catch wind of this idea that Marvel wants to get more involved in "Spider-Man." And so that pushes some pressure on Sony because all the sudden, like, the fandom's like, well, of course - of course we want that.

MALONE: Oh, boy.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The flagship character...

MALONE: Cue the fandom and their webcams.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Sony, from all reports, has no [expletive] clue what...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: What are you doing with this franchise? Give the rights back to Marvel Studios, who actually cares about their characters. For me, that's the dream.

WONG: So fan pressure is mounting on Sony. Meanwhile, Marvel would still really like to bring Spider-Man back home somehow.

MALONE: And so Marvel goes back to Sony with what sounds like a variation on the original deal, basically saying, look. Again, we know you're not going to give up the "Spider-Man" rights, but we are here to help you make "Spider-Man" movies. We can co-parent him, collaborate on your next movie, and we, Marvel, will barely even take any of the money.

ROBINSON: Marvel puts full production force behind making "Spider-Man" films and only takes 5% back for themselves, and Sony gets 95%. I'm going to go ahead and call it a bad deal with Sony. It's a great deal for all of us. It's a great deal for Sony. It's a bad - technically a bad deal for Marvel. And that is how this deal gets made, is they take a bad deal.

WONG: But it was a deal that cracked open the door just a little to bringing Spider-Man home into the Marvel Universe.

MALONE: It was a pretty clever solution. Marvel would let some of its characters show up and hang out in a Sony "Spider-Man" movie, which, you know, is good for Sony because they're desperate to create a bigger universe for Spider-Man. And then in return, Sony agreed to let Spider-Man show up like a kind of guest star in at least one Marvel movie.

WONG: Together, they find a new actor to play Spider-Man - our final Spider-Man, Tom Holland.

MALONE: And the way that we met this new Spider-Man was very fun because it was in a movie trailer.


EVANS: (As Steve Rogers/Captain America) This job...

MALONE: Now, notably, this trailer is for "Captain America: Civil War," a Marvel movie trailer - previously, legally, no Spider-Man allowed here.

WONG: And at the very end of this trailer, we get a close-up of Iron Man...


DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark/Iron Man) All right.

WONG: ...Who says...


DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark/Iron Man) I've run out of patience. Underoos.

ROBINSON: And the webbing comes out, and Spidey drops onto this, you know - and you hear Tom Holland's adorable sort of, like, squeaky voice or whatever.


HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker/Spider-Man) Hey, everyone.

MALONE: What are people - what's people's reaction when they - when this happens? Is this a big deal?



ROBINSON: This is the biggest deal of all time.



ROBINSON: People lost their minds.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: There's Spider-Man, yeah.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: They showed this dude - (laughter) y'all, this is happening. It's happening. It's happening. Y'all, I can't. Woo.

WONG: The new "Spider-Man" movie in theaters, the one that's making preposterous amounts of money right now - that is a Tom Holland "Spider-Man," part of this new Sony-Marvel co-parenting agreement.

MALONE: And part of the appeal of the movie is this whole strange Sony-Marvel history. This is not a spoiler, but one of the co-stars of the new "Spider-Man" movie is a Marvel character - Doctor Strange - even though technically, this "Spider-Man" movie is a Sony movie.

WONG: Lots of fans know that it is a minor miracle we are seeing two studios share their most valuable currency - their intellectual property.

MALONE: One movie studio allowing one of its characters to be used by another movie studio in their movie - how strange is this?

ROBINSON: Bizarre. So, like, I was trying to look through to see if there were other instances of this, and you've got, like, "Alien" and "Predator." They've got, like, some various things. But nothing touches this.

WONG: Here is where the "Spider-Man" deal stands. Sony still has the film rights. Marvel worked with Sony on the three Tom Holland "Spider-Man" movies, but they are Sony movies. You won't find them on Disney+. Remember, Disney owns Marvel.

MALONE: However, you know, Sony let Spider-Man show up in three Marvel movies - "Captain America: Civil War," "Avengers: Infinity War," "Avengers: Endgame." Those are Marvel movies, are on Disney+. It is a little all over the place.

WONG: Spider-Man is now a little bit like the child of separated parents. It is not always easy on Spider-Man. There have been negotiations between Sony and Marvel and complete splits and renegotiations. But so far, they've always worked things out for the spider kid.

MALONE: Was selling Spider-Man the worst, dumbest thing in the world in the end for Marvel?

ROBINSON: I think you want my answer to be yes, but I just think it's no. I think no because I just think the landscape was so different for them then that it's just like...


ROBINSON: ...It was a smart deal at the time.


ROBINSON: You know, and how can you - how can we look back on the things that we did 20 years ago and say it was the dumbest thing we ever did when, like, the landscape was so different at the time?

MALONE: For now, the solution to Marvel's "Spider-Man" problem is this, like, wonderfully bizarre intellectual property dance between two gigantic companies. It is a dance that, as long as there's money to be made, I think we may be watching for eternity.


MALONE: Is there a sweeping intellectual property saga that you'd like to hear more about? Well, you can let us know. We are planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on social media - @planetmoney.

WONG: This episode was produced by Nick Fountain with help from Taylor Washington and Dave Blanchard. It was engineered by Isaac Rodrigues. It was edited by Jess Jiang. PLANET MONEY's executive producer is Alex Goldmark.

MALONE: And in this episode, we could only discuss a thimble from the ocean of Joanna Robinson's Marvel and general pop culture knowledge. You can hear more of her work on "The Ringer-Verse" podcast.

I'm Kenny Malone.

WONG: I'm Wailin Wong. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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