If you’re a big fan of comic book films like I am, I’m sure we’ve shared a similar frustration over the years of seeing various movie studios rigorously fighting tooth and nail to hold on to the movie rights of all these different Marvel Comics characters, which of course prevents them from ever joining forces on the big screen like they do in the comics. Marvel Studios (now owned by The Walt Disney Company) is where almost any fan will tell you all the characters belong, mainly due to their winning critical track record, loyalty to the spirit of the source material, and the fact that all their separate film franchises connect into one giant shared universe that’s full of crossover potential. However, Columbia Pictures (Sony) has held on to the Spider-Man rights for over 15 years and 20th Century Fox has owned the film rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four for longer than that! The history behind why the movie rights to all of these iconic Marvel comic characters are split between different studios is a story in and of itself.
Once Marvel Studios began establishing itself independently in 2008 by making hugely successful solo films for characters they still had full ownership of like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, they went on to fulfill the longtime promise of a giant crossover event in 2012’s The Avengers, which became what is still the highest-grossing comic book film of all time. Alas, the Marvel characters that were still being sequestered by the other studios were legally forced to miss out on all the fun.
The success of The Avengers allowed Marvel Studios to fully execute the concept of a shared cinematic universe, rewriting the rules of what a blockbuster film franchise was capable of. Fans were naturally bummed out even more that Sony was looking to keep a firm grip on the film rights to Marvel Comics’ poster boy Spider-Man, along with his extensive rogues gallery. As time went on it felt less and less likely that Spidey was ever going to be able to return home to Marvel and mingle with the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes like he has countless times within the pages of the comics. However, when this summer’s highly-anticipated Captain America: Civil War finally hit theaters back in May, fans were treated to the momentous occasion where everyone’s favorite web-slinger finally met The Avengers on the big screen for the very first time, something we truly thought we’d never see. For now, Spidey’s cinematic future looks extremely bright thanks to a helping hand from Marvel Studios, but that wasn’t always the case…
Spider-Man made his first official live-action appearance as the star of Spidey Super Stories, a collection of short segments that were featured on the popular PBS kids show, The Electric Company from 1974 to 1977. Then in ‘77, comics writer and Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee sold the character’s rights to CBS to produce the live-action Amazing Spider-Man TV series starring former Sound of Music child actor Nicholas Hammond as the titular hero but the series ran for only 13 episodes before its cancellation.
After the commercial failure of Superman III in 1983, major studio interest in comic book movies greatly diminished, and for a brief time, the Spider-Man movie rights landed in the hands of B-movie king Roger Corman. By 1985 Corman lost the rights to production company Cannon Films, which was notorious for its schlocky, derivative and extremely low-budget output during its heyday. Cannon’s eccentric owners, Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, didn’t quite grasp the Spider-Man concept, thinking that he was some kind of Wolf Man-esque monster, a human who would transform into a giant spider creature.
Golan and Globus hired Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens to write a treatment for this odd Cronenbergian body horror-inspired take on Spider-Man and tapped Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, who was under a multi-picture contract with Cannon at the time, to possibly helm the film. Naturally, Stan Lee was unhappy with this treatment and intervened, demanding an overhaul.
Even with Cannon Films still in the picture, new writers and a new director began to develop a much more faithful adaptation of the source material and were possibly looking into casting young up-and-comer Tom Cruise to play Peter Parker/Spider-Man and British actor Bob Hoskins to star as his nemesis/former mentor Doctor Otto Octavius aka Dr. Octopus, with Stan Lee himself campaigning to play hotheaded newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson.
1987 was a low point for Cannon Films. Their Spider-Man film was still very early in its development stages as much of its budget money was being funneled into two of Cannon’s other massive productions, Masters of the Universe starring Dolph Lungren and Christopher Reeves’ fourth turn as the Man of Steel in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, both of which were pretty big box office busts during the summer of ‘87. This one-two gut punch was the beginning of the end for Cannon Films, and by the end of the ‘80s, Cannon went under and cousins Golan and Globus parted ways.
Menahem Golan took with him the film rights to Spider-Man and another big Marvel superhero, Captain America, and went on to run the now-defunct 21st Century Film Corporation, which eventually led to the production and limited theatrical distribution of the extremely cheesy 1990 Captain America film starring Matt Salinger in the title role.
Spider-Man, however, still languished in development hell as 21st Century Film Corporation attempted to fund the project by selling off the still-unproduced film’s TV broadcast rights to Viacom, the home video distribution rights to Columbia, and the theatrical rights to Carolco Pictures, the latter of which had been seeing great success recently with the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi/action vehicles, Total Recall and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Fresh off Terminator 2, director James Cameron was very interested in the Spider-Man project and did up his own treatment that could’ve possibly featured Schwarzenegger as Dr. Octopus and a young Leonardo DiCaprio as Peter Parker, who would later go on to star in Cameron’s mega-blockbuster Titanic.
Cameron’s involvement in the project and his subsequent contractual demands eventually triggered a swarm of lawsuits between the different distribution companies and this long-running legal chaos once again put any prospects of a big screen Spider-Man movie on hold. By 1996, not only did Carolco Pictures and 21st Century Film Corporation both file for bankruptcy, but so did the game’s most important player- Marvel, due to a catastrophic drop in the popularity of comic books at this point in time.
In order for the company to recover from bankruptcy, businessmen Ike Perlmutter and Avi Arad, the owners of toy manufacturer Toy Biz (now Marvel Toys), obtained Marvel Comics in a complicated legal battle and went on to form Marvel Enterprises, a new merger that expanded Marvel’s corporate reach. This led to the original incarnation of Marvel Studios and a bevy of licensing opportunities, including the licensing out of various character rights to different movie studios.
Marvel Enterprises and producer Avi Arad wasted no time on the movie side of things as 1998 saw the releases of both the made-for-TV film Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. starring David Hasselhoff and Blade starring Wesley Snipes, distributed by 20th Century Fox Television and New Line Cinema, respectively. Arad was also an executive producer on Fox’s first X-Men film in 2000, the hit movie that’s credited by many to be the true catalyst of the modern comic book movie boom. By the late ‘90s, Marvel had licensed out the Spider-Man film rights to Columbia/Sony and while the comic book movie genre was still struggling to find its footing, the new Sony-produced Spider-Man film was being poised to become quite the game-changer.
Continued in Part 2!
David Rose is the creator of Happy Dragon Pictures and The DVD Shelf. He’s an illustrator, animator, videographer and aspiring billionaire/crimefighter…but still needs more training.