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The history of comic book characters on film is a fascinating one. We are currently living in a golden age of interconnectedness that approaches what has been done in the comic books for decades, at least in the Marvel Cinematic Universe anyway. That is poised to only grow and continue as deals are made and time goes on, but it was not always so. While we are now enjoying the fruits of a partnership between Sony and Marvel Studios to share Spider-Man, for a long time the Web-Slinger was on an island by himself at Sony. This is due to Sony purchasing the theatrical rights to Spider-Man from Marvel years ago, and that was after turning down the opportunity to buy nearly every other Marvel character.
Way back in 1998, Marvel Entertainment was looking for an influx of cash after the company emerged from the bankruptcy it filed two years prior. At the same time, a Sony Pictures exec by the name of Yair Landau was looking to secure the big-screen rights to Spider-Man. Current Chairman and former CEO of Marvel, Ike Perlmutter countered by offering Sony the rights to nearly every Marvel character, including the likes of Iron Man, Thor, Black Panther and Ant-Man for, wait for it... $25 million. Yair Landau took the deal back to the brass at Sony who, as he recalled, responded thusly:
Nobody gives a shit about any of the other Marvel characters. Go back and do a deal for only Spider-Man.
Wow! Hindsight makes fools of us all, but this cavalier response as told to author Ben Fritz for the book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies (via Wall Street Journal) has to be extremely tough for Sony to look back at now. Marvel went on to sell the rights to Spider-Man alone for $7 million, and it's hard to argue that Sony got its money's worth. The first three films were extremely commercially successful, and some of them were quite good, but what could have been has to have some people kicking themselves to this day. For a relative pittance more, we could be talking about Sony's Black Panther and the Sony Cinematic Universe. Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion in 2009, and now that looks like a steal. To think that Sony could have had something approximating that for a cool $25 million is fascinating.
The idea that nobody cares about Marvel characters other than Spider-Man seems so foreign to us now, but back in 1998, this line of thinking wasn't completely off base. There is a reason that Spider-Man and X-Men were the rights that Marvel sold off to Sony and Fox, respectively. Those two properties were the flagships. There were cartoons for each, and I imagine comic book sales numbers backed up who was the A-squad in the Marvel lineup. There is still an argument to be made that Spider-Man is the most popular Marvel character. So while audiences may love them now, there was some concern at the beginning of the MCU that people wouldn't care about B-list characters like Iron Man and Thor. Sony's dismissal of the rest of the Marvel stable looks silly now, but it didn't always.
It is only now with the benefit of hindsight and a decade of the MCU that we see the potential of lesser-known characters starring in well-told stories. After Sony purchased the rights to Spider-Man, it was still another decade before Iron Man hit theaters, and not until 2012 that The Avengers really showed how big these Marvel characters could be. Now Sony, Marvel and the fans are all getting what they want, with Spider-Man in the MCU, delivering his best solo film in ages and teaming up to fight Thanos. You can check out a Marvel character who could have been Sony's making his solo film debut as Black Panther hits theaters this weekend. For all the latest on costly decisions and what if's, stay tuned to CinemaBlend.