'Let a thousand Spideys bloom': Why Spider-Man should be in the public domain

Tom Holland as Spider-Man.

Iconic characters in popular culture such as Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and Frankenstein's monster are in the public domain, allowing anyone to use them to create new stories. Spider-Man should be too, writes Peter Robson.

On August 20, it was that the owners of the Spider-Man film franchise, Sony, were unable to reach a funding agreement with Disney, which owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Therefore the version of Spider-Man played by Tom Holland would no longer appear in Marvel Movies. 

Fans reacted with dismay and #SaveSpidey hashtags sprang up all over the place. Some attacked Sony for not agreeing to Disney’s funding requests, while others attacked Disney for being so demanding in the first place. They said that Disney is the largest entertainment company on the planet and the demanding 50% of the film revenues was extortionate.

But the real problem here is that corporations own our dreams -- and it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Spider-Man’s constant state of being in reboot has become something of a joke; there have been at least three distinct franchises in my lifetime. The Sam Raimi franchise (2002) starring Tobey Maguire is credited with kicking off the superhero movie renaissance. 

Once that renaissance was well and truly underway, Sony tried to cash in by rebooting the series with Andrew Garfield in the role in 2012. Garfield gave an enthusiastic performance but the scripts were poor and the sequel is remembered as solely existing to maintain Sony’s control of the copyright. This is why the “Save Spidey from Disney” campaign doesn’t quite sit easy with me. 

The current Spider-Man played by Tom Holland first appeared in the Marvel film Captain America: Civil War and was on loan from Sony. Holland’s performance was very strong -- he felt like the youngest Spidey so far and, as a former dancer, his physical grace was a good counterpoint to the complete dork Spider-Man is at heart. Through the course of several standalone and ensemble films, this Spider-Man proved a hit. 

There is something compelling about a young man in over his head, being asked to fight struggles beyond his grasp. The Spider-Man in the Marvel movies seemed to portray this. In the Avengers ensemble movies Infinity War and Endgame, Spider-Man carried the emotional heft of the films.

Spoiler alert for two of the most-watched films ever: In IW, it is Spidey’s death that brings home the scale of defeat of the Avengers, and in Endgame it is the newly resurrected Spidey who focuses the grief of the audience when Iron Man sacrifices himself. 

Both these films happened after Disney bought out Marvel and while some worried that the franchise would suffer under the control of the Mouse, the future looked bright. 

The next film placed Spider-Man as the logical successor to the previous generation of heroes and carried it off with aplomb. Spidey continued to be an in-over-his-head hero battling world destruction and rich technocrats, and in 2019 it is, as the kids say, a mood.

And now -- well that isn’t going to happen. Holland may continue as Spider-Man, but not with the rest of the MCU. He won’t have the inhabitants of that universe to play against. And all because these two corporations couldn’t make enough money off this intellectual property. Disney and Sony have kneecapped their own stories for the love of money. 

But it didn’t have to be this way. 

You never hear these fights about Sherlock Holmes or Dracula or Frankenstein. The reason is that those properties were allowed to lapse into the public domain.

There have been many, many reboots of Sherlock Holmes in my lifetime and it never seemed to be a problem. But companies like Sony and Disney have fought tooth and nail to keep newer properties from falling into the public domain. They want the rights to remain cryogenically frozen, like the urban myth about Walt Disney's head, so that no competitor can make money from the property.

People think in stories, and the outcry in part was that we thought Spidey was ours already. The MCU is of course no less a corporate juggernaut than Sony, and its stories reflect that. Captain Marvel may have anti-war themes, but it was made with United States Air Force money. Many Marvel universe movies critique the military industrial complex, but end up pro-militarist. But stories of heroes are important, and losing one to the altar of profit is worth some anger.

Spider-Man belongs to the people, or at least it should. The works should fall into the public domain and people should be allowed to make their livings from telling his stories without the fear of the white gloved fist of Disney.

Why shouldn’t an independent studio be allowed to see if there is a better way to do the Andrew Garfield movies? Why not a grizzled Tobey McGuire reprising the role? Why shouldn’t a thousand Spideys bloom?