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Sony can make a black Spider-Man movie, it just doesn’t want to

Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man.
Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

This week, Sony and Marvel announced the casting of Tom Holland as Peter Parker in their upcoming Spider-Man film. The announcement came days after Gawker's Sam Biddle unearthed a legal agreement between Sony and Marvel that stipulates which "character traits" Spider-Man can and can't have in Sony's films. And, suffice it to say, Tom Holland fit the narrow bill.

What Biddle found were two sets of limitations that Marvel has placed on Sony. The first deals with the character's moral guidelines and his sexuality:

(Sony/Marvel via Gawker)

The second deals with the character of Peter Parker; the agreement outlines very specific parameters for everything from Parker's race and sexuality to the details of his childhood:

(Sony/Marvel via Gawker)

These limitations are a bombshell because Marvel's licensing agreements with Sony and Fox have always been shrouded in secrecy (the company's agreement with Fox concerning its X-Men characters has been sealed). Thus, any new information about these deals can be extremely enlightening.

Biddle makes the case that the clauses about Spider-Man's and Peter Parker's race and sexuality are archaic (no argument from me here), and that they've prevented the Marvel Universe from growing more diverse:

It’s important to remember that Spider-Man, no matter how much we wish it weren’t the case, is a fictional character. There is no "real" Spider-Man, so it’s bogus to say that Spider-Man necessarily has to be anything, other than some kind of spider man, I guess.

Understandably, many people are upset by how narrowly Peter Parker "must" be portrayed under Marvel's rules.

But the situation isn't that simple, nor it is set in stone. Indeed, there's a complicated argument over intellectual property in play that coincides with the movie industry's reluctance to embrace diversity. And Holland's casting in another story about a white Spider-Man named Peter Parker is the result.

Marvel, not Sony, owns Spider-Man, and his character traits are intellectual property

Marvel's deals with Sony and Fox are similar to the ones that are typically written when the rights to a novel are optioned for film. (Marvel reworked this deal in February, allowing Marvel to consult and produce but Sony would still ultimately have final control over the Spider-verse's film rights.) When a book is adapted into a movie, it's common practice for related contracts to specify that certain story elements and characters can't be changed. And it's customary for authors and studios to agree (through their various legal teams) that characters won't be materially altered in a way that contradicts the source material.

Another thing to keep in mind when reading Marvel's extremely specific (and, yes, unprogressive) description of Parker is that Parker's character traits are ultimately a matter of intellectual property.

Parker's traits represent more than 50 years' worth of comic book history; many of them are vital to the origin story that comes to mind when we think of the character, who was created at a time when the country wasn't as diverse or progressive as it is today.

In 2015, it's pretty hard to accept the idea that Parker must remain white and straight simply because he's always been white and straight. But if you think of the character as a piece of intellectual property worth millions of dollars, Marvel and Sony's contract takes on a different tone.

More specifically, the contract only covers Sony's films, which essentially have Parker out on loan. It doesn't apply to Marvel's creative staff, who ultimately determine what happens to Parker. Marvel could conceivably write a story about Peter Parker switching brains and winding up with a different personality, skin color, or sexuality. There's nothing in the contract that defines what Marvel can and cannot do with the character.

Instead, it establishes certain restrictions to prevent Sony from tampering with Parker. The people behind Sony's various Spider-Man movies are different from the people writing Marvel's Spider-Man comic books. And since movies are always going to be more popular than the most popular comic books, it's important to Marvel that the movies it licenses to Sony don't interfere with its comic plans.

But even still, the situation isn't about profit, or even Spider-Man's story arc. It's about keeping control of the character.

As we've seen with Guardians of the Galaxy, films directly affect comic book sales. It isn't too far-fetched to imagine that the reverse could happen, and that a wildly successful Sony film about a "different" Peter Parker would force Marvel to make editorial changes it had no say in.

Nothing is stopping Sony from making a Miles Morales movie, which would bring a nonwhite Spider-Man to the big screen … but it won't ever do so

"The beloved superhero absolutely cannot be certain things, including black or gay," Biddle writes.

His intent is earnest; superheroes represent the best of humanity, but superheroes have traditionally been straight white guys. Diversity and representation matter.

But Biddle's idea that Spider-Man can't be black is misguided. Sony's contract with Marvel says that if Spider-Man is Peter Parker, then Peter Parker must conform to the requirements Marvel has set forth. It does not state that Sony can't make a Spider-Man movie about Miles Morales, a Spider-Man of black/Latino descent who has only appeared in Marvel's comics.

What's more, Sony is free to change the color of Spider-Man's skin and his origin story so long as Spider-Man remains male and does not engage in drug or alcohol use, or sex with underage girls.

Sony not being able to create a gay Spider-Man isn't exactly true, either. What the agreement stipulates is that Marvel must make the editorial decision first, at which point Sony can follow:

(Sony/Marvel via Gawker)

And there's no reason to believe that Marvel wouldn't make such an editorial decision. In the past few years especially, the company has really made an effort to incorporate more stories about nonwhite and female characters into its catalog. It's also introduced more gay characters, and recently revealed that Iceman, an original X-Man, is gay. It isn't that far out to think that in 2011, right around the time Marvel's push for more diversity began, the company may have been mulling a gay Spider-Man, and wanted to prevent Sony from stealing its thunder.

The remaining question is: Why wouldn't Sony go forward with a Spider-Man who isn't Peter Parker?

A huge chunk of the answer is tied to how much the Peter Parker character is worth — the millions of dollars that Spider-Man movies have grossed for Sony and how he's still a hugely profitable character in comic books. Amazing Spider-Man No. 1 was the top-selling comic book of 2014. Sony, no doubt, wants to make money off of its movies — Marvel only gets a share of the revenue they bring in — and it clearly believes Peter Parker is the key.

Conversely, it feels as though Sony thinks it can't make the money it wants to off of a Miles Morales movie. Spider-Man producer Avi Arad explained this mentality to the Playlist last May:

The one thing you cannot do, when you have a phenomena [sic] that has stood the test of time, you have to be true to the real character inside - who is Peter Parker? What are the biggest effects on his life? Then you can draw in time, and you can consider today's world in many ways.

The implication is that the "real character" inside Spider-Man's signature red-and-blue suit is Peter Parker, and Peter Parker alone. And it might be true that a Miles Morales film won't make as much as a Peter Parker movie. But that theory is currently unproven, and there are a bevy of examples in the comic book world where characters like female Thor and Ms. Marvel (a Pakistani-American, Muslim teenager) are two of Marvel's bigger hits.

Sony is clearly hesitant to try something new with Spider-Man that doesn't involve Peter Parker, and that reluctance is more troublesome and insidious than the idea that Marvel won't allow it to do so.