Are Spider-Man Star Tom Holland’s Vague Statements a Militant Labor Action?

Fawning Hollywood gossip journalism is the gutter of American letters. Adulatory columnists whore their talents in the same way that over-rambunctious film critics trade positive reviews for access and dollars.

One of the more interesting recent instances of this has been the way that the trade papers and bloggers have covered the positively odd statements made by Tom Holland, star of Spider-Man: No Way Home, which is now officially the most successful film of 2021 and approaching the success of James Cameron’s record-holding Avatar. 

Starting in December with a pre-release interview in GQ Magazine, Holland has been consistently saying he might be done with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and continues to make such statements to the press.

The operative issue is the utter audacity and gumption of this behavior. Though this is merely conjecture, I believe that he is playing this game as part of a concerted labor action against unscrupulous corporate leadership at the three studios responsible for the web-slinging franchise, Disney, Marvel, and Sony. Actors have used the trade and popular press outlets as weapons in their labor struggles for decades, both in the name of solidarity and as toadies doing dirty work for the bosses.

Marvel Comics was purchased by Disney in 2009. While fans swooned in glee, especially as the MCU blossomed across big screens into one of the most successful film franchises of the young century, this was not a positive development in terms of Tinsel Town labor relations. Disney is infamously anti-union, something that goes back to when Uncle Walt tarred unionist animators at his studio as Communists during the McCarthyite witch hunts.

Marvel likewise has burned so many artists over the decades that graphic novelist Alan Moore said “All of these characters have been stolen from their original creators, all of them. They have a long line of ghosts standing behind them.” Jack Kirby, arguably the creator of Marvel’s major characters, and Steve Ditko, incontrovertibly the creator of Spider-Man, both died in reduced circumstances, battling their former employer for everything from outstanding royalties to ownership of their original drawings, which would have financed handsome retirements equivalent to that of their contemporary Stan Lee.

In 2014, Marvel/Disney barely avoided by the skin of their teeth a potentially-calamitous lawsuit filed by the Kirby estate that was headed to the docket of the US Supreme Court. Predicated upon a rather moderate and altogether standard reading of copyright law, the suit could have cost the studios billions if they had opted to fight the case rather than settle with Kirby’s heirs for an undisclosed (but obviously substantial) monetary amount. (Was last fall’s adaptation of The Eternals, a rather obscure title solely authored by Kirby in 1976, produced as part of a larger effort to increase royalty payments to his heirs? Unlike the rest of the MCU titles, there was absolutely zero demand for an Eternals film amongst anyone except the most die-hard Kirby partisans, a tiny niche within the Marvel Comics customer market.)

These habits have continued over the last 20 years as Marvel moved into the film realm. In 2013, Tony Stark/Iron Man actor Robert Downey, Jr., positioned as one of the two leaders of the Avengers super-team alongside Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), nearly walked away from the franchise following the expiration of his contract. He negotiated a new deal that included gaining increased salaries for costars who were being paid far less than he. As Deadline reported at the time:

“Some received only $200,000 for [the first] Avengers [picture] and Downey got paid $50M. On what planet is that OK?” an insider tells me. [The talent agency Creative Artists Agency, abbreviated] CAA represents an overwhelming majority of the Marvel stars and is trying hard to keep the negotiations out of the public limelight and media headlines. But that may not be possible with some reps blaming the studio for ‘scorched earth’ tactics past and present. “Marvel has created so much animosity by strong-arming and bullying on [film] sequels already. It’s counterproductive,” one source tells me. Says another, “I’m sick of Kevin Feige telling me again and again how Marvel is ‘reinventing the movie business’. It doesn’t work like this. They’re reinventing business, period.”… Marvel already has threatened to sue or recast when contracts and/or options are challenged. That prompted a few cast members to respond, “Go ahead.” The issue going forward is how many of the Avengers stars and starlets are still bound by early agreements and longterm options which Marvel can continue to exploit individually. To counter, I’ve learned The Avengers cast are becoming united behind Robert Downey, Jr., who is seen as the “leader” – like “a big brother” in the words of one rep – for all the younger actors in the ensemble. “He’s the only guy with real power in this situation. and balls of steel, too. He’s already sent a message that he’s not going to work for a place where they treat his colleagues like shit,” one source explains. Another rep tells me, “I have four words for Marvel – ‘Fuck you, call Robert.’” 

Disney/Marvel has not kept ethical business practices in the 9 years since that intervention. In summer 2021, they successfully ripped off Scarlett Johansson, star of her own Black Widow film. The picture was intended to be the star’s action-packed bow-out from the franchise. However, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of profit for the picture came via the Disney+ streaming service rather than the cineplex box office. Disney said that she was owed none of that profit, a significant loss considering that many film actor contracts are based around these box office profits rather than a lump sum payment upfront when signing the contracts. A similar lawsuit has now been filed against Warner Bros. by Village Roadshow for their similar release strategy in December for the latest Matrix sequel. Village Roadshow is claiming they were robbed of millions in box office profits when WB simultaneously released the picture on the HBO streaming service. The cynicism and predatory habits of the industry have not been nullified by COVID, instead they have been sharpened.

Is it possible that Tom Holland is acting in a manner similar to Downey, perhaps in support of costars from the Spider-Man film that were short-changed by stingy contracts? Interestingly, Downey also signaled his desire to leave the franchise in an interview with GQ

It bears mentioning here that Spider-Man is by no means a peripheral or ancillary intellectual property for Marvel Studios. Tom Holland was cast to be the new narrative centrifuge of the franchise.

This requires a deep background dive. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, the comic book industry went through a massive speculation bubble that nearly bankrupted Marvel Comics, a corporation that then was a far cry from the behemoth it has become in the past 20 years. In a mad dash to keep the lights on, they sold off licensing rights for their most popular characters, with 20th Century Fox owning X-Men by 1993 and Sony ending up in possession of Spider-Man in 1999. This was a stroke of business luck when both properties jump-started this ongoing superhero film adaptation craze. Disney/Marvel expended tremendous money and effort to bring both properties back into their mega-franchise portfolio, wrangling a complex deal with Sony and outright buying Fox in 2019.

Over the past several years, we have been given multiple indications, both in the films themselves and PR materials, that Spider-Man is going to be the new leader of these heroes, which should come as no surprise given the comic book source material has consistently been one of the best-selling titles published by the corporation. Jim Shooter, a former Marvel editor-in-chief, revealed at a summer 2021 comic book convention that the studio is adapting Secret Wars, a mega-event story he coauthored in the 1980s, which will serve as a culmination of the current cinematic story line, much as Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame closed out the first decade of the franchise while retiring Downey and Evans. Secret Wars was/is a big Spider-story.

What also makes Holland’s rhetorical gesture so outlandish? His alternative franchise is far from a sure-fire success. Later this month he will star in Uncharted, an action video game adaptation. While Holland might be trying to posture as a latter-day Harrison Ford, pivoting from one successful sci-fi series into a swashbuckler in the vein of Indiana Jones, video game adaptations are almost uniformly awful and don’t fare well at the box office. (The exception of the Resident Evil series, whose success was a fluke due to being released in the midst of an industry-wide revival of the zombie sub-genre during the Aughts, is the only one that comes to mind.) The film review embargo for Uncharted has just been lifted and the results are not encouraging, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of only 50% on February 12.

There are several individuals who might be of particular concern for Holland. First might be his two franchise co-stars, Zendaya and Jacob Batalon, both actors of color (and one of whom is Holland’s romantic partner). Second might be Andrew Garfield and Toby Maguire, both of whose star power has chilled in the past few years. (Maguire particularly burned many bridges after he developed a high-cost gambling addiction, one of the few vices that studios get antsy over because of how the mafia can use their one debtor to parasitically attack the larger corporation.) Third might be the returning villain actors, whose performances in some instances only required a day of vocal recording to supply computer animated characters. Or perhaps this extends to talent working in the larger MCU franchise, such as Johansson.

Again, this is pure speculation.

Nevertheless there are several certainties:

A-Holland was cast and groomed to lead the franchise for the foreseeable future by the studios;

B-There is no opportunity as of yet in the narrative continuity or licensing partnership between Sony and Marvel/Disney to rely upon alternative actors like Garfield or characters like Miles Morales, star of the animated Spider-Verse picture from 2018.

C-Furthermore, Sony would prefer to have exclusive ownership/profits from those two by producing movies without the involvement of Marvel/Disney, something that the studio is entitled to by a nuance in the original licensing deal from 1999. This will in fact come to pass in October 2022 when they release their second animated Spider-Verse picture autonomous of Disney. Holland’s references to those alternative casting opportunities is essentially a coded sentence inviting Sony to sacrifice box office profits;

D-Disney has already invested a significant amount of money in Holland and their Spider-Man stake. The latest film ends with plenty of small hints towards future film plots, such as the introduction of the Venom character, a fan favorite that has already starred in two successful solo Sony pictures. Within the next 18 months they will also release a prequel animated series on Disney+, Spider-Man: Freshman Year. The idea that they have created the opportunity for Holland to bow out as Downey did is blatantly not in the cards.

All this occasions a further query:

Why has the film actors union failed to obviate this matter, should it be occurring?

Perhaps it is due to the matters described by Dave Clennon David Macaray in CounterPunch. The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has been defenestrated over the past 20 years by an unscrupulous leadership slate, currently operating under the name Unite for Strength, which features industrial heavyweight endorsements from people like Tom Hanks and George Clooney. Hanks, whose Playtone production company employs “probably tens of thousands of actors” according to Clennon and is responsible for producing mega-success television programs like Band of Brothers, has an exclusive production deal with…HBO, whose streaming service has seen its subscription membership explode during the pandemic! Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures likewise has held production deals with Warner Bros. (which owns HBO) and Sony. (Remember, Zendaya, Holland’s romantic partner, also starred in the 2021 Warner Bros. screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which was simultaneously released on the HBO streaming platform, and currently executive produces HBO’s Euphoria, which she also stars in.) In 2009, the late Ed Asner walked a picket line with a placard that read “TOM HANKS UNION BUSTER” (ironically, the picket was over income being denied actors from, you guessed it, streaming video platforms).

So while there are plenty of reasons to decry the artistic failings of the comic book film extravaganza, something Martin Scorsese is not shy about doing, there are also plenty of reasons to contemplate the underlying political economy. While the larger AFL-CIO has been tremendously weakened after nearly half a century of neoliberal economic restructuring, the Hollywood unions remain important precisely because they are one of the few remaining growth industries in the United States and, indeed, on earth. The business of cultural production has long been a matter of Marxist scholarship. But quite often these academics, bloggers, and journalists forget that it is, at the end of the day, a business, and one of the most successful on earth at that.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.