The Walt Disney Co. owns some of the world's best-known characters — Donald Duck, Buzz Lightyear, Hannah Montana, to name a few. Disney also owns Spider-Man, a character who is lately recognizable for all the wrong reasons, and whose value may be on the decline.
Colin L. Powell made famous the "Pottery Barn Rule": You break it, you own it. Through the travails of its costly arachnid, Disney has painfully learned the Spider-Man Corollary: They break it, you own it.
In recent months, Spidey has looked like he just went 10 rounds with the Sinister Six. The $70 million Broadway musical "Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark" — which Monday begins a three-week hiatus for radical revisions — has provided steady fodder for everyone from network newscasters to Conan O'Brien.
Meanwhile, production continues on "The Amazing Spider-Man," Sony's reboot of the film franchise, which features an all-new cast and creative team and has received mixed early reactions. The movie will be released in 2012, just five years after "Spider-Man 3." That may be too soon for some fans.
"Your average moviegoer isn't reading Variety every day, so they're just profoundly confused why they're already making a new 'Spider-Man,'" said Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com. "They're not starting off on a great foot."
Sony's task marketing the film will be made tougher by the deafening buzz from Broadway, where "Turn Off the Dark" has seen its director fired, actors maimed, and official opening delayed countless times.
"When people think of Spider-Man," said Mr. Contrino, "the first thing that pops into their head is, 'Why are they rebooting the movie?' Then the second thought is, 'That play is a freaking mess on Broadway.'"
Disney didn't make the mess. But it sure owns it.
The company paid $4 billion in 2009 to purchase Marvel, the comics publisher turned media mini-empire that gave birth to Iron-Man, Thor and Captain America. But Disney went into the deal knowing that Spider-Man — the Mickey Mouse of Marvel — was tangled in a web of licensing agreements. Producer Tony Adams secured the character's stage rights in 2002 (when Mr. Adams died in 2005, his producing partners took the reins), and Columbia has had the film rights on lockdown since 1999. Spider-Man isn't even allowed to appear at a Disney theme park east of the Mississippi River.
Citing the licensing deals attached to Spider-Man and other major characters, Citigroup analyst Jason Bazinet wrote at the time of the sale, "Over the long run we suspect this will be viewed as [Disney chief Robert] Iger's first major mistake as CEO."
Marvel has some say in how its licensees portray its characters, and is listed as a producer on both "Amazing" and "Turn Off the Dark." But Disney has no financial stake in either project, and thus is largely divorced from both. To reclaim rights to Spider-Man on all platforms, Disney would likely have to purchase them back from their licensees — a costly move, but one that might have spared the character some humiliation.
"I believe a hands-off approach to branding rarely ends well," said Mike Myatt, managing director of branding-consultant firm N2growth. "I believe Disney likely regrets their approach. If they could have been involved in these projects, they should have been."
Mr. Myatt calls the Spider-Man brand "particularly strong," and notes that it has survived other embarrassing portrayals in comics, cartoons and toys. But Mr. Contrino warned that if next year's film falls short at the box office, the property could be caught in a "perfect storm of failure."
"The third 'Spider-Man' film was a financial success, but a lot of fans didn't like it, and it turned a lot of people off," he said. "Then on top of that you have the Broadway show. Then they try a movie again and that fails. One-hundred percent of the brand would be tarnished from that."
Disney did not respond to a request for comment.
Chris Radtke, editor-in-chief of UGO.com, an entertainment news website and a self-avowed Spider-Man aficionado, called the Broadway musical "a punch line," but said that it won't have any lasting impact on Spider-Man's prestige.
"Broadway is not really in sync with fandom for Spider-Man," he said. "The fiasco that is 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,' the average fan of Spider-Man is kind of rolling their eyes at it."
When it comes to the Sony film, things get more "interesting," says Mr. Radtke. He praised the hiring of director Marc Webb and lead actor Andrew Garfield. But Mr. Radtke has one problem with the project — a big one.
"This might sound a little bit insane," he said. "But Sony has decided to tinker with the Spider-Man costume. It sounds so superficial, but fandom can be fickle like that."
Indeed it can. And if fickle fans begin to turn away from Spider-Man, Disney may find that the pieces of the character that haven't yet been auctioned off aren't worth as much as they used to be.