Crawling Back Home: My Take on Spider-Man’s Celebrated Move to the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Well it’s official, and yes, it’s really happening: Spider-Man will be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The divided rights of Marvel’s characters in the realm of movies has been a notorious sticking point for the company; way before Disney ever even entertained the thought of buying Marvel, the comics juggernaut inked early deals with Fox for X-Men and Fantastic Four, and with Sony/Columbia for Spider-Man. These three properties represented Marvel Comics’ most iconic and beloved characters. It made sense at the time: Marvel could do what countless other businesses have done and license their intellectual property to a Hollywood studio who has the experience and infrastructure to create a successful movie experience. Once the quality of movies like Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and others began deteriorating the reputation of comic book movies, however, it became clear that Marvel needed to make its own push into the medium.
In a way, it’s always been about money. Blockbuster movies simply cost a lot to make, especially when they are laden with special effects–a prerequisite for a film about people with superpowers. It made sense for Marvel to mitigate the risk early in the game when superheroes on the silver screen was an unproven idea. Early movies were a success and everyone was happy; then the duds and cash-ins started rolling in and fans and Marvel executives alike started grumbling. Realizing they had the funds to create a brand new internal movie studio that could finance and develop its own films, Marvel made a big bet in the mid-2000s by deciding they would do exactly that–without their most famous characters. The newly christened Marvel Studios partnered with Paramount for distribution and set out on the journey that would finally result in Iron Man‘s massive success. That same summer in 2008 also saw Marvel Studios’ second movie–and perhaps an early blueprint for Spider-Man’s eventual return–in The Incredible Hulk.
Like X-Men, Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four, the big green monster had also already been licensed out to Universal (actually, another Marvel hero, Namor the Sub-Mariner, was also licensed out to Universal at the time, though no one outside those companies seems to know exactly where those rights sit in 2015). After Universal’s Ang Lee-directed Hulk came out to a lukewarm reception and box office, however, they decided to partner with Marvel and get on board with their ambitious plans. It was sometime during this stage when the very concept of a Marvel Cinematic Universe was born: instead of being entirely separate properties, these characters would share the same world, merely inhabiting corners of it until they one day came together in a spectacle called The Avengers. The rest, as they say, is history: Marvel Studios’ vision has been such a rabid success that Hollywood studios are scrambling to create their own shared-universe mega-franchises, including Marvel’s chief print rival, DC (with their parent company, Time Warner).
The more successful Marvel Studios got, however, so too did the elephant in the room get bigger. Comics and video games continued to feature the entirety of Marvel’s characters, including Spider-Man and the X-Men. When it came to films, however, hard lines remained drawn. While Fox has largely rebuilt the X-Men movies’ reputation with First Class and Days of Future Past, Sony’s attempted reboot franchise The Amazing Spider-Man left fans sour at the realities of modern days intellectual property rights. Rumors that Sony Pictures planned to stretch the new franchise into several spin-offs (Sinister Six, Venom, an unnamed female-led movie that had no vision other than the fact it wanted to grab headlines for being a female-led movie, and an Aunt May-starring spy thriller) only aggravated fans. How could Marvel’s most iconic character be thrown around so recklessly, in a manner that diluted the franchise into oblivion and was so plainly a mere cash grab. Let’s not forget that even before TASM, Spider-Man 3 was an utter trainwreck of a Spidey flick, and again, Marvel, Fox, and even DC were firing away with thought-out long-term plans. Sony Pictures was clearly grasping at straws, so desperate to have a superhero megaverse of their own, that they seemed not to care that fans hated what they were doing.
It all seemed like Spider-Man was destined to crash and burn before Sony Pictures would even entertain the thought of selling the rights back to Marvel. Then, a ray of hope, albeit a thin one: in the aftermath of the infamous 2014 Sony Pictures hack, emails between high-ranking Sony Pictures executives were leaked that detailed discussions had in fact taken place with Marvel about potentially returning the web crawler to his creators’ house. It was clear from the emails that no deal was ever close to being struck, and in fact Marvel and Sony seemed to be at an impasse with their demands–but at least they were talking about it. The stubbornness of both companies seemed to preclude the possibility of any deal happening in the near future, but at least fans could hold onto the hope that someday, even if it was after a bunch of Spider-Man movies that didn’t actually have Spider-Man in them ruined everything, Spidey might actually have a path home.
Which brings us to that fateful night last week, when the unthinkable happened. At first it seemed like some sort of April Fools’ joke, but it’s only February. Surely this was a prank instigated by one of those click bait sites, right? But no. It’s real, and it’s happening, and in a way we’d never have imagined, partly because it’s an unprecedented deal for Hollywood: two separate studios sharing control over a major franchise. Since the initial announcement, we’ve gotten a few additional details: Sony Pictures is retaining “final creative control”, whatever that means, though hopefully it means they just agree with everything Kevin Feige says on the basis that he clearly knows how make a superhero movie. We also now know that the pact appears to be a rare–if not wholly unique–Hollywood deal that is heavily based around good will; Marvel doesn’t make a cut out of Sony’s movies, and Sony doesn’t make a cut out of Marvel’s. Both companies obviously stand to gain a lot from the deal: Marvel gets one of their biggest heroes back in time to integrate into next summer’s Captain America: Civil War (let alone the looming two-part Avengers: Infinity War), while Sony Pictures gets to resuscitate a fading star in its catalogue.
Given the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success, the new Spider-Man standalone flicks are bound to get a bump from his newfound friendship with Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, et al. We don’t really have any details on the character itself, though Sony did name-drop Peter Parker in the press release (sorry, Miles Morales fans). Variety reported, however, that Sony is aiming to keep the hero in his high school years. It makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? If Spidey was an adult, where the hell was he when Chitauri were laying waste to his own town? How cool would it be if Peter was a teenager who idolized the Avengers, and then one day was granted superpowers from a spider bite and suddenly he has the capability to join them? (On that note, PLEASE DON’T SPEND TIME ON ANOTHER ORIGIN STORY). However it plays out, I’m confident that Feige and co. will get it right.
Which isn’t to say I don’t have concerns, mind you. Marvel’s already stated that Spidey will make his MCU debut in a movie prior to his solo flick. That means Civil War, Dr. Strange, or Guardians of Galaxy 2 (well, it could also mean a post-credits scene for Age of Ultron or Ant-Man, but neither really seems that likely or significant). It’s not impossible for Spidey to get folded into Strange or Guardians 2, but it would be quite a stretch, whereas Civil War is a perfect fit and we already know Marvel was negotiating with Sony last fall to try to make it happen in the first place. When a deal never got done (at the time), it seemed like Marvel was aiming to have Black Panther fill the role of “hero pulled between Iron Man and Captain America”, but with Spidey back on the table, it begs the question of what the plan actually is. Will they continue to go with Black Panther? Will Spidey really play such a key role? And regardless of the size or scope of Spidey’s role, is it realistic to expect the script to maintain a high level of quality when the movie is going into production as soon as April? Of course, it’s entirely possible that Feige and the Russo brothers have been preparing for the Spider-Man deal to get done, or at least had a different version of the script in their back pocket just in case it did get done. It’s not in Marvel’s character to rush decisions of this magnitude. I’m hopeful that it will all work out, but right now, that is definitely a red flag.
Another red flag is that Sony still maintains control of the Spider-Man property as a whole. Sure, Marvel will get to use him in their movies, and Feige is obviously heavily involved in the standalone Spider-Man movie hitting July 28, 2017. But what about the rest? Reportedly, Sony still has the ability to release spin-offs as it pleases, including the aforementioned Sinister Six and Venom. What kind of impact will such movies have on the MCU continuity? Since Spidey is now in the same universe, will Marvel have any say into such movies? Will they have to account for them, even if they don’t line up with the MCU’s grander visions? Marvel has been notoriously controlling of its films’ larger-reaching plot points, so it’s unusual that they would allow another studio to potentially wreak havoc on their schemes. Then again, maybe there’s language in the Spider-Man deal that assuages these concerns, but as far as we know, these spin-offs have enormous potential to ruin the cohesion of the cinematic universe. And perhaps one thing that’s been overlooked most of all: how does adding Spidey and shuffling the movie releases impact the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe? Of course, one can only expect the larger plot points to have been laid, with individual directors, writers, and casts left to fledge out the details in the remaining movies. Nevertheless, all of a sudden Chadwick Boseman’s return as Black Panther may come in Infinity War: Part 1 instead of Black Panther–how does that affect any seeds that were planned for BP? Perhaps more interestingly, with Inhumans now slated to debut after Infinity War: Part 2, will they still play a major role in the Avengers movie? Were they ever going to? Will they now kick off Phase Four? How are Marvel’s TV plans affected, since they will now need to stoke the Inhumans fire for four and a half more years before a movie introduces the Royal Family?
Despite the lingering questions and concerns, there is one dominant emotion that I feel when I think about it all: excitement. Like many other kids, Spider-Man was one of my favorite heroes growing up, if not at the very top of my list. His first movie was one of the first real successes of comic book characters at the box office. Marvel Studios has done a great job in expanding my interest and knowledge of the rest of their characters, but it’s nice to bring it all together the way it’s been in comics, cartoons, and video games for decades already. It’s amazing that I can look forward to the upcoming MCU slate and picture Spider-Man fighting alongside the likes of Captain America, Iron Man, Black Panther, and everyone else. Fox seems to be onto their own thing with X-Men, and that IP by itself has plenty of characters to support its own cinematic universe. Whatever Sony Pictures envisioned, Spidey fans knew that he was simply not the same; Spidey’s stories revolve around him, and how other people react to him. So not only does one of my favorite heroes now get to join my favorite comic book movie mega-franchise, but we are also spared from what would have happened otherwise.
Call me an optimist, but I can’t wait to see where Marvel takes the character from here. Just throwing out my own ideas here, but how cool would it be if the standalone Spider-Man re-reboot jumped right into the symbiote storyline? We already know Sony is interested in developing Venom and fans are more than eager for a proper representation of the villain after the Topher Grace experiment turned out to be a disaster (what? that nerdy guy from That 70s Show doesn’t play a good meathead? Go figure). Given the symbiote’s origins in space, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 hitting theaters before Spidey does, there are all sorts of opportunities for either Easter Eggs or full-on tie-ins. Really though, as long as the solo Spider-Man movies skips the origin story I’ll be happy. While we’re at it, let’s hold off on Goblin too–I think three incarnations of the character was more than enough. And hopefully…just maybe…we will get to see the Iron Spider suit on-screen at some point:
P.S. – Poor Andrew Garfield. He was one of the lone bright spots in The Amazing Spider-Man movies, and was, in my opinion, a great match for the character of Peter Parker. But just like Pierce Brosnan’s turn as James Bond, getting saddled with poor scripts will ultimately ruin your version of a character, no matter how perfect an actor might be for the role. A new actor is necessary to ensure a clean separation from the TASM series, but the still-to-be-cast new Spider-Man will certainly have a big web to fill.