Over the last few years, Marvel has reached a level of unprecedented success: the studio’s gamble of financing their own inter-locking continuity has paid off to the tune of several billion dollars, including six ongoing franchises and two TV shows (along with another five movies and five TV series on the way).
But Marvel hasn’t had absolutely everything it’s way: the company leased film rights to several of their characters to other studios in the 1990s to stave off bankruptcy, and while some have since reverted back to Marvel (“Daredevil” is the most high-profile of these), some of their best known characters spawned became hit movies: 20th Century Fox has released two “Fantastic Four” movies in the past ten years (one more will be released this summer) and seven “X-Men” films; Sony has released five “Spider-Man” films.
As long as those two studios keep making movies in those franchises, they will retain the rights as such, and Marvel head Kevin Feige has generally responded to questions about the chances of Wolverine, Sue Storm and Spidey returning to the fold with little optimism. But the Sony hack revealed that, after the underperformance of last summer’s dreadful “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the beleaguered studio held negotiations with Marvel about striking some kind of deal to include Spidey in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A deal along those lines seemingly fell apart at the time, but it’s since closed, and Sony is teaming with Marvel Studios to reboot the character and franchise.
Since Marvel pioneered the approach of the shared onscreen universe, fans have been clamoring for the characters to be united as they are in the comics, but the corporate ownership issues seemed to prevent such a thing from coming to pass. And since the MCU movies, bar the occasional mediocre sequel misfire like “Iron Man 2” or “Thor: The Dark World,” are huge worldwide successes, and certainly much more so than either of “The Amazing Spider-Man” films, there was growing opinion that a film made under the supervision of Feige and co would be more creatively successful than ones under Sony.
Now Marvel fanatics have their wish: Spidey will cross paths with heroes already established in the MCU (likely first appearing next year alongside Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in “Captain America: Civil War”), before a new spin-off movie arrives in the summer of 2017, financed by Sony but produced collaboratively by Feige and outgoing Sony head Amy Pascal (and seemingly with less input from former Marvel head Avi Arad, who was supposedly responsible for many of the more questionable creative decisions in the ‘Amazing’ franchise and has been demoted to executive producer status for the new movie).
We’re not out of the woods yet. While it might be exponentially less likely to have dubstep supervillains, half-hearted world-building or an Aunt May spin-off prequel, there’s still all kinds of potential hurdles, some of which will directly result because the new deal.
First, there’s the key sentence in the press release: “Sony Pictures will continue to finance, distribute, own and have final creative control of the Spider-Man films.” Sure, Arad and his ASM2 co-producer Matt Tolmach appear to be mostly out, but Pascal likely signed off on most of the creative decisions on the last couple of movies and presided over the uncertainty over the franchise in recent months (it’s telling that the move was announced shortly after Pascal’s departure from Sony —was she the driving force of the deal or had she been holding it back?). And though Feige’s recent superhero track record is stronger, it’s far from perfect either.
One hopes that those involved are learning from their mistakes, but this near-unprecedented union of two studios is going to be a potential minefield, especially as it needs to respect franchise-building needs for two separate companies. You thought there were a lot of extraneous Easter Eggs in ”The Amazing Spider-Man 2?” Imagine if they’d had to throw in an Infinity Stone or Hayley Atwell cameo as well.
Then there’s the when and where of Spidey’s entry into the cinematic Marvel-verse. Assuming that the reports that he’ll crop up in ‘Civil War’ are correct, it’s not the natural fit one might think. Sure, the character played a big part in the comics storyline —he formed an alliance with Iron Man on the pro-superhero-registration front, before swapping sides and teaming up with Captain America— but it would only form a very loose foundation for the film. And much of the dramatic weight of that plotting comes from the decades long comic book history of Spider-Man, which wouldn’t prove nearly as effective when coming from a new iteration of the hero that we’d only met five-to-twenty minutes of screen time earlier.
If the universe was being built from the ground up, it might be possible to integrate Spider-Man properly, but back-and-forth negotiations has made the character’s involvement in the movie uncertain until now: indeed, there’s been some suggestion that Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is debuting in the film, because Sony wouldn’t allow Spider-Man to appear in it. The film hasn’t been shot yet, but it’s weeks from production getting underway (and the crucial pre-vis is likely all but done), and it’s extremely unlikely that the film could be rebuilt satisfyingly to give Spider-Man a central role.
As such, it seems likely that any ‘Civil War” appearance for Spider-Man would be a cameo, and given how late in the day he’s been freed up for the film, quite possibly an extraneous one. Since the film sounds like a dark thriller pitting the studio’s two best known heroes head-to-head, is that the best place to debut a character that’s traditionally more of a wise-ass? Or does it suggest a would-be-gritty approach to the character that Marvel has mostly avoided to date (though the dour promos for “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” seem to point in that direction)?
An appearance in ‘Civil War’ suggests that Marvel are sensibly going to be skipping over telling the character’s origin story altogether, one of the potential pitfalls that many commentators have identified. ‘Civil War’ or an ‘Avengers’ cameo won’t provide the screen time to walk through the beats we know already, and once he’s established, it’s unlikely the solo movie would follow that story either.
The more important question about Spider-Man’s integration in the MCC is namely: does it matter for regular people? For fans, Spider-Man in the Marvel universe is huge news, but it’s hard to say what impact this has on moviegoers who saw the Marvel logo in front of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and might have been a little puzzled as to why he hasn’t turned up in “The Avengers” yet but weren’t exactly losing sleep over it.
While the last Spidey film was mostly loathed by critics and fans, moviegoers didn’t dislike it completely, at least if you believe the B+ Cinemascore (though the film’s box office total, the lowest in the franchise’s history, suggests dissatisfaction to some degree). Will audiences relatively new to this interlocking-universes thing be confused by the third iteration of Peter Parker in ten years? Is this another example of studio execs paying too much attention to the loudest geek voices on the Internet and not enough to Joe Public?
Possibly, but there’s little doubt that the crossover hook is working for Marvel and that solid Marvel Studios brand name is likely to lead to improved box office even if Feige’s input doesn’t result in a creative leap upwards (though it would be nearly impossible to make a worse “Spider-Man” movie than the last one).
There are plenty of other questions raised by this new deal. Are “Sinister Six” and the other spin-offs dead, or just delayed (pity poor Drew Goddard, who gave up both running “Daredevil” and directing “The Martian” to helm the villain team-up movie that’s unlikely to happen)? Will the New York-set Netflix “Daredevil” show be able to use Spider-Man characters and elements like the Daily Bugle, and vice versa?
Will this new creative team go for a teen Spider-Man, an older character, or even Miles Morales, the African-American Spider-Man in the comic’s Ultimate Universe, who’s proven a popular new addition to the franchise and who would help to differentiate the new film from the previous ones (as well as help Marvel’s poor record on diversity in their leads, especially since “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel” have been delayed)? And most importantly, does this open the door for “Twenty-Thor Jump Street”?
Given that only a little more than two years are left before the solo “Spider-Man” film opens and that we could theoretically see the new version of the character on screen as soon as the start of May with “Avengers: Age Of Ultron,” we should start to hear answers to some of these questions sooner rather than later. But anyone assuming that Spidey’s out of the woods now he’s returned (at least partly and tentatively) to the Marvel fold is most likely mistaken.