Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures made waves when they announced that an all-new iteration of Spider-Man would be appearing in Captain America: Civil War. For the uninitiated, Marvel (and their now parent company Disney) do not own the movie rights to the wall-crawler, despite the fact that he interacts with his fellow heroes regularly in the comics and cartoon series. Similar to the X-Men and Fantastic Four properties, the rights were sold off to major studios in the ’90s, in an attempt to get the comic book publisher through some lean years.
Hardcore fans have long begrudged this arrangement, as it prevented the kind of interactions they had grown accustomed to in the source material. Many of the lasting Marvel tales focused on the relationships and camaraderie between the heroes that shared its fictional universe. In fact, the very first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1963 had the wall-crawler visit the Baxter Building in an attempt to join the Fantastic Four. It didn’t work out, but Spidey and the Fantastic Four developed a lasting friendship and have periodically appeared in each others’ series ever since.
The split in the film world might have continued indefinitely. Not even Warner Bros, who own the entire catalog of Marvel’s business rivals in the DC universe, seemed all that focused on teaming up its heroes in a mega event film. (Though they did nearly produce a standalone Justice League film in the late ’00s.) All that changed when Marvel Studios announced its intention to produce films without a middleman. They leveraged the rights of their remaining intellectual property against a risky loan to finance Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk., with a plan to launch a shared universe like the one that already existed in the comics.
The plan paid off. Soon, even the less successful titles in the series were contributing to a growing, interconnected story. When The Avengers finally hit and tied the threads together, the result wasn’t just a movie – it was an event. That event went on to score the third biggest box office of all time with a cool $1.52 billion worldwide. Now everyone in Hollywood wanted a shared universe, but after 4+ years, none of their current peers have illustrated the same planning or methodical, confident pace that gave the Marvel Cinematic Universe its firm roots in the cultural zeitgeist.
The Painful Journey to Spidey’s Return
One of the biggest rivals to Marvel’s burgeoning comic book movie empire was Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man franchise. The first film was released just two months after The Avengers and, despite its respectable box office take, suffered from the comparison. Marvel Studio’s team-up was exciting, different, and sure-footed. Sony’s offering had some charming elements, but to many it felt like a rehash of the Sam Raimi trilogy that had launched just a decade prior. Rather than pursuing the path fans wanted – working out a deal with Marvel Studios to merge the Amazing franchise into the MCU – Sony attempted to launch their own universe around the lone hero. A number of spin-off projects were lined up, most notably a Sinister Six film, whose goal was to team up Spider-Man’s most diabolical nemeses to do… something.
Failing to learn from the mistakes of Spider-Man 3, Sony set out to make an Amazing Spider-Man 2 that would not only introduce half of the Sinister Six’s villains in one go but would also appeal to the widest possible audience. The film was focus tested into a tonally imbalanced mess, detracting from the indie-styled charm that gave the first Amazing Spider-Man iteration its signature. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 managed to turn a profit, but fell so far short of expectations critically and financially that Sony went into a spiral (well documented by internet leaks) trying to figure out how to mend the flailing series. The studio was so desperate for an angle that worked that even a Young Aunt May spy film was starting to sound like a good idea.
Fortunately, Marvel Studios was able to convince them that the way forward was to combine forces. It just so happened that Marvel was working on a massive superhero showdown in Captain America: Civil War. Since Spider-Man was a core element in the original story, Marvel had an incentive to include him in their film. Sony agreed, and in exchange, Marvel would not only help to develop an all new movement for the Spider-Man franchise, but also let Sony borrow the star power of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man persona to get things rolling.
The Trouble With Adaptations
Naturally, any live action adaptation of a property will draw its fair share of criticism. Just look at the Spider-Man franchises. Despite their overall family appeal, a lot of Wall-Crawler aficionados were turned off by the Sam Raimi trilogy’s campy direction and Tobey Maguire’s doe-eyed performance as the hero. Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films took the concept slightly more seriously, but Andrew Garfield’s “awkward punk rocker” take on Peter Parker turned off some fans who felt this iteration was either too cool for school or simply mean-spirited.
Marvel Studios has so far seemingly had the magic touch with bringing comic book legends to the big screen. With a few exceptions, Marvel fans have overwhelmingly approved the MCU’s casting and depiction of its heroes. Even films like Iron Man 2 or Avengers: Age of Ultron, which stumbled in their plot focus, have left audiences eager to see what’s next for their heroes. This has been the key to Marvel’s longevity. It’s the reason that, despite years of “superhero fatigue” predictions, Marvel is still running strong – 14 films in.
Marvel recast Spider-Man yet again for his appearance in Civil War, this time with relative newcomer Tom Holland in the role. The MCU didn’t have the luxury of retelling Peter’s origin story, but it also didn’t want to carry the baggage of The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s muddled canon. Fortunately, Marvel worked their magic on Peter Parker, producing a miraculously on-point representation of the character that won over nearly all concerned fans. Despite feeling more like an indulgence than a necessity within the overall plot, the teenaged Holland filled an altogether unique niche in the cast of Civil War.
The Question of a Teenaged Spider-Man
Some fans were understandably frustrated that Marvel’s depiction of Peter Parker was, once again, back in High School. The character has already graduated twice in Sony’s franchises, and the classic (616) Marvel Universe iteration of the character has been an adult for quite some time. While he began his career a teenager in ’63, he moved on to college relatively quickly in ’65. Since time moves strangely in comics, he stayed there for 13 years until his graduation in ’78. Despite a number of high-profile alterations to the 616-verse’s “reality”, he’s been a young adult ever since.
That said, a number of recent translations have focused far more on Peter’s High School years to varying degrees of success. Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man comic series launched in 2000, spearheading a reimagined alt-Universe of Marvel heroes. Peter remained a teenaged hero all the way to 2011 when Miles Morales took over the mantle and subsequently merged back into the 616 universe. This High School focused strategy was reflected in Sony’s noteworthy Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon series, as well as Disney’s follow-up, which borrowed the Ultimate Spider-Man moniker.
So why has there been such a sudden interest in Spidey as a teenager? Part of it has to do with the strengths of the original comic series. Spider-Man isn’t the world’s most profitable superhero because of his fun powers and snappy banter. He is, first and foremost, an everyman. At its best, his series have always been soap operas. His supporting cast, and his obligations to them as a human being, has always been just as important to his stories as whether or not he’ll defeat a superpowered foe. It just so happens that High School is a great setting for this kind of drama – the bullies, the romantic interests, the constant obligation to be in class, the threat of being grounded by his unaware Aunt May – all just as compelling obstacles as the villain-of-the-week.
How Marvel Got Spider-Man Right
Marvel borrowed these, and a number of aspects that helped Spider-Man succeed in relation to their own movie characters. Even as an adult in the comics, Peter looks up to his fellow superheroes. He’s not as strong willed as Captain America, as brilliant as Iron Man, or as cool as Wolverine, but he values all of these things about them. He often geeks out seeing these icons at their best, but is also willing to play devil’s advocate when the hard-edged principles of his peers lead them to clash. This is one of the reasons it made so much sense for Peter to be caught in the middle of the Civil War conflict of the comics.
In a world where Spider-Man is the only hero, who does he have to reinforce his everyman status? Who does he have to look up to? Who does he have to talk down from a self-righteous ledge? He’s only dipped his toe into these roles in the MCU, but he’s already benefitting from them. Tom Holland’s short-statured, hyper-excitable teen portrayal of Peter works so well because it amplifies these roles. In the adult lineup of Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man seems delightfully out of his league. His trademark chatter feels both earnest and amusingly off-putting for the heroes with more somber concerns. Spider-Man has the powers and fighting prowess to tussle with war-hardened soldiers and assassins, but none of the accompanying self-seriousness or maturity, and that’s exactly where he should be.
How Homecoming Can Do Spider-Man Right
This is where Spider-Man: Homecoming comes into play. The film looks to pick up right where Civil War left off, though Peter will have had some time to consider where he fits in the world of heroes after battling a number of its key players. In the comics, Peter initially sided with Iron Man, only to realize the hard way that this pragmatic position on accepting government oversight was damning the heroes he was trying to protect. The first trailer for Homecoming already hints that Peter is chafing under Tony Stark’s hands-off mentorship.
Especially in his early years, Spider-Man never gained the legitimacy of joining a superhero organization. This is part of the reason he was branded a MASKED MENACE by The Daily Bugle. Marvel is sure to know that immediately normalizing Spidey under Stark’s government-backed regime will undermine the down-on-his-luck status that has defined his career. There’s a good chance that Tony and Peter will have a falling out over the course of Homecoming, possibly over how to combat the threat of The Vulture.
Assuming this is the direction the story takes, it will put Peter in a hard spot in the MCU. He will have ostracized himself from both factions of heroes in the Civil War conflict, putting him in a tricky place moving forward. Assuming the Marvel and Sony collaboration ended at this point, it would give a plausible excuse for Spider-Man to avoid the other superheroes in the future. With any luck, this won’t be the case, allowing Spider-Man to join Cap’s fugitives in The Avengers: Infinity War and wrapping the most interesting part of his Civil War arc. Even if Team Cap and Team Stark reunite and heal their divide, it’s a fair bet that Spidey’s awkward first impression on both will keep him an outsider for some time. And even if Infinity War puts The Avengers back in the public’s good graces, it’s unlikely that, as a minor, Spidey will be ready for primetime as an official member.
Spider-Man’s Bright Future in the MCU
If Marvel Studios does Spider-Man right (and they’re off to a great start), he’ll never quite click with the other heroes, but will function as a voice of reason in many of their future conflicts. Rather than depicting him as an adult who still hasn’t managed to get his act together, it makes more sense for him to appear as an enthusiastic and wide-eyed teen, still learning the ropes in a world of heroic icons. This not only solidifies his unique place in the MCU’s pantheon, it also accentuates his endlessly beloved voice.
With a six-film option, Tom Holland may be the face of Spider-Man for years to come. Unlike his predecessors, he actually started his gig as the Wall-Crawler while he was still a teen. This will give him the chance to actually age into the role of an adult Peter Parker, similar to the kids in the Harry Potter series. Unlike the comics, this may give his age a significant place in his arc as a maturing hero. Imagine the potential of an MCU in 10-15 years, with a now adult Spidey having slowly grown into the role of a mentor in a new era of young heroes. These kinds of arcs have already been explored in the comics, with Peter temporarily becoming a teacher in Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters. This kind of long-form, interconnected storytelling seemed inconceivable a decade ago, but if Marvel has proven anything, it’s that they’re in this for the long haul, and they’re not done surprising audiences yet.
We can’t wait to see how Spider-Man comes along for the ride.