The new trailer for Captain America: Civil War dropped this week to stage a hostile takeover of the entertainment news cycle by finally confirming the arrival of Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – doing so with characteristic flair. The webslinger leaps into action in a post-title sting to snatch away Captain America’s trademark vibranium shield before landing center-frame to show off the character’s first MCU-official uniform – a throwback to his classical comic-book design so devout it not only did away with the raised-webbing design that’s been part of every live-action outing since 2002 but even found a way to “realistically” incorporate the character’s otherwise-impossible emotive eyes (seen and raised, Deadpool).
Audiences and critics who aren’t necessarily dialed in to the pulse of the superhero scene are perhaps tired of seeing the appearance of each new implausibly-acrobatic individual in a colorful jumpsuit in front of cameras in a Marvel movie, but one imagines even the most jaded have to acknowledge that this is a big deal. For one thing, it’s the first time since The Incredible Hulk (so almost a decade) that a new player has debuted in the MCU who’s as or more well-known than the others beforehand, and that’s a magic trick Marvel won’t have many more opportunities to pull off (the eventual returns to the fold of The Fantastic Four and The X-Men are just about it, really). On a more thematic level, it also represents the MCU’s first “kid hero” character, with actor Tom Holland’s decidedly youthful pitch highlighting the commitment by Marvel and Sony (who’ll handle production of the forthcoming solo adventures of the character) to get back to the misunderstood teenager version of Peter Parker as originally conceived by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
For longtime Marvel fans, Spider-Man getting mixed up in a superhero brawl not necessarily related directly to his usual troubles is something they’re eager to see realized in live-action, but it’s far from unheard-of. Marvel’s heroes mainly live in and around New York, and a big enough party tends to draw everyone’s attention. In the comic book heyday, it was always a treat to see heroes guest-starring in each other’s adventures, but it was only ever that – a treat, a fun bit of added value for an issue, maybe two if you were lucky. What it didn’t automatically mean was a permanent change of status-quo: Just because Moon Knight happened to swing by the Baxter Building that month, it didn’t necessarily mean there was about to be a title changed to The Fantastic Five.
In the movies, however, so far that hasn’t been true. With the exception of Winter Soldier (for obvious reasons) and Thor’s sidekicks The Warriors Three, basically every powered/costumed individual who’s crossed paths with one or more of The Avengers in the MCU has eventually found their way onto the team itself: Black Widow and Hawkeye were founding members after debuting as guest-stars in Iron Man 2 and Thor; Scarlet Witch, The Vision and Quicksilver joined during the climax of Avengers: Age of Ultron; and the final moments of the same film saw War Machine and The Falcon drafted after having previously been respective “off duty” allies of Iron Man and Captain America. If Spider-Man isn’t an Avenger either by the end of Civil War or at some point during the Infinity War two-parter, he’ll immediately be a major anomaly among theatrical MCU characters (especially if Ant-Man, Black Panther or both have joined up by the end themselves.)
So the question then becomes: Since it’s possible for Spider-Man to become an Avenger… should he?
It’s a more complicated question than you’d think. At first, it seems logical that Marvel would want to add one more popular figure to the recurring lineup just to be on the safe side – even if the percentage of people who’ll go to see a Spider-Man movie but not a Spidey-free Avengers movie is almost certainly pretty negligible at this point. But there are logistical concerns involved, starting on the business side. Marvel and Sony are now sharing custody of the character, and it’s widely understood that the significantly larger, more powerful, Disney-backed Marvel probably has final say on whatever major developments happen with the character going forward, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d want to get into a serious row over production with Sony. Too many cooks and interference from the executive side is what crippled the (not so) Amazing reboot series, after all, and the mere omnipresent implication that audiences might need to see the new Spider-Man movies to keep “current” with Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity is likely enough to give Spidey’s series the requisite bump, without needing to add the complication of being an on-duty world-saver to Peter Parker’s itinerary.
That’s just the business side, though. If Marvel and Sony want it to happen, it’ll happen. The more interesting question is whether or not it’s something the studio should want in the first place. Marvel more-or-less lucked out that their circa-2008 roster of characters unclaimed by other (then) larger studios included a bunch of iconic Silver Age Avengers mainstays – characters either long associated with the team and/or characters (excepting The Hulk) who’ve always worked better as ensemble players. Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye were (in their comic incarnations) members of various criminal gangs before seeking redemption as Avengers. Falcon started out as Cap’s sidekick. Rhodes was Stark’s (secret) stand-in as Iron Man before he got his own War Machine armor. By contrast, Spider-Man may not be a pathological loner like The Punisher, but historically he hasn’t been a team player – on any team.
That might come as a surprise to fans who only started reading post-2005, when Spider-Man was first made a founding member of the dramatically reimagined “New Avengers” by Brian Michael Bendis. He’s been on and off the team since, yes, but generally in a manner that felt as though he’d be unavailable at any moment. In keeping with the general “freaks and weirdos” tone of the Marvel Universe conception of superheroes, the company’s most famous and visible hero remains an oddball who can’t go mainstream even as he tries. The current comics incarnation of Peter Parker is balancing life as a superhero and internationally-renowned tech-billionaire while Miles Morales, a younger Spider-Man from a recently-deleted alternate universe, is serving with The Avengers, but that’s a different column altogether.
Joining The Avengers or any team was generally an anathema to the character for the first 40+ years of his existence. Marvel heroes, particularly those who came into being in the Lee/Ditko/Kirby era, were generally defined by their personal flaws, physical and psychological handicaps and, almost as often, by their inability to comfortably fit into an ordinary life in one way or another; and for Peter Parker that meant being a socially-masochistic underdog. Spider-Man’s core psychology is all about guilt (he blames himself for indirectly causing the shooting death of his uncle – you may have heard the story recounted in a movie or five…) and what harsher penance is there for a teenager than to be a perennial pariah? Parker’s (self-imposed) cross to bear is to continue living and being regarded as a hapless nerd even though he’s really an awesome, superhuman hero, and Spidey’s is to be hated as a vigilante (and likely criminal) by the public because he earns a living selling photos of himself looking shady to The Daily Bugle.
Joining even as motley a crew as the Mansion-era Avengers just wasn’t on the cards for such a character, although he’d sought membership on a few occasions and turned down an offer at least once – it would make his life too much easier. A full plate and nerves stretched to wits-end have always been Spider-Man’s version of Superman’s glasses; it may not really make sense that things would still be arranged that way long term, but without them the character loses a piece of his essence. Fair or not, if Peter Parker goes too long without having to choose between saving the city, getting Aunt May her medicine, and keeping a date with Mary Jane/Gwen Stacy/Liz Allen/The Black Cat he gets a little bit further away the “core” of Spider-Man by the day. That’s probably why, even when he did finally become a New Avenger, it was barely a year later that the Civil War broke out and Aunt May wound up mortally wounded by a sniper as a direct consequence of his electing to stay on the team. Superhero status quos are elastic: They eventually either snap back to their original position, or they break and cease to be.
Suffice it to say, it hasn’t traditionally been a good or particularly long-lived idea for Spidey to be an Avenger in the comics. Should that hold true for the movies? Well, that probably depends on what kind of stories they want to tell. If Marvel and Sony’s core idea for the franchise going forward is for Avenger status (maybe in a reserve capacity?) to be a core part of Peter Parker’s superhero career from the beginning, a la the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon, then they’ll clearly find a way to make it work. On the other hand, a certain level of adherence to the classical comic conception of most character is a key aspect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe “brand” still, and all indications thus far point to both studios looking to bring that level of source-faithfulness back to the Spider-Man franchise. This generally means a solo “awkward nerd” Spidey torn between hard-luck superheroics and losing-end high school melodrama – all of which would seem to be undercut if he was also on-retainer with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
There’s also the open question of how the cinematic Civil War ends: If Team Iron Man wins, does the stated result of that (i.e. any non-registered superhero is a an outlaw) become a way to make Spidey being feared as a criminal himself an integrated aspect of continuity? Could potentially backing the wrong side in the war be one more thing for him to be guilty about? His role in the actual film is likely somewhat limited: production began long before the filmmakers found out they could use him, for one thing, and “in-universe” he’s nowhere near experienced or powerful enough to stand up to most of the other characters. Yes, in the comics, “Spidey beats anybody” is Marvel’s version of “Batman always wins if he has enough time to plan” – but it was 22 years before they really put that maxim to the test by having him throttle the entire X-Men in Secret Wars.
Maybe the best argument against tying Peter Parker up with Avengers duties right off the bat is simple precedent: There have been five live-action Spider-Man movies since 2002, and the ones that have been most widely lambasted failed precisely because things got overly complicated. Despite reuniting the cast and director of the first two, Spider-Man 3 was ruined by interfering studio executives forcing Sam Raimi to mangle his story in order to include Venom – a weak character he had no intention of ever using – because they wanted to set up a merchandise-ready spin-off series. Subsequently, the Amazing Spider-Man reboot series spent so much more time trying to build a Marvel-style “universe” out of tangential Spidey-ephemera that the focus on the films themselves and their stories was lost – which is ultimately what more-or-less brought down the Sony Pictures regime that backed them and made the Civil War deal possible.
So maybe it’s best that Spider-Man keep the team-ups on a limited basis for now – at least for however long it takes Hollywood to solidly re-establish with what made this character connect with moviegoers in the first place. Peter Parker didn’t need The Avengers’ help to originally cement the Marvel Age of superhero movies, after all, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. There’s plenty of time for Spidey to get comfortable doing his own thing, cribbing bits and pieces from the broader continuity as necessary (The Kingpin was originally a Spider-Man nemesis, for example – who wouldn’t want to see that meetup happen?) and then getting involved with The Avengers once it’s the next logical step… assuming that any step is “logical” when you’re talking about radioactive spider-bites.
Captain America: Civil War opens in U.S. theaters on May 6, 2016; Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man – July 7, 2017;Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp– July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; Inhumans– July 12, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on May 1, July 10 and November 6, 2020.