Last night, Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures surprised the geek world by announcing that they had struck a deal to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in other words, the universe of the Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers films.
Some potentially unnecessary backstory follows; those who know it can skip this paragraph. While Spider-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men all share the same universe in the pages of Marvel Comics, in the ’90s Marvel, desperate for money, sold the film rights for a number of their properties to rival studios, in some cases in perpetuity so long as films continued to be made from the property. Hence, Columbia Pictures (later Sony) held the rights to Spider-Man, Fox held the rights to the Fantastic Four and X-Men franchises, New Line Cinemas had the rights to Blade, and so on. Then, a decade ago, Marvel decided to launch their own film production company and produce films with characters that hadn’t been bought up by other studios, which led to films such as Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy, all sharing the same universe, actors, and creative personnel. Fans began wishing for Marvel to recapture the rights to the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises, just as they had for Daredevil and Ghost Rider. (The film rights for these were held by Fox, but their rights lapsed and reverted to Marvel when Fox was unable or unwilling to make further films, and now Marvel has made a Daredevil television series for Netflix set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) Fox continues to produce successful X-Men films and they are relaunching the Fantastic Four this summer, so these rights are unlikely to revert to Marvel at any time in the immediate future. Sony, however, has had some financial difficulty, and after last year’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 met with critical and audience indifference the fannish cry for Marvel to somehow reclaim the rights grew louder. A few months ago, Sony’s computers were hacked and secret emails were released that indicated that Sony and Marvel had, in fact, entered into discussions about coproducing the Spider-Man movies; Sony would finance and release them, Marvel would have creative input, and the studios would share Marvel Cinematic Universe and Spider-Man characters between them. That brings us to yesterday’s announcement that Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures had reached an agreement.
That agreement, from the press release, is this — Spider-Man will appear in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and Sony will produce and release a new Spider-Man film in 2017 with creative input from Kevin Feige and his team at Marvel Studios. Choice quotes: “Together they will collaborate on a new creative direction for the web slinger.” And “Marvel and Sony Pictures are also exploring opportunities to integrate characters from the MCU into future Spider-Man films.” And “with this deal, fans will be able to experience Spider-Man taking his rightful place among other Super Heroes in the MCU.”
Beyond that, the press release says nothing about creative choices, such as whether or not Andrew Garfield will continue as Peter Parker/Spider-Man from the two most recent films. Of the issues that the Amazing Spider-Man films have had, Garfield has not been among them. It’s not impossible to integrate the Amazing Spider-Man films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though questions such as “Where was Spider-Man during the Chitauri invasion and the Ultron incident?” and “Where were the Avengers during Amazing Spider-Man 2?” might require addressing at some point. On the other hand, Marvel Studios may wish to draw a line between what’s come before with Spider-Man and the “new creative direction for the web slinger” by recasting.
And if that’s what Marvel Studios wants to do — recast — then I will suggest that they need to go bold. Dispense with Peter Parker altogether. Use Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man, as the Spider-Man of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or, if you want to be even more radical, use Gwen Stacy from the pages of Spider-Verse, aka Spider-Woman, aka Spider-Gwen.
We’ll start with Spider-Gwen first. In the comics, Spider-Gwen is from an alternate universe where the radioactive spider bit Gwen Stacy instead of Peter Parker. She developed the spider-powers, not Peter. She became a super-hero, not Peter. And she may be one of Marvel’s biggest character launches of the last five years; really, I think only G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel can compare.
What does Spider-Gwen bring to the table for the MCU that Peter Parker doesn’t? First, she’s largely a blank slate at this point. The movies can do with her anything they want, and because she’s largely a blank slate it would be easier to build a synergy in characterization and development between the comics and the movies; there isn’t a weight of history and continuity behind her that would make the cinematic and print versions of the character too terribly incompatible. Second, she would address the gender imbalance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We still haven’t had a female headlining MCU film, and Black Widow notwithstanding, the cinematic Avengers are a “no girls allowed” club. Spider-Gwen would make one of the most prominent characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe a woman, and the 2017 Spider-Man would, in fact, be a Spider-Woman film.
Next up, Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man. In the comics, Miles is an African-American/Latino teenager. After Peter Parker dies in battle with the Green Goblin, Miles, who through a convoluted series of events also has spider-like powers, decides to honor Peter’s very public sacrifice by becoming the new Spider-Man. People who knew and loved Peter in the Ultimate Universe were reluctant to accept Miles, but his dogged determination to live up to Peter’s example won over even his harshest skeptics.
What does Miles bring to the table for the MCU that Peter Parker doesn’t? First, he’s an entirely different type of character. He’s not the whitebread middle-class genius that Peter is; Miles comes from a different background and carries with him different baggage. His family has had run-ins with the law, he’s a reluctant hero, he just wants a normal life. Second, the convoluted origin isn’t necessary (and I’m not going to summarize it here, because it’s just nuts); Marvel is trying to build up the Inhumans (humans super-evolved with powers) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a replacement for mutants (which Fox holds the rights to, thanks to the X-Men films), so simply make Miles an Inhuman with spider-like powers. Third, Miles would address the racial imbalance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Marvel Comics has always prided itself on how they reflect the real world, the major heroes of the Avengers are all white. Yes, there’s Rhodey and Nick Fury, but these aren’t the characters the films are putting forward as the ones driving the story. If you put Spider-Man in an Iron Man movie or an Avengers movie, he’s going to have an important role that’s going to push the story forward. That’s the very nature of this deal; two rival studios are going to cooperate in this way for a cameo here and there, and the Avengers “big three” becames the Avengers “big four.”
(As an aside, Marvel and Sony could bridge the gap. Use Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War. Have him die in the final act, sacrificing his life for some noble cause. In that film’s post-credit scene, we meet Miles Morales. Then, in the subsequent co-produced Spider-Man film, Miles reluctantly emerges as the new Spider-Man where he faces criticism and hostility from people like Tony Stark and Nick Fury until, at the film’s climax, he does something hugely heroic and wins over his doubters.)
Spider-Man is the Marvel Universe’s everyman. There are structural reasons why other major Marvel Cinematic Universe characters are white — Tony Stark is a billionaire industrialist, Thor is Norse god, Captain America is a relic of the 1940 United States military. (That said, when there were rumors that Will Smith was going to play Captain America, I worked out how that would work, and what I came up with was pretty compelling.) There’s no reason why Bruce Banner has to be a pasty white guy. Or Star-Lord. Or Dr. Strange; I’m sure Benedict Cumberbatch will be great as Dr. Strange, but Tilda Swinton would have killed that role. It’s the same with Spider-Man. There’s nothing that requires Spider-Man to be white. There’s nothing that even requires him to be a man.
That’s my advice to you, Marvel. You are putting Spider-Man in your cinematic universe. Use it as an opportunity. Take a chance. Go big. Give us an Avengers team with Miles Morales or Gwen Stacy. You’ve earned your audience’s goodwill. Use it.