Spider-Man To the MCU: The Prodigal Son Returns
By Joey Braccino
I love Spider-Man. And I love that Spider-Man is “returning” to Marvel Studios. And I love the potential for stories that bring the wall-crawler into contact with Hulk and Black Widow and Daredevil and Iron Man. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s revolutionary story of the hapless Peter Parker and his perpetual struggle with guilt and power has had an indelible, lasting impact on American pop consciousness.
The epic news that broke Monday evening—that Marvel and Sony had come to a co-production deal regarding the Spider-Man franchise—seems to have awoken some primal urge in the deepest soul of each and every fanboy and fangirl in the universe. The concept of a deal came to light late last year during the Sony leak, but the reportage at that time suggested that the talks had stalled and Sony and Marvel decided to move forward with other plans regarding the upcoming slate of films, including that Sinister Six movie and “female-led Spider-Man spin-off” and Phase 3’s Black Panther and Captain Marvel.
And then BOOM! Sony co-chair Amy Pascal stepped down and the flurry of news regarding reinvigorated talks culminated in yesterday’s announcement that “Sony is bringing Marvel into the amazing world of Spider-Man.” For more on the actual specifics here, check out the official press release. For this lowly Talking Comics contributor’s opinion, read on, true believer!!!
So basically, I’m thrilled that Spider-Man might will be in the Avengers movies. He’s an iconic character with an important story of adolescence, loss, perseverance, and responsibility that deserves great cinematic representation.
And yet, I have these complicated feelings I don’t quite understand—feelings of disappointment, concern, and a general dissatisfaction with the consequences and handling of this deal.
The Prodigal Son
Once the initial euphoria wore off, I clicked through to read the press release again and found the update saying that the entire Marvel slate of films starting with Thor: Ragnarok has been bumped to the next slot. In other words, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Inhumans have all been bumped 6-8 months in order to make room for the assumed solo Marvel/Sony Spider-Man film.[Side Note: What will this new Spider-Man franchise be called? Will they continue with Amazing? Or revert back to adjectiveless? Spectacular Spider-Man anyone?]
In other other words, the Prodigal Son has returned, and the father has killed the fatted calf to celebrate.
Yeah, I totes got biblical there. New Testament all up in herr.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is basically about an impatient, selfish son who demands his share of his father’s estate. The father divides his wealth between his two sons, and the selfish son goes off and wastes all of his inheritance doing extravagant, frivolous things. The other son stays on the farm and works his butt off for the father, never disobeying him or anything.
Eventually, once the selfish son is broke and broken, he returns to the father’s home and asks if he can live as one of his father’s servants—if only to be fed and stay alive—and for forgiveness. The father is moved by his son’s change and lavishes him with robes and a feast (hence the fatted calf). They live happily ever after.
The other son is all like “what the heck!? I’ve been working for you and looking after you and I’ve listened to you for years, and you NEVER lavished such attention or shows of wealth on me! You never even gave me a goat to eat with my buds! What the heck, man!? This kid is a jerk!!!” The story ends with the father telling his committed son that his younger brother has essentially returned from being dead, so they must celebrate. The end.
So you see the allegory here? Sony’s Spider-Man is the prodigal son, returning to Marvel after essentially dropping the ball massively, both critically and, some would argue, financially. The return of Marvel’s prodigal son has caused changes to the announced MCU Phase 3 slate, including bumping the “committed sons” (characters like Thor or the Inhumans, who have been built as long-term parts of the plan, and Black Panther and Captain Marvel, who are finally getting some deserved attention) to the backseat in favor of lavishing attention on the returning property.
Realistically, looking at the details from the press release, Spider-Man is being released on July 28th, 2017 (taking Thor: Ragnarok’s spot), with the promise that the character will also appear in an MCU film before the relaunch. That means Spidey will appear in Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, or Guardians of the Galaxy 2. I doubt Spider-Man will show up on Morag or Xandar (though stranger things have happened), so we’re down to Captain America: Civil War or Doctor Strange. Safe money’s on Captain America: Civil War given Spider-Man’s prominent role in the comic on which the film is based. The Wall Street Journal is already reporting that this is case “according to a person with knowledge of the matter.”
Back to my Prodigal Son narrative, there is something troubling about the inclusion of Spider-Man in Civil War, namely the impact on the role of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther. Does Marvel shoehorn Spidey in between Cap and Iron Man a la Mark Millar’s Civil War comic? How does this then alter Black Panther’s position? Does it diminish the role? Does it complicate it? Does it change it entirely? And can Captain America: Civil War properly integrate Captain America, Iron Man, Falcon, Black Widow, Hawkeye (?), and introduce Black Panther and Spider-Man?
Granted I don’t think we’ll ever see the Peter Parker origin story again (it would be the third rendition just over 16 years), but that is still asking a lot of the creative teams. Perhaps I’m just cynical, but regardless I do also have a problem with Marvel’s first Black-led and first Female-led superhero films being pushed back in favor of rebooting another White Male-led franchise that we have seen constantly in various media for the last two decades.
But the Prodigal Son returns, so kill the fatted calf for him.
Now, we don’t know if Spider-Man has always been a part of the Civil War plan—though the Sony hacks seem to suggest that Spider-Man talks did falter sometime in the Fall—and we don’t know exactly how the plan to integrate Spidey will work. But the actual press release does give us some clues…
The Fine Print
I find the wording on the official press release problematic:
Under the deal, the new Spider-Man will first appear in a Marvel film from Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU). Sony Pictures will thereafter release the next installment of its $4 billion Spider-Man franchise, on July 28, 2017, in a film that will be co-produced by Kevin Feige and his expert team at Marvel and Amy Pascal, who oversaw the franchise launch for the studio 13 years ago. Together, they will collaborate on a new creative direction for the web slinger. Sony Pictures will continue to finance, distribute, own and have final creative control of the Spider-Man films. (emphasis mine)
If I’m reading this right (and I’m no lawyer, so I may not be…), yes, Spider-Man as a character will be eligible to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a crossover capacity, but essentially Sony maintains creative control over the solo franchise. There is the potential for MCU characters to appear in Sony’s films, but Spider-Man as a solo franchise is not returning to Marvel Studios.
Given their track record, it’s spectacular that Kevin Feige and his production team will now be working on Spider-Man with Sony, and Feige’s commitment to continuity and respecting the core of the character could give us the Spider-Man movie we’ve always wanted, but at the end of the day, the same studio system that has been running the franchise for nearly 15 years—with all its hits and misses—will still have “final creative control” of Spider-Man.
I really don’t see how Marvel benefits from this deal other than the very very very real positive of having its marquee character (sorry Iron Man, let’s be real) back for potential crossovers. That’s great and all when it comes to the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe canon, but Sony retains so much power over the direction of the character, that I can’t really see the upside here for the solo films.
It also makes me wonder if Sony needs a movie released in the next few years, so Marvel has promised to commit to a fast-tracked, scriptless, castless Spider-Man feature for that July 28th, 2017, slot in order to satisfy that timeline, forcing changes to their own plan in order to meet Sony’s.
And where’s Walt Disney in all of this? Given the positivity of CEO Bob Iger’s comments (“We’re thrilled to work with Sony Pictures to bring the iconic web-slinger into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which opens up fantastic new opportunities for storytelling and franchise building.”), there must be some agreement regarding licensing that hasn’t been discussed.
At first glance, it almost seems as if Sony has licensed the Spider-Man character back to Marvel and Disney for crossovers with the promise that they also help Sony make a good Spider-Man movie.
Which is weird, right?
What Could Have Been…
Let me clarify, I want Spider-Man to be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The character is the definitive Marvel property, and he has come to represent everything that the Marvel Universe has represented since his inception in the early 1960s. Al Ewing gave Spider-Man a wonderful monologue in the latest issue of Mighty Avengers that perfectly captures why the character would fit so well into the ongoing Avengers cinematic universe:
He’s the street-level guy that’s in over his head. The guy who just wants to protect his family, get a girlfriend and a job and get through English class, and he finds himself fighting aliens alongside Iron Man. He’s the guy that makes all this superheroic stuff actually count, because he didn’t want to be there; he’s got the most to lose because he knows that he has to show up, even when he doesn’t want to.
Sony’s first Amazing Spider-Man made great strides in this direction: keeping Peter Parker in high school, fantastic chemistry between its two leads in Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, playing up the science, and playing up the adolescence and insecurity and inexperience. Amazing Spider-Man 2 undid a lot of that, sure, but does that warrant a complete reboot (again) with a brand new set of actors?
There is a way that the whole Sony/Marvel Spider-Man thing works, and it’s if he is a bit player, a cameo, a masked vigilante inspired by the heroism of our Avengers during Captain America: Civil War. He then becomes an underground mask fleeing the Registration Act in his own solo film—maybe we’ve got some other street level guys in there? Some Young Avengers?—trying desperately to hold onto heroism in the face of corruption and loss. And then he’s set up for an Avengers run.
But that’s if Sony/Marvel can have that much MCU crossover in that solo Spider-Man flick. In my mind, in the context of this larger Avengers universe (because let’s be real, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an Avengers Universe), Spider-Man is street-level a la Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist.
Yeah, could Spider-Man appear in the Netflix Defenders series? We’ve been told time and time again that these series will run into the MCU. If so, these street level characters would fit nicely into a Registration era MCU. As would Spider-Man.
But Sony wouldn’t get their movie.
Furthermore, I return to my Prodigal Son comparison. Without Spider-Man, what was the plan? And was that plan so bad or so lackluster that the last-minute addition of such a street-level, fatigued character like Spider-Man, will alter it in such a way that it pushes films like Black Panther and Captain Marvel and Thor: Ragnarok?
Basically, my disappointment with the direction Marvel and Sony seems to be taking comes down to two questions:
1) Essentially, does the MCU need Spider-Man right this minute?
I mean, no. They haven’t yet (and they didn’t seem to up until yesterday), and Marvel has become one of the most successful independent studios in the industry.
2) Does the MCU need Spider-Man eventually?
YES. Once this Avengers arc ends with Infinity War in 2019, where will the Marvel Cinematic Universe go? With their current stock of actors either getting out of contracts or simply “aging out” as it were, what better way to keep the MCU alive than to pass it on to a younger, more diverse stable of characters. We’ve all brought up Ms. Marvel and the Young Avengers and Black Panther and Doctor Strange and those Netflix heroes as potential continuations of the MCU after Infinity War, so why not bring Spider-Man into the fold then?
Then Spidey gets to be the marquee name that brings Marvel Studios into its next generation. Legacy, youth, “great power = great responsibility”—this is the logical next step after an globe-shattering event like Thanos coming to Earth and f**king with the Avengers!!!
But that’s all wishful fanfiction, I suppose…
What are we left with?
Excitement, mostly, but some very serious questions.
I hate to be pessimistic. I hate to be cynical. I may very well end up being wrong here and the MCU will keep on trucking with success after success after success and Sony will relinquish it’s creative control just enough to allow Marvel Studios to work its magic and tell the Spider-Man stories fans want.
And yeah, maybe J.K. Simmons will come back as J. Jonah Jameson.
But I can’t blindly assume that right now.
And I just want my damn Captain Marvel movie.
Unless of course, Marvel pulls a fast one and hits us all with this:
But then Sony won’t get their Peter Parker/Spider-Man movie. If that’s what they want…