If you like superhero films, the chances are you’re pretty stoked at the news that Spider-Man will soon be joining the same movie universe as Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America et al. Comic-book fans have always been a little confused about why characters such as Wolverine and Magneto never seem to meet up with anyone from the Marvel universe on the big screen, despite the fact that they regularly do in print. Likewise, Spidey never gets to battle the Hulk, and The Fantastic Four are similarly trapped in their own bubble.
It all comes down to the fact that Marvel Comics sold off rights to a number of its key titles around the turn of the century (prior to forming its own independent film-making arm in 2005), but retained others. With Spider-Man and X-Men movies performing very nicely indeed for, respectively, Sony and 20th Century Fox, there has been little incentive for either to work with Marvel.
But with the Disney-owned studio having since proved via the $1.5bn The Avengers that it can take the ensemble comic-book movie to hitherto unimagined heights of popularity, attitudes have shifted. Now Sony, which has struggled with its own superhero saga ever since 2007’s Spider-Man 3 was barracked by critics, has struck a deal to allow the masked wallcrawler to appear in a Marvel film without (apparently) undermining its ongoing rights to keep delivering separate solo Spidey films.
The best of both worlds for fans, you might think. But Sony’s treatment of Spider-Man continues to be so hamfisted (not to mention blatantly fuelled by financial motivations) that there will be concerns about whether even Marvel’s golden touch can restore Peter Parker’s alter-ego to his rightful place in the pantheon of 21st-century comic-book heroes.
First of all there’s the rumour, largely fostered by comments from the film-maker himself, that Sony forced director Sam Raimi into including multiple villains in Spider-Man 3 – ultimately leading to an unbalanced plot that left fans and critics unimpressed, even as the movie itself scored a franchise-high $890m worldwide. Then there was the move (most likely fuelled by a desire to hold on to the rights) to reboot the property just five years later, with Andrew Garfield replacing Tobey Maguire and Marc Webb taking over from Raimi; the storyline failed to veer significantly from the origins story detailed in Spider-Man just a decade before.
Now, after delivering a much-better second instalment that at least carved out its own place in the Spidey mythos by putting the famous Gwen Stacy storyline onto the big screen, Sony has decided it’s time for another new actor to strap on the web-shooters. And this despite The Amazing Spider-Man 2 having begun to deliver a sense of a satisfying wider fantasy universe linked to Norman Osborn’s evil legacy at Oscorp Industries – not to mention the ongoing enigma of Peter Parker’s father, Richard (which will presumably now be left unresolved).
The Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies may not have been fabulous individual properties, but they were doing a great job of building a bigger picture. So much so that proposals for a Sinister Six movie featuring Paul Giamatti’s Rhino, Dane DeHaan’s Green Goblin, Doc Oc, The Vulture et al were beginning to look like a decent path forward.
Sony may of course return to such concepts after Spider-Man turns up in the Marvel Universe, most likely in Captain America: Civil War. But it’s just as likely that the creative team behind the new Spidey – surely Webb won’t now return – will take the character in an entirely different direction. That’s surely something of a letdown for fans who have invested their time and energy into the current iteration.
What Marvel has achieved with its comic-book universe, which Sony would do well to ape, is a kind of synthesis between creative endeavour and smart studio deal-making which would once have been thought impossible. With actors such as Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans tied down to long-term deals to play Thor, the Hulk and Captain America, film-makers are able to present nuanced big-screen superheroes who retain the same appearance and personality from movie to movie.
By contrast, Sony now hopes to relaunch Spider-Man with a new actor for the third time in a decade. Marvel should tread carefully here, for while it might be celebrating the prospect of bringing its comic-book division’s best-known property back into the fold, it may not like the baggage that comes with him.