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What the Future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Looks Like Without Spider-Man

10 minute read

Spider-Man is likely swinging out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Sony and Marvel Studios, which previously worked together to create the last two solo Spider-Man films starring Tom Holland, have reached an impasse in negotiations for future rights for the characters, according to a report from Variety. It has been decided that Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige will no longer produce the Spider-Man solo films — which strongly suggests that Marvel studios won’t be involved in the movies at all. In that case, Sony will take back Peter Parker and Marvel Studios will no longer be able to use the webslinger in ensemble films like Captain America: Civil War or Avengers: Endgame.

Sony and Marvel came to a landmark deal to share the rights to Spider-Man after Sony’s two Amazing Spider-Man movies starring Andrew Garfield met with disappointing results in 2012 and 2014. But it’s easy to see why Sony thinks they no longer need Marvel’s help. In August, the latest Spider-Man movie, Spider-Man: Far From Home, surpassed the James Bond film Skyfall to become Sony’s highest-grossing movie ever with $1.1 billion at the box office. It’s likely that Sony wants to capitalize on Spidey’s popularity and build out its Spider-verse with films like Venom 2 and Morbius. Plus, it’s obviously not appealing to have to share those profits with Disney, which owns Marvel Studios.

In a statement released on Twitter Tuesday, Sony emphasized the role that Marvel played in shifting Feige’s responsibilities and avoided discussing what the change would mean for the future of the MCU. “We are disappointed, but respect Disney’s decision not to have him continue as a lead producer of our next live action Spider-Man film,” the studio said. “We hope this might change in the future.”

Two more Spider-Man solo films are reportedly in the works with star Holland and director Jon Watts (who helmed the last two films) attached. But Holland’s Spider-Man is totally immersed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, working alongside characters like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to save the world. Extricating him from that universe will be tricky. And Marvel Studios, which likely would have relied on Spider-Man for a dose of humor and a street-level perspective in their increasingly massive and operatic films, will have to reimagine the the trajectory of its overarching storylines.

Here’s everything you need to know about the future of Spider-Man without the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe without Spider-Man.

How Marvel lost Spider-Man — twice

Zendaya Spider-Man: Far From Home
Michelle (Zendaya) catches a ride from Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in Spider-Man: Far From HomeJoJo Whilden—Sony Pictures

When Marvel Comics was struggling in the 1990s, the company sold off the rights to its most popular characters: Spider-Man to Sony and the X-Men and Fantastic Four to Fox. Sony proceeded to make the highly-acclaimed Spider-Man trilogy, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire, that helped jumpstart the superhero craze of the last two decades. But when Sony tried to reboot Spider-Man with a new actor (Andrew Garfield), the films performed below expectations.

Meanwhile, Marvel Studios was flourishing. In a last-ditch effort to save its brand, Marvel made a movie based on one of its less-popular characters, Iron Man, in 2008. The movie was a roaring success, and Disney quickly scooped up Marvel Studios and in the following years helped the company expand its cinematic universe to eventually include the entire Avengers team, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and many other characters.

But Marvel Studios was still missing some of its most popular characters from their films. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, determined to gain them back, struck a deal with Sony in 2015: Marvel Studios would help Sony reboot Spider-Man again if Marvel could use Spidey in some of its ensemble films. Sony would retain the rights to other Spider-Man characters, like Venom, and make movies based on those characters without Marvel Studios’ help.

Peter Parker went on to appear on Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. In those movies, he built a close relationship with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), becoming something of a mentee. The pair became the beating heart propelling those two films: Tony held Peter as he turned to dust in Infinity War, and a resurrected Peter sat next to Tony as he sacrificed himself in Endgame.

It looked as if all the major Marvel characters would be back under the Disney roof this spring when Disney bought 21st Century Fox, thus gaining back the rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four. Now, Feige and his crew could recreate just about any story with any character in the Marvel playbook. But today’s news means they’ll have to build a Spider-Man-less universe once again.

Feige conspicuously did not announce a third Spider-Man movie at Comic-Con in July.

Spider-Man was the missing piece to Marvel’s Avengers puzzle

Tom Holland as Spider-Man and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man in Spider-Man: HomecomingColumbia Pictures

It’s easy to see why Marvel wanted Spider-Man back so badly. He was one of their most popular comic-book characters for a reason: While Thor is a god and Iron Man is a genius playboy billionaire, Spider-Man is much more relatable. He’s a kid from Queens trying to live up to his responsibilities while finishing his homework and working up the gumption to ask out Mary Jane.

Spider-Man injected humor into the lofty proceedings of the Avengers: The webslinger has a zinger for every baddie. And as the Avengers’ youngest member, he also promised a future for the franchise even when some of the older heroes retired or passed on.

It’s likely that Marvel Studios’ future plans involved Spider-Man, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and forthcoming characters like Shang-Chi carrying on the Avengers legacy in some form — even if they didn’t use that moniker. The entire plot of Spider-Man: Far From Home focused on Peter Parker inheriting Iron Man’s responsibilities and living up to his legacy.

Pulling Spider-Man from the MCU creates a lot of dangling threads

Michael Keaton
Michael Keaton as Vulture in Spider-Man: HomecomingChuck Zlotnick—Sony Pictures Entertainment

Spoiler warning for those who have not watched Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home, but those movies introduced dozens of questions that will likely never be answered if Spider-Man leaves the MCU.

Homecoming heavily implied that Miles Morales — a half-black, half-Puerto Rican Brooklyn kid who gets bitten by a different radioactive spider and becomes another Spider-Man in the Spider-Man comics — would eventually show up in the MCU. Donald Glover played Miles’ uncle Aaron in Homecoming and even referenced his nephew. But now Sony owns the rights to Miles, so we’ll probably never see him fight crime along with, say, the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Homecoming also ended on a cliffhanger teasing the Sinister Six, a group of iconic Spider-Man villains. Vulture (Michael Keaton) became a supervillain in that film after he was deprived of his livelihood by Tony Stark. He and a man named Mac Gargan (who becomes the villain Scorpion in the comics and is played by Michael Mando in the movie) reunite in prison at the end of Homecoming. They are two key members of the Sinister Six, but it’s hard to envision a version of Vulture appearing in a Spider-Man movie that can’t reference the existence of Tony Stark, the man who wronged Spidey’s greatest foes.

And Spider-Man: Far From home ended on a major cliffhanger: Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio reveals Peter Parker’s identity, thus endangering Peter and all his loved ones. Presumably, this revelation would tie into a Sinister Six plot — or at least the return of Vulture — in some way. While it’s certainly possible that Sony could move ahead with these plot lines without Disney, with some minor but awkward adjustments, Peter will lose key allies, including the remaining Avengers, Nick Fury and his aunt’s new beau Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), along the way, since they all belong to Marvel Studios.

A different Avenger will have to become the next Tony Stark

Scenes from Black Panther, Moonlight and Atlanta, part of a new renaissance of African-American creativity in Hollywood
Scenes from Black Panther, Moonlight and Atlanta, part of a new renaissance of African-American creativity in HollywoodMarvel Studios

Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead. Avengers: Endgame completely upended the Avengers team we know and love. Black Widow died. Iron Man died. Captain America retired and passed on his shield to Sam Wilson. Thor headed into space with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Natalie Portman announced at Comic-Con that she would wield Thor’s hammer as the Goddess of Thunder in an upcoming film. Hawkeye is headed for a quieter life too, once he trains his replacement in an upcoming streaming series. Hulk’s arm looks permanently damaged.

So who will take their place? Fans previously thought that Spider-Man would certainly be a part of that group. Again, Spider-Man: Far From Home, the first Marvel Studios movie to hit theaters after Endgame, set Spider-Man up as the next Iron Man. Now, it’s unclear how the remaining characters in the MCU will deal with the sudden disappearance of Spider-Man. Will he be dead? Gone into hiding? Retired?

There are still plenty of other characters who could eventually team-up in a mega-movie to save the universe, including Sam Wilson’s Captain America (Anthony Mackie), Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly). Upcoming movies like Eternals and Shang-Chi could introduce new heroes as well. And never forget that Ant-Man mastered the art of time travel in Endgame, which means that any character from the past can always venture to the future to help earth’s mightiest heroes when they are in need.

Marvel’s future is looking more galactic

Brie Larson in 'Captain Marvel,' 2019.Chuck Zlotnick—Marvel Studios

We already knew that Marvel was headed to space. Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy were headed that way last we saw them, and that’s likely where Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Thor: Love and Thunder will take place. Captain Marvel operates primarily in other galaxies. And Far From Home ended with previously earth-bound Nick Fury venturing into the skies to try to thwart extraterrestrial threats.

But your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has always kept Marvel’s superheroes grounded. He patrols New York, not mystical realms (like Doctor Strange) or fantastical kingdoms (like Wakanda). And he never felt properly equipped for space. (After his ill-fated trip in Avengers: Endgame, it’s unlikely Peter would want to head back out there anytime soon.) The threats to Spider-Man always felt more relatable, more tangible and (often) more fun.

Marvel will lose that attachment to our daily reality when they lose Spider-Man.

Sony has big plans for Spider-Man

Venom in Spider-Man 3Sony Pictures

When Sony teamed with Marvel, their hold on Spider-Man was shaky. No more. Sony’s Spider-verse is flourishing.

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse won the Oscar for Best Animated Picture this year, and deservedly so. The movie, which centered on Miles Morales but also introduced several other Spider-beings, including Spider-Gwen and Spider-Ham (yes, really), looked beautiful and asserted, confidently, that anyone can wear the mask. That message stood in stark contrast to the last three versions of Peter Parker we’ve seen onscreen, all of whom have been young, dark-haired white men. Spiderverse, which is getting a sequel and at least one Gwen-focused spinoff, suggested a more culturally and intellectually diverse future for the character.

And Venom may have been one of the most critically panned movies of last year. But it made $856 million at the box office. The antihero pulled straight from Spider-Man’s comics and played by Tom Hardy will star in a sequel in 2020. Holland’s Spider-Man was conspicuously absent from Venom, likely because ensuring continuity between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and burgeoning Spider-verse would have been nearly impossible for Sony. Perhaps Holland’s Spidey will now swing into Venom 2.

Plenty of other Spidey villains are getting their own films as well. Jared Leto will star as the titular vampire in Morbius. And following the success of Venom, producer Amy Pascal said that Sony was resurrecting old plans to bring the Sinister Six to the big screen. It looks as though Sony is after a cinematic universe as big as Marvel’s.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com