Why the Marvel Cinematic Universe Needed to Keep Spider-Man So Badly

8 minute read

Spidey fans rejoice: Tom Holland’s Spider-Man will continue fighting crime in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after all.

Reports surfaced in August that Sony and Disney, who had collaborated on two solo Spider-Man movies — Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home — were unable to reach a deal that would allow Spider-Man to continue to appear alongside Thor and Captain Marvel in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For years, Sony, which owns the rights to Spider-Man, has been essentially lending him out to Disney and its subsidiary Marvel Studios. Disney reportedly wanted a bigger cut of the profits from those films, and Sony did not initially agree to those terms. Fans mourned the loss of a character who had infused youth and humor into not just his own movies but Avengers films like Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

But the two studios have finally come to an agreement: They will work together on a third solo Spider-Man movie, and the character will appear in at least one more Marvel movie. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige will produce the films, despite initial reports that he might step away. “I am thrilled that Spidey’s journey in the MCU will continue, and I and all of us at Marvel Studios are very excited that we get to keep working on it,” Feige said in a statement.

The third Spider-Man solo film is set for Aug. 16, 2021. Meanwhile, Sony will continue to build its own Spider-verse with movies focused on Spider-Man villains like Venom and sequels and spinoffs to the successful animated film Into the Spiderverse, in which Brooklyn teen Miles Morales inherits the title of Spider-Man.

Retaining the ability to use Spider-Man in its films is a major coup for Marvel Studios. Given how heavily he has featured in recent movies, it would have been strange if he had entirely disappeared without a formal goodbye: Would they have said he died? Retired? Disappeared?

Plus, Spider-Man is arguably the most relatable character in Marvel’s arsenal — not a god like Thor or a billionaire like Iron Man or a king like Black Panther, but just a teenage kid nervous about asking out his crush. He’s also one of their most popular.

Losing Spidey at any time would have been a blow to the cinematic universe. But Marvel Studios is at a crossroads: They have killed off or retired some of their most popular characters and are rebooting the franchise with a handful of less familiar characters. Spider-Man serves as a link between the pre-Endgame movies and Marvel’s future. Here’s why it was so crucial that Marvel hang on to Spider-Man.

Spider-Man is a familiar face at a time when Marvel needs one most

Spoilers ahead for Avengers: Endgame

Robert Downey Jr. Chris Evans Avengers Endgame
L to R: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) in Avengers: EndgameMarvel Studios

Avengers: Endgame ended with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) dead and Captain America (Chris Evans) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) retired. The latter two will be passing the torch in upcoming films. We also learned at this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) will be taking a backseat to Jane (Natalie Portman), who will wield Thor’s hammer in Thor: Love and Thunder, and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), whom Thor named queen of Asgard in Endgame.

Endgame essentially hit a reset button on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We will get another Doctor Strange movie and a Black Widow prequel and, eventually, a final Guardians of the Galaxy installment. But many of the movies and shows on Marvel’s upcoming docket promise to introduce brand-new characters, like Eternals, Shang-Chi, She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel.

Iron Man, Captain America and Thor made up the trifecta that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe and made it the most successful movie franchise of all time. Now that they are gone or taking more of a side-kick role, Marvel will have to promote new characters to the center of the franchise.

The most likely candidates are Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Spider-Man (all of whom are getting sequels). Of those character, Spider-Man has spent by far the most time onscreen in the MCU — not to mention in the five solo Spider-Man movies starring Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield before Sony and Disney struck a deal to share the character.

Spider-Man is the obvious heir to Iron Man — but for Gen Z

Spoilers ahead for Spider-Man: Far From Home

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

Marvel Studios seems to be thinking along the same lines: The entire plot of Spider-Man: Far From Home centered on the idea that Peter Parker must live up to Iron Man’s legacy. There’s even a scene where he builds a new Spidey suit to the same soundtrack that Tony Stark used when first creating his Iron Man costume.

The parallels are likely to continue: Far From Home ends with the villain Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) posthumously outing Peter Parker as Spider-Man, paralleling the moment at the end of the first Iron Man movie where Tony reveals that he is Iron Man. Now that he’s lost his secret identity, Peter will have to navigate the same consequences as Tony, albeit unwillingly.

Actor Tom Holland’s youth makes him an especially appealing heir to Iron Man’s legacy. Whereas the Sony Spider-Man films followed Peter after he graduated high school, the most recent Disney-Sony collaboration movies have aged Peter down so that he remains in high school—and with good reason. Most of the actors in the MCU are currently in their 30s and 40s. Tom Holland is firmly a star that appeals to Gen Z audiences. His evolution from put-upon teen to superhero will continue to usher a whole new generation of fans into the Marvel fandom.

Peter Parker remains grounded in the face of an increasingly galactic universe

L to R: Korath (Djimon Hounsou), Att-Lass (Algenis Perez Soto), Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Bron-Char (Rune Temte) and Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan)Marvel Studios

Spider-Man: Far From Home teased that the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe lays beyond our earthly realm. At the end of that film, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) reveals that he has been on a space station all along, presumably searching out or preparing for galactic threats like Thanos who might attack earth.

Marvel’s heroes, too, are becoming increasingly space-oriented. Iron Man and Captain America always kept the action largely tethered to Earth. The Guardians of the Galaxy used to be the outliers. Now they, Captain Marvel and the Eternals all fight crime (or one another) in space. Doctor Strange, meanwhile, deals with other dimensions. And the subtitle of the upcoming Doctor Strange sequel, Multiverse of Madness, suggests that the already multidimensional Doctor Strange might depart our reality for another. Even Black Panther, though more grounded, is tied specifically to a mythical land, Wakanda, rather than a real location.

The stakes, too, become ever larger — and, frankly, harder to comprehend — as our heroes venture out into the galaxy.

Spider-Man, by contrast, looked awfully uncomfortable when he hitched a ride to space in Avengers: Infinity War. He usually lives up to his name of “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” and patrols New York City. Even if his neighborhood expands beyond the five boroughs to all of Earth, he’s the character that remains bound to our blue marble. That makes him more accessible than many of the other fantastical beings in this universe.

Spidey adds much-needed humor to the Avengers crew

Marvel's Captain America: Civil War Spider-Man
Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil WarMarvel

Marvel has always struck a careful balance between drama and humor. Tony Stark brought much of the humor and sarcasm that was needed to lighten up debates over the Sokovia Accords. The filmmakers even eventually figured out how to poke fun at Captain America’s self-seriousness. Without them, much of the lightheartedness is gone.

But Spider-Man has always gotten the most laugh lines, both in the comics and on-screen. He can’t help but make puns or pop-culture references while battling baddies. Our guess is that if Spider-Man appears in another team-up movie, he will be the one cracking jokes when Captain Marvel and Black Panther are considering how to save the fate of the universe.

Sequels make more money than origin stories

Spider-Man: Far From Home Peter Parker
Tom Holland as Peter Parke in Spider-Man: Far From HomeSony Pictures

Studios make decisions based on profit. That’s especially relevant when you consider that a third Spider-Man movie will likely make more money than any new origin story will. Spider-Man: Far From Home brought in $1.13 billion at the worldwide box office, while the previous film only brought in $880 million. In fact, across the board, Marvel Studios sequels have performed better than the original films for each individual superhero.

While The Eternals or Shang-Chi might perform very well at the box office, it’s likely that a movie centered on a character that audiences already know and love will do better. It just makes good business sense for Marvel Studios to retain the rights to as many characters as possible.

Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man movies couldn’t end on a cliffhanger

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

Audiences are relieved that Marvel and Sony will collaborate on a final solo Spider-Man movie if only so we can find out what happens to Peter after his secret identity is revealed. It’s unclear how many of the characters from Homecoming and Far From Home Sony could have gotten back for a third movie without Marvel’s help.

Spider-Man: Homecoming had set up a possible face-off between Peter and the Sinister Six when two of that villainous group’s members, Vulture (Michael Keaton) and Scorpion (Michael Mando) discuss Spider-Man in prison. Now that the truth is out, will Vulture and Scorpion team up with several other supervillains to attack Aunt May, Ned and MJ? At least fans will get an answer.

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