Marvel fans were whipped into a frenzy late last night when Marvel.com announced that Spider-Man is joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This means that, beginning next year, Marvel Comics’ flagship character could finally share the big screen with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and the rest of the superheroes and supervillains currently populating the comic-book companies’ massively successful movie franchise. In a deal announced yesterday, Sony Pictures has agreed to collaborate with the Disney-owned Marvel Studios, which will now incorporate the character into its shared universe of films. According to the Wall Street Journal, a new cinematic version of Spider-Man will appear in next summer’s Captain America: Civil War. And the next Spider-Man movie, set for 2017, will be co-produced by Marvel, with Sony retaining creative control over the final product and striving to incorporate characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe into Spidey’s solo films.
As Stan Lee might say, Excelsior!—right? It’s certainly good news for the Spider-Man movies, which, in their latest incarnation starring Andrew Garfield, have been both dreadful and a box-office disappointment. Marvel Studios brings a steadier creative hand—not to mention the promise of some super-cool team-ups. As for the accountants at Disney and Sony, well, we can probably take it as gospel at this point that a shared universe—one in which every movie plays into a larger story, so of course you need to see Marvel’s Ant-Man this summer—means bigger ticket sales all around. Marvel, in particular, must be pleased to have its hands on Spider-Man, since the movie rights to the character (and the attendant profits) have belonged to Sony for more than a decade.
How will the old webslinger fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The comics certainly offer a clue. It didn’t take long, following Spider-Man’s debut in 1962, for Peter Parker to encounter Marvel’s other heroes, especially since so many of them lived in New York City. In a classic early story, Spider-Man infiltrated the headquarters of the Fantastic Four, hoping to join the team. He has frequently crossed paths with the similarly street-level Daredevil—whom Marvel is already introducing into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its upcoming TV series—and shares his nemesis Kingpin. And like seemingly every character in the Marvel Universe, he has played a role in massive crossover events, which (this will sound familiar) always leads to fans picking up many more comic titles than they’re used to in order to follow the larger story.
Most importantly: Spider-Man has at several points been a member of the Avengers, Marvel Studios’ marquee superhero squad. With the team, he typically plays the role of the dependable but juvenile wisecracker—which could be redundant on the screen, since most of these characters have already been injected with the voice of Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon. In particular, Spider-Man has an interesting dynamic with Tony Stark, Marvel’s Iron Man—they’re both techy and sarcastic and have tragic backstories, which is why some writers have played with them as allies and thematic foils, contrasting Stark’s experience and privilege with Parker’s youth and modest roots. In the comic version of “Civil War,” the story that inspired next summer’s big Captain America film, Spider-Man reveals his secret identity at the behest of Stark, who rallies those who decide to comply with a U.S. government push to register superheroes. That doesn’t work out so well for Spidey, but one of the charms of the collapsible scale of the Marvel Universe is the fact that an everyman like Spider-Man, who fights street criminals and mad scientists and struggles to pay his rent, can make a difference in a battle of cosmic import. (I’m looking at you, 2018 and 2019’s two-part Avengers: Infinity War.)
One last thing: While Sony executives have mentioned the name Peter Parker in the announcement, it appears that Marvel execs haven’t, which could fuel further speculation that they’re somehow planning to incorporate Miles Morales—the very popular, half-black, half-Puerto Rican Spider-Man of Marvel’s Ultimate universe—into the MCU. That’s my Slate colleague Jamelle Bouie’s theory, but even if he’s wrong, here’s a thought: There’s no reason the next Peter Parker needs to be a white guy. After all, anyone can get bit by a radioactive spider.