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How Marvel will save us from more terrible Spider-Man movies

Sony has one of the greatest comic book superheroes of all time, and it was screwing everything up.

Last year's Amazing Spider-Man 2 wasn't a box office disaster, but it made notably less money than any of Sony's other Spider-Man films. Critically, it was a mess. And this was supposed to be the film that would kick off its own series of interconnected sequels and spinoffs.

Enter Marvel, the company that birthed Spider-Man. Last night, the two studios announced a collaboration that ostensibly brings the web slinger into Marvel’s ultra-successful, highly interconnected film universe for the very first time — all the while Sony gets to revitalize its franchise with help from someone who knows how to make a superhero movie that's does well with both critics and the box office.

On paper, it feels like an obvious win-win for everyone involved, but it’s impossible to understate just how surprising this deal is — and what it means for Marvel going forward.

How Spidey Got Here

So why does Sony, not Marvel, own the film rights to one of Marvel's biggest characters? This is where things get a bit confusing, so before we dive in, here's a fancy chart to help:

Marvel rights (1334 wide jpg) credit geek twins
(Image via The Geek Twins)

Back in the '90s, before Marvel Studios became the juggernaut it is today, the company sold the exclusive movie rights to a number of its biggest comic book characters to other studios. Up until now, Spider-Man could fight alongside Captain America in pages, but on screen, those two properties were worlds apart.

It's been a jumbled mess, but over the years Marvel Studios has managed to get some of its characters back (see: Blade, Daredevil, Black Panther). The biggest holdout is 20th Century Fox, which owns X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the term "mutant," and all related characters including Deadpool. (The only overlaps, due to some story weirdness, are Quiksilver and the Scarlet Witch.) Don't expect these universes to collide, however: Fox has fared much better with its Marvel superhero film rights, especially after the not-quite-reboot that was Bryan Singer's X-Men: Days of Future Past, which ended up being both a critical and commercial success.

Marvel Spider-Man Avengers comic promo

What happens now?

Neither Sony nor Marvel is explicitly calling this a reboot, but it's clear that's what "new creative direction" means. It's also a necessity for this deal to work. Marvel Studios’ films all exist in the same interconnected universe. The consequences of one film affect all of them — for example, every film after The Avengers had to acknowledge that in 2012, New York got pretty messed up by alien soldiers and flying worm... things. The studio is notorious for its control of the overarching narrative, now spanning more than 20 films from 2008’s Iron Man through at least 2019’s Inhumans — with more sure to be announced. The Spider-Man stories that Sony has told thus far don’t fit that world at all, so when Spidey enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe, be it his flagship film or a cameo elsewhere, he presumably won’t have any of that past baggage.

Some of the more interesting emails leaked during the Sony Pictures hack actually centered around Marvel wanting to use Spider-Man. Then-co-chair Amy Pascal and President Doug Belgrad had discussed a scenario where Marvel would produce a new Spider-Man trilogy for which Sony would retain "creative control, marketing and distribution." It struck us as very odd at the time for all the reasons mentioned above, but sure enough, "final creative control" was a key line in last night’s press release. What that ultimately means is open to interpretation. It could be as little as Sony nodding their head to whatever ideas Marvel actually does. Yeah, that’s probably what it means.

Spider-Man in civil war comics

Get ready for Civil War

The big question now is, when do we actually get to see Spider-Man — and who will play him? According to those aforementioned leaked Sony Pictures emails, Marvel Studios wanted him for Captain America: Civil War, which is scheduled to hit theaters on May 6th, 2016.

Marvel isn’t officially saying when we’ll see Spider-Man for the first time, but for comic book fans, this would be the ideal debut. Civil War is expected to be based off Marvel’s famous comic book event series of the same name, which pits Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) against one another over the issue of mutant superhero registration vs. the right to privacy. Spider-Man is one of the first major characters to publicly reveal his identity in support of registration, at the behest of Iron Man, only to later change sides and support the resistance.

Using Spider-Man this way would necessarily mean Marvel Studios has to skip Spider-Man’s origin story (or at least provide a very quick version of it) — which is fine, because frankly, we’ve seen it enough times. But it’s unlikely that directors Joe and Anthony Russo will go this route; secret identities don’t really exist in this cinematic universe. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has intimated before that Civil War would more likely focus on the broader topic of governments wanting more oversight vs. a right to privacy. How Spidey would fit in that isn’t clear cut. If nothing else, it’d make for one helluva good post-credits scene.

Logistically, there’s also the matter of casting the new Spider-Man (assuming he’s to be unmasked in this film). All signs point to Andrew Garfield not returning, which opens the door pretty much anyone at this point. It doesn’t even have to be Peter Parker. Other Marvel characters have donned the Spider-Man mask — chief among them Miles Morales. And remember, whoever is picked will likely be playing Spider-Man for a dozen films. Marvel doesn't change out actors.

Read next: Enough Peter Parker: the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn't need another white Spider-Man

The first standalone Spider-Man film is slated for July 28th, 2017 (which consequently pushed back the release dates for Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Inhumans). The only names currently attached are Pascal and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. If there were any frontrunners for director, it’d be the Russo brothers, who directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and will direct Civil War. Per the leaked Sony emails, the Russo brothers once pitched Sony on making new Spider-Man films. At that time, it would’ve required a "difficult conversation" — but not anymore. Given how tightly interwoven all Marvel’s movies are, Spider-Man could play a big role in any of its upcoming films — including the two-part Avengers: Infinity War scheduled for 2018 and 2019.

Meanwhile, Sony reportedly has the right to make those Spider-Man spinoffs, including the Drew Goddard-helmed Sinister Six (originally scheduled for November 11th, 2016). That doesn't mean Sony will make those films, but then again, "why not?" has been pretty good reasoning so far.

All those details are relatively minor compared to last night’s news that Spider-Man is back under Marvel’s sphere of film influence. The only thing that feels certain at this point is Spider-Man's phone of choice:

P.S. — I love you, Casey Newton.