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Sony and Marvel’s Spider-Man deal may create one universe, but two worlds

Sony and Marvel’s Spider-Man deal may create one universe, but two worlds

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Spider-Man: Homecoming is due out in theaters on July 7th, kicking off the third solo Spider-Man franchise in 15 years. It’s a huge deal for the Hollywood studio system: Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures Entertainment share the rights for the wallcrawler, meaning Spidey can appear in major Marvel projects, while Sony develops its own franchise around the character and his supporting cast.

But there’s some confusion as to how all this will work in practice. Homecoming exists squarely in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the massive storytelling vehicle that ropes all of Marvel Studios’ major movie superheroes into one interconnected narrative. Sony is working on Venom and Silver & Black, which don’t fit into that continuity. And Sony has every intention of building out its own MCU, focusing on Spider-Man characters that won’t cross over into Marvel’s other properties.

Sony’s Marvel Universe seems like an unincorporated territory in the larger MCU

This is all weird, and it doesn’t have any filmmaking precedent, beyond the most cursory cameo events, like Disney and Warner Bros. characters appearing in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But there’s an easy way to think about what Marvel and Sony are trying to pull off: Spider-Man and his universe do technically exist in the MCU, but as a kind of unincorporated territory. His operating grounds have inherent ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, since he’s appeared in Captain America: Civil War, while MCU characters will appear in Homecoming. But the rest of his world will operate independently. It’s a complicated game of rights management, and even if the logistics work, there’s no telling whether the resulting movies will be good.

Much of the confusion surrounding Sony’s Marvel Universe comes from seemingly contradictory statements from Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige and Spider-Man executive producer Amy Pascal. In an interview with the French film site AlloCiné, Feige said, “No plans to include [Venom] in the MCU right now. That is Sony’s project.”

However, in an interview with FilmStarts, Pascal said, “Well, those movies [like Venom] will all take place in the world that we’re now creating for Peter Parker. They’ll all be adjuncts to it. They may be different locations, but it will still all be in the same world. They will all be connected to each other as well.”

Pascal later waffled on whether Spider-Man himself will appear in these separate outings, but the fact that Sony is creating a world around Peter Parker is the key statement. Peter is becoming a fixture in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Homecoming already acknowledges the presence of the Avengers. But even if Spider-Man doesn’t appear in a given story, his actions could have far-reaching impacts on the characters around him in a way that allows for whole movies to crop up without him as the star.

That makes sense from a character standpoint. Venom, in particular, is a dark reflection of Spider-Man. It’d be odd to entirely separate their stories, especially since they share most of the same powers: super-strength, agility, and sticking to walls. But placing them in the same conceptual universe means that the New York where Peter Parker and most of his supporting cast live must be the same across both Marvel and Sony’s films. And yet Sony’s stories won’t cross over. The thinking is that Spider-Man, whose rogues’ gallery is one of the most recognized in comics, can sustain his own separate, ongoing story continuity.

So Feige and Pascal are both right. Spider-Man can be an MCU character without Venom showing up in the MCU. That’s something of a shame; Venom has crossed paths with multiple Marvel superheroes over the decades, and the idea that he might have an on-screen run-in with Iron Man is enticing. But Sony’s hold over the rights means he, along with Black Cat and Silver Sable, will have their own stories that the Avengers will probably never be a part of, unless the studios’ deal changes at some point in the post-Infinity War future.

Marvel Studios already uses a similar template for its television projects. Netflix series like Daredevil and Iron Fist all exist within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but don’t interact with the films’ continuity in any meaningful way. Agents of SHIELD had deep ties to the films early in its run, but after Captain America: The Winter Soldier brought about the dissolution of SHIELD, the show hasn’t shown much of a connection to the film universe. And Inhumans, which started out as a movie project, is getting its own self-contained series this fall. The core of all this has to do with how rights are shared between Marvel’s film and TV divisions, but the effect is that Agent Coulson and Daredevil have stories so self-contained that they doesn’t ever have to collide with Iron Man’s.

Comic stories isolate themselves from their larger universes all the time

And these divisions make some sense — so long as you keep the history of comic book crossovers in mind. Spider-Man might appear in major crossovers like Civil War II that have significant consequences for the entire Marvel universe. A month later, he can star in something like Clone Conspiracy, a solo event with significant consequences strictly aimed at his supporting characters. And based on that event, a character like Peter Parker clone Ben Reilly can get his own series, Ben Reilly: Scarlet Spider, largely unrelated to anything going on in the larger Marvel Universe.

There are still a few things we don’t know about how Marvel and Sony will navigate their shared custody deal over Spider-Man. For one, how much will current Spider-Man Tom Holland be permitted to appear in Sony’s Marvel Universe, even if the entire experiment hinges on the character? This will be Sony’s first chance at launching a cinematic universe around Peter Parker, which has been a company goal since the failed Amazing Spider-Man franchise. Brokering a deal with Marvel Studios has paved the way for a Spider-Man movie that could potentially live up to Sam Raimi’s 2002 classic. The next step is proving Sony’s own cordoned-off Marvel universe can compete at the box office.