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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Spider-Man Is A Step Backwards For Marvel Studios

It's official: Spider-Man, the webslinging star of Marvel Comics, is finally coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe after two decades in thrall of Sony and Avi Arad. The character has been a mainstay in the movie theaters since Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man, but because of Marvel's longrunning tendency to sell film rights to its characters, the films were all produced by Sony, without Marvel's input. Fans have been clamoring to see Spidey interact the growing MCU, with Iron Man and Captain America, but many thought it would never happen. And then Sony's Amazing Spider-Man reboot crashed and burned with a legendarily-bad second entry, and, well...

Fans are ecstatic. I'd imagine Marvel execs are ecstatic. I'm not. I think bringing Spider-Man back to Marvel is an enormous mistake and a step backwards for the ambitious, oddball future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It's important to remember that the MCU was built on the backs of good movies based on B- or C-list characters. Iron Man may be a global megabrand now, but when the first movie came out, he was a joke and had been for years. Thor? Making a genuine, honest-to-goodness optimistic World War II-era Captain America movie? These were not characters or stories that anyone cared about, and I'm including most die-hard comics readers there. Because of that, they knew servicing a small crowd of fans was less important than making interesting, approachable movies. Will that be the case for a character everyone knows?

Look, I'm not going to pretend like the point of the MCU was ever to craft great, lasting works of art. As we recently saw with Ant-Man - and as I wrote about nearly a year ago - the MCU is about a brand. It's an excellent brand, one mostly filled with very enjoyable movies, but at the end of the day, everything serves the brand, not the other way around. Here, producer/mastermind Kevin Feige clearly believes Spider-Man serves this brand; he's had an uncanny business sense so far, so I'm sure he'll turn out right. But, as someone who does not have a vested financial interest in Marvel Studios, I don't give a shit about the brand. I give a shit about watching good movies.

And I don't really know that the Spider-Man deal is in service to making good movies. Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Inhumans all deal with radically different thematic material, injecting new ideas into the brand and widening the scope of the type of stories they can tell. Unless they get adventurous - and Marvel Studios typically does not get adventurous - Spider-Man is as basic as basic can be, producing five movies all built around the exact same goddamn ideas every time. They've all looked the same, they've reheated the same basic conflicts, and I'd be shocked if Marvel didn't make sure to nod to all those fan-favorite stories this time around again.

Thankfully, all is not lost. After all, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 remains one of the best superhero movies of all time, so clearly there's some life in those basic ideas. The problems with Spider-Man 3 and the Amazing Spider-Man reboots could be boiled down to bloat, to producers (*cough*Arad*cough*) not understanding why the character worked and just jamming as much stuff as possible in the movies in the hopes that something would stick. Marvel's films tend to be more controlled - too controlled, even - which suggests that this could be a pared down wallcrawler, which is absolutely necessary for the character to thrive. A lot of movies cover the same basic thematic material, so a talented director could almost certainly find an interesting angle. Or, more likely, they could find an Infinity Stone.

Or perhaps Miles Morales, the fan-favorite character who replaced Ultimate Spider-Man after his death, will make his film debut? This would be a nice, seamless way to introduce the character into the setting - Parker vanished years ago, a neighborhood hero before the Age of Marvels really took off. It would be a new way to approach some fairly stale material and would bring in a new crowd to these movies, but would Marvel really make a deal like this and not use money-printing Peter Parker? It would open up the conversation on legacy heroes, something that seems likely to become important to the franchises moving ahead, but did they want to buy Spider-Man... or Parker?

It's frustrating to see Marvel push back its brief, futile attempts to diversify its line the second Spidey became available again, but, well... all things serve the brand. Spider-Man in the MCU is the tail wagging the dog, a move that will make them a ton of money but feels like the end of ambition in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's a safe move, but Marvel's biggest successes have always come from taking risks, whether it's Iron Man, The Avengers, or Guardians of the Galaxy, while its biggest failures were its safest, Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk. Here's to hoping they find something to say with Spider-Man 6, which may very well turn out to be excellent. We can't know yet, and, of course, I hope it's great. I like liking things, after all. But I can't deny my disappointment at what feels, at first blush, like rank fan-service.
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