How Did Spider-Man End Up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

How Marvel's Most Popular Character Went from MCU Outsider to Insider

Spiderman swinging from bridge
marvelousRoland / Flickr

Ever since Marvel Studios first developed the foundation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in 2008's Iron Man, fans have hoped to see the comic book company's most popular character, Spider-Man, interacting with Marvel's other heroes. However, Spidey had to stay on the outside looking in until a short appearance in 2016's Captain America: Civil War. Up until then it seemed like Spider-Man would never have the opportunity to battle alongside the Avengers. Why did it take so long for Spider-Man to join the MCU, and why is it finally happening now?

Selling the Spider-Man Movie Rights

Like the movie rights to the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk, the movie rights to Spider-Man were sold by Marvel long before any movie studio could envision the massive box office success of a multi-franchise film universe like the MCU. As such, the movie rights to Spider-Man moved among several hands from the mid 1970s until the mid 1990s, with such famous names as B-movie icon Roger Corman and Terminator director James Cameron being involved with various Spider-Man movie projects throughout that period.

After a series of lawsuits among smaller companies over which production company actually owned the rights to Spider-Man, both MGM and Columbia Pictures (a subsidiary of Sony Pictures) claimed ownership of the Spider-Man movie rights. To finally secure the movie rights to Spider-Man, in 1999 Sony relinquished claims it had on select James Bond material to MGM (the studio that released Eon Production's successful James Bond franchise) in exchange for MGM relinquishing its Spider-Man movie rights claims to Sony. After more than 20 years of issues, Spider-Man was finally prepared to swing onto movie screens.

Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, and Spider-Man 3 (2002-2007)

The film that resulted in 2002, Spider-Man, which was directed by Sam Raimi and starred Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin, was a huge box office success. It broke the record for highest-grossing opening weekend of all-time and became the highest-grossing superhero movie.

Even then an early attempt at planting the seeds of a crossover universe failed -- Spider-Man producer Kevin Feige (who would later become the producer in charge of the MCU) tried to get Hugh Jackman to appear as Wolverine in a brief cameo in Spider-Man. However, the cameo didn't happen, with Jackman suggesting to the Huffington Post that studio squabbling (the X-Men movie rights are owned by Fox) over money prevented it from happening. After all, movie studios rarely partner to share intellectual property (one notable example is the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)

Spider-Man was followed by two Raimi-directed sequels, Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007), which had a combined worldwide gross of nearly $2.5 billion (all box office figures from Box Office Mojo). Spider-Man was the undisputed top superhero at the multiplex -- at that point, the first MCU movie Iron Man hadn't even been released yet.

So what happened? Despite Spider-Man 3 being the highest-grossing film in the franchise worldwide, it was the lowest-grossing film of the trilogy the United States and received the worst reviews of the series. Notably, producers insisted on adding several aspects to Spider-Man 3, such as the inclusion of Spider-Man villain Venom and one of Spider-Man's girlfriends, Gwen Stacy. Still, plans to make another two sequels with Raimi and the primary cast were in motion. However, Raimi and Sony could not overcome their disagreements on the direction for Spider-Man 4, and the sequel was announced as cancelled in January 2010.

The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2012-2014)

In the same announcement, Sony revealed the series would be rebooted with a new film with a new cast coming out in Summer 2012. The resulting film, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), was directed by Marc Webb and starred Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man. Despite the fresh approach, The Amazing Spider-Man was the lowest-grossing Spider-Man movie released to date (it made $140 million less at the U.S. box office than the original Spider-Man). While generally praising the movie overall, critics and fans criticized the movie for largely retelling the same story as the original Spider-Man movie but with a new villain.

A second attempt to plant the seeds of a crossover universe again failed during this time. The producers of the MCU movie The Avengers attempted to include Oscorp Tower -- the office tower owned by Spider-Man's nemesis Norman "Green Goblin" Osbourne -- in the New York City skyline in The Avengers. However, this also did not come to fruition.

Sony moved forward with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which was released in 2014 and again was directed by Marc Webb and starred Andrew Garfield. The end of the film set up a spinoff titled The Sinister Six, which would feature a half-dozen of Spider-Man's deadliest villains. Plans were also in place for a Venom spinoff and a direct sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 3.

But again... what happened? Once again, the box office reared its ugly head. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 made even less money at the box office than its predecessor, grossing just over $200 million in the U.S. (half of what the original Spider-Man grossed in the U.S. 12 years earlier). It was also the first Spider-Man film not to reach $750 million at the worldwide box office.

While those are still huge numbers, they were lower than the U.S. box office grosses of the 2014 MCU movies Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier as well as the box office numbers of Fox's X-Men: Days of Future Past. Clearly, Spider-Man's box office numbers were heading in the wrong direction.

Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

While previous attempts to include minor cameos as crossover elements failed, the downward trend of the box office of Spider-Man movies made Sony reconsider its position. It was revealed in leaked emails from the 2014 Sony Pictures hack that the studio had been in discussion with Marvel Studios to include Spider-Man in the third Captain America movie, Captain America: Civil War. An agreement was officially announced in February 2015—not only would Spider-Man appear in the MCU in the new Captain America movie, but Sony and Marvel Studios would partner on a brand-new Spider-Man reboot that was set in the MCU, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Tom Holland was cast as the new Spider-Man in both films, while the MCU's Tony Stark/Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) was cast in Spider-Man: Homecoming, tying the film even closer to the MCU.

The Future

While Sony and Marvel Studios have agreed to partner on Spider-Man: Homecoming, Sony still owns the film rights to Spider-Man and the exact terms on the future of Marvel Studios' involvement with the future of the franchise are not public knowledge. A sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming is planned for July 2019. Spider-Man is also confirmed to appear in the upcoming MCU movies Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel. Finally, Sony is still planning on creating a Venom spinoff movie starring Tom Hardy as well as a spinoff focused on the Spider-Man villains Black Cat and Silver Sable titled Silver & Black.

As in the past, the box office will dictate the future of Spider-Man in the movies and these potential spinoffs. As one of Sony's most valuable franchises, it is imperative for the studio that it uses the movie rights in the most financially successful way possible. Should Spider-Man: Homecoming return the franchise to the box office success of the Sam Raimi trilogy, fans can expect plenty of Spider-Man movies—and spinoffs—to come.