On Monday night, news broke that Marvel is joining forces with Sony to make more Spider-Man movies. While it's easy to raise an eyebrow at the prospect of more films featuring Peter Parker—there have already been five, and the series has already been rebooted once in the last 15 years—the general consensus among industry reporters is that hitting the reset button once again was basically a no-brainer. The unique character-sharing arrangement struck by Sony and Disney lets the hero join the established "Marvel Cinematic Universe" (where Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, et al have been crossing over with each other for years) as well as appear in a stand-alone film in 2017 produced by both studios (further Sony-produced spinoffs may follow one day). Exhausting, yes, but lucrative.
Given the obvious motivation for this bit of corporate cooperation—big-budget superhero franchises are all-but-guaranteed moneymakers and studios want to cash in—it would be heartening to see Sony and Marvel take a meaningful risk. Namely, the studios could take advantage of the relative safety that comes with doing a superhero reboot and finally bring a non-white Spider-Man to the big screen.
Moviegoers have reached a fascinating—some would say depressing—level of studio awareness in this era of interconnected franchises. Just because you're a Marvel Comics hero doesn't mean Marvel Studios can use you—Fox owns the rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four, and Sony will continue to retain the Spider-Man license. Part of the magic of reading comic books is watching a company's heroes appear in each other's titles, and that's magic Marvel and Disney have replicated with their criss-crossing Avengers-centric films. But until now, they haven't been able to incorporate Marvel's flagship, web-shooting character.
Sony was one of the many Hollywood studios haphazardly looking to recreate Marvel's success on the fly. After its original Spider-Man series (starring Tobey Maguire and directed by Sam Raimi) flamed out with an expensive and widely-panned third entry, Sony rebooted the series and re-told Peter Parker's origin story with actor Andrew Garfield and director Mark Webb. The Amazing Spider-Man had a smidgen of real-world grit to it and an immensely appealing lead, but couldn't put enough of a new spin on the same well-known tale of Spidey's dead uncle, secret identity, and great power coming with great responsibility. The sequel was bogged down by ludicrous special effects and made only $202 million domestically, an unacceptably low yield for such an expensive, major project.
Nonetheless, Sony was keen in its desire to press on, announcing two more sequels and a panoply of vague spinoffs supposedly focused on the series' villains. Sony even promised that a film about an (unnamed) female superhero would be included, intentionally thumbing its nose at Marvel, which has thus far failed to produce such a film. But these spinoffs lacked any concrete concepts or casts. Any box-office potential could have been boosted by Spider-Man teaming up with the Avengers, which may have been Sony's impetus to agree to this deal. But it also feels like a clear acknowledgment of failure—the studio tried to keep the public interested in Spider-Man, failed, and so has to turn to the acknowledged master of the form to clean up the mess.
From a PR standpoint, the move could be a huge win for everyone involved if played the right way. More specifically, this is an immense opportunity for Marvel to address growing complaints about diversity and hit the home run Sony missed out on when casting Andrew Garfield. In 2011, a jokey Twitter campaign to cast African-American comedian and actor Donald Glover as Peter Parker turned into a serious drumbeat, and eventually a debate over whether just because most superheroes were created decades ago means they have to be forever portrayed as white. As Glover put it in interviews, why wouldn't a contemporary Peter Parker be a person of color? "It's 2011 and you don't think there's a black kid who lives with his aunt in Queens … who likes science? Who takes photography?"
Marvel Comics and writer Brian Michael Bendis acknowledged this criticism by creating Miles Morales, a Black Hispanic teenager who took up the mantle of Spider-Man in its "Ultimate Marvel" titles. Morales has been rapturously received, and that success would be easy to re-create on film, especially since it's unlikely that these new films will replay Spidey's origin on screen for a third time. If Spider-Man swings on-screen in some random upcoming Marvel movie, it'll be hard to avoid the depressing whiff of corporate synergy. It'd help if this iteration could bring with it a genuinely new kind of hero.