Before Spider-Man officially joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War, audiences got their first taste of the latest version of the character in the trailer for Civil War, where Spider-Man bounded in out of nowhere, stole Captain America’s shield, and struck a dramatic pose with it. “Hey everyone,” Tom Holland’s Peter Parker meekly announced.

That trailer, plus the still of Spider-Man with Cap’s shield, went viral. It was an instantly iconic image — and a neat summation of the filmmaking team-up the moment represented, between Disney, the owners of Marvel Comics’ characters and concepts (including that star-spangled shield), and Sony, who had held the rights to make Spider-Man movies since well before Disney purchased Marvel in 2009. The fact that this rare alliance between business rivals occurred in a movie called Civil War, where Marvel’s heroes divide into factions and beat each other up, only made the whole thing more surreal.

Sony had made five Spider-Man films without Marvel, starting with 2002’s Spider-Man. For a long time, they did very well for themselves. But after the first Spidey movie series wound down, Sony struggled to figure out what to do next. The subsequent Amazing Spider-Man franchise struggled at the box office and received poor reviews from critics and many fans. Meanwhile, Marvel had gotten into the superhero movie business itself, and with franchises like Iron Man, Captain America, and The Avengers, quickly became the juggernaut of the genre.

Both studios had something the other wanted. Marvel hoped to add Spider-Man to its cinematic universe and Sony craved Marvel’s creative resources and promotional power. So on February 9, 2015, the deal was announced: Spider-Man would become part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Sony’s new Spider-Man films would take place within the MCU (with input from Marvel and its president, Kevin Feige). The press release boasted about how the studios would “together collaborate on a new creative direction for the web slinger” while also pausing to note that “Sony Pictures will continue to finance, distribute, own and have final creative control of the Spider-Man films.”

Spider-Man Infinity War

Reading that press release back in 2015, the news felt as improbable as a man getting bitten by a radioactive arachnid and gaining the ability to stick to walls. Five extremely successful movies later — Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home from Sony, Captain America: Civil WarAvengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame from Marvel — it seems even more miraculous. It was one thing to agree to share a character for the good of two companies’ finances. But the Sony and Disney worked well together – or at least produced very satisfying movies together. Sony’s new Spider-Man movies with Tom Holland were a marked improvement over the Amazing series. And Holland’s Spider-Man added a welcome note of sweetness and youth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Stockholders were happy. Fans were happy. It was too good to last.

Sure enough, the two companies appear headed for a breakup. While the Disney/Sony deal was one of the best things that ever happened to Spider-Man, the end of the deal could be one of the worst. Now that it all looks to be unraveling, Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures might have integrated their characters into each others’ worlds too well. The future they face without each other will involve staring down some hefty story problems that will be very difficult to solve.

Several of Spider-Man’s key supporting cast belong to Marvel, including Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan. If neither appeared in another Spider-Man film, it would be a more jarring disappearance than anything that happened when Thanos snapped his fingers at the end of Infinity War. And Spider-Man: Far From Home established Peter Parker as the MCU’s heir apparent to Tony Stark, a role he won’t be able to fill if he’s, y’know, legally disallowed from appearing in an MCU film. Heck, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Happy looked like they were headed towards a marriage! Unless the studios resolve their differences, that can never happen now. Tiptoeing around all of these hanging subplots in the next Spider-Man and Avengers movies could get mighty awkward.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

The main pleasure of a shared universe like Marvel’s is the fact that stories can be paid off slowly over the course of years and through many films. When Far From Home came out, I argued that when watched back-to-back with Spider-Man: Homecoming, the two films revealed themselves as an unconventional and ongoing retelling of Peter Parker’s origin. If a story as big as Spider-Man’s journey from lonely kid from Queens to the ultimate Avenger can’t be resolved as intended, the Disney/Sony deal could wind up going down in history as a failed experiment akin to the one where that guy tried to harness the power of the sun and wound up with four metal arms grafted to his back.

Spider-Man is a loner by his very nature — it was literally decades before he joined the Avengers in the Marvel Comics universe — and he can go back to being one in movies. Sony has Tom Holland signed on for at least a couple more Spider-Man movies regardless of how Marvel proceeds, and Spider-Man: Far From Home’s shocking post-credits scene might actually make it easier to explain the vanishing MCU supporting cast. Even without Marvel, Sony also has their burgeoning Venom franchise with Tom Hardy, and a seemingly endless array of animated Spider-films they could spin off from their Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Meanwhile, Marvel has an entire phase of movies they just announced, and they haven’t even touched the characters they acquired in their purchase of 20th Century Fox. This is not the end of the world. Or even the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Still, if Marvel and Sony do go their separate ways, it will mark the end of a special and unusual collaboration in the movie business. These press reports could be a negotiating tactic, and I’m sure I speak for most fans when I say I hope they are, and we get to see Tom Holland hanging out with Sam Jackson in another Marvel movie eventually. But this is looking more and more like a scene out of the movie where Holland’s Spidey first premiered, with one side throwing a bunch of contracts down on a table demanding a signature and compliance, and the other side simply throwing up its hands and walking away.

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