Spider-Man has been a popular comic book superhero since he first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962. Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spidey has been web swinging on the pages of comics and newspapers, in cartoons, television shows, movies, video games, amusement parks, and even on Broadway. This post attempts to catalog Spidey’s first 50 years on the big screen, including behind the scene struggles to produce films, his imprisonment within Sony Pictures, and what the future holds for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
Spider-Man premiered on film in the 1969 fan film Spider-Man, featuring special visual effects, miniatures, explosions, and stunts performed by a Spider-Man blow-up doll. The climax (at about the ten minute mark) features Spidey swinging after the villainous Dr. Lightning (played by Doctor Doom in a t-shirt) as he attempts to make his escape in a red muscle car. The film was made by amateur filmmaker Donald F. Glut (who also stared as Spidey) and who had previously made several other superhero-related fan films. Glut would later go on to write for the classic 80’s Spider-Man cartoon series and a variety of other cartoons, including an episode of X-Men: The Animated Series. Glut’s Spider-Man fan film was actually screened at the University of Southern California, truly making it the first Spider-Man film in cinema.
The first official live-action Spider-Man film was the 1977 CBS TV movie, Spider-Man, featuring mind-controlled bad guys and staring Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. The ’77 Spider-Man, while not a true cinematic release, launched a live-action TV series that ran for 13 episodes. Some of the wire work that gave Spidey his ability to wall crawl is honestly impressive, but the whole show is badly dated by cheesy dialogue, a disco soundtrack, and bellbottoms. Two theatrical releases were eventually produced by re-editing episodes but these were released only in Europe.
Also in the late 70’s, Toei Company, a Japanese production company, released their own version of Spider-Man in theaters and television. I’m not entirely sure how – or even if – Toei obtained the rights to the character, but at one point Marvel had the episodes streaming and subtitled on their TV shows website. Toei would go on to produce the Super Sentai Series, better known in the West as Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Go Go, Toei.
After Stan Lee veto’ed the “Peter Parker transforms into a giant, hairy, eight-armed tarantula and is locked in a basement after refusing to join a mutant master-race” concept (thank you, Stan) at Cannon films in the mid-80’s, Spider-Man entered development hell as budgets were slashed repeatedly. Due to the failures of Superman IV and Masters of the Universe, Cannon bailed on the whole idea of a superhero movie and the film rights to Spider-Man found their way to 21st Century Film Corp. At one point James Cameron submitted a script draft with Arnold Schwarzenegger attached to play Doc Ock. (Let’s just pause for a moment and imagine the alternate reality where that film was made. Okay, let’s move on.) As part of a severence packagefrom Cannon Films, co-owner Menahem Golan walked away with 21st Century Film Corp. and the film rights to Spider-Man (and Captain America). To get financing for the film, Golan sold the TV, home video, and theatrical rights to three different companies, but of course the film was never made. In 1995 a judge ruled that the film rights as originally sold to Cannon had now reverted back to Marvel, but a year later, with the entire comics industry hurting, Marvel filed for bankruptcy. With the bankruptcy came the ToyBiz merger, with co-owner Avi Arad becoming Marvel’s CEO. Marvel sold the film rights to their most popular characters for whatever amount they could get in the late 90’s. Sony Pictures picked up the film rights to Spidey in 1999 for a mere $7 million, which is where Spider-Man remains jailed in perpetuity.
Staring Toby Maguire and directed by Sam Raimi, 2002’s Spider-Man was a massive success and the first film to earn $100 million in an opening weekend. (I know, how quaint, right?) The original teaser trailer for the film shows a helicopter trapped in a giant spider web strung between the World Trade Center towers, and the original theatrical poster has the towers reflected in the eyes of Spider-Man’s mask. Both trailer and poster were recalled after the 9/11 attacks. In the film, Spider-Man’s classic origin story is played out in full as Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, gains spider-like abilities, kisses Mary-Jane Watson while hanging upside down, battles the Green Goblin, saves New York City, and – oh yeah – shoots webbing out of slits in his wrists. Now, spiders don’t shoot webbing out of their little spider legs, they actually pull webbing from their – well, it doesn’t matter, the film was a huge hit.
The 2004 sequel Spider-Man 2 featured Doctor Octopus and focused on Peter Parker’s desire to be “Spider-Man No More!” (a plot thread largely influenced by Amazing Spider-Man #50). The film was made so long ago that it was cheaper to use practical tentacles for many shots of Doc Ock instead of computer visual effects. This movie was another huge hit.
Peter Parker takes on Sandman, the Goblin, and Venom in 2007’s poorly received Spider-Man 3. In the film, Toby Maguire does this and Sam Raimi’s rein on theatrical Spider-Man films is finally put to a stop. Part 4 will never see the light of day, and Spider-Man is officially rebooted just five years later.
The Amazing Spider-Man, staring Andrew Garfield, is another big success in the Spider-Man franchise despite re-treading the same origin story audiences saw just a decade earlier. Soon-to-be-Academy-Award-Winner Emma Stone stars as Gwen Stacy, replacing MJ as Peter’s love interest, and the Lizard is the new solo Big Bad. Amazing features the return of Peter’s self-designed, artificial web shooters and the first time Peter’s parents are seen on film before ominously disappearing. There were many ominous plot threads left open by the end of the film, many characters in the shadows we never see, with the clear intention of continuing these in…
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 returns Garfield and Stone to all the fake teen relationship drama you didn’t want to see in a superhero movie. Electro and the Green Goblin are Spidey’s foes this time around, while Felicia Hardy (aka Black Cat) and the Rhino make some blink-and-you-miss-them cameos. More is revealed about the disappearance of Peter’s parents, but before all the mysteries are revealed, the film was over and the bad reviews were out.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was supposed to be the start of Sony’s Spider-Man Cinematic Universe, designed to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Venom, the Sinister Six, Black Cat, Spider-Man 2099, and two additional Spider-Man films planned and in various early stages of production, but after Amazing 2 performed poorly at the box office with lackluster audience and critic reviews, Sony gave up on all future films.
Finally, in 2014, Sony Pictures was hacked by North Korea (maybe, probably, who knows) and among the leaked documents were details of a Disney/Sony team-up that will introduce Spidey into the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Tom Holland is cast as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War. Spidey finally joins Iron-Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, Winter Soldier, Falcon, War Machine, Vision, and also making his MCU debut, Black Panther, in a German airport to fight against Cap as he attempts to track down the man who has brainwashed Bucky and caused the death of— you know what? The plot of Civil War is pretty convoluted. Spider-Man, however, makes a huge introduction to the MCU in this film. Peter Parker is young (Holland is an actual teenage), funny (classic Spidey quips during the battle), and the Stark Suit is Very Cool (the re-sizing of the eyes allow for expression in the mask that hasn’t been seen on film before). He swings in almost exactly at the half-way mark of Civil War (wearing a pizza t-shirt) and through a six minute chat with Tony Stark the audience skips the “bit-by-a-spider” origin story and we’re off to Germany. The chemistry between Tom Holland and Chris Evans, Sam Wilson, and Robert Downey Jr., is proof of the great casting that went into finding Holland for the role. Civil War is another huge success in both the MCU and Spider-Man franchises.
Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up immediately after where Civil War left off, with Peter Parker still euphoric over his fight against 50% of the Avengers. Homecoming introduces a few new characters to Peter’s world, including best friend Ned (based partially on Miles Morales’s best friend in the comics, Ganke Lee, and Ned Leeds, from the original Amazing Spider-Man comics) and future love interest, Michelle, who goes by her initials MJ. (According to Marvel, this is not the same character as Mary-Jane Watson, and is instead a wink and a nod to the fans. Regardless of who she is or isn’t, Zendaya has created a strong and funny character in the role of Michelle/MJ and she plays off Holland’s awkward Peter Parker masterfully.) Spidey battles Michael Keaton as the Vulture, and Robert Downey Jr. has a $10 million cameo as Iron-Man. Also showing up in cameo form is Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, aka The Prowler, aka Miles Morales’s Uncle, aka Childish Gambino, but so far, Miles has only shown up in animated form (more on that a little further down). Special nod towards Tony Revolori, who shines as Peter’s obnoxious nemesis Flash Thompson. Homecoming showcases Holland’s expert performance at being an awkward geek and a wise-cracking superhero. Missing from the Maguire/Garfield films were those moments in the comics when Spider-Man makes a trademark quip (or two, or eight) during the fight with the villain. The audience also gets much more screen time with Spider-Man in-costume as the origin of his powers (and the explanation for where this bright red and blue suit magically appears from) have already been satisfactorily explained in Civil Warand the movies, TV shows, cartoons, and comic books that have come before it. The MCU seems tired of retreading long, overplayed origin stories at this point and we’re now bee-lining into original stories with our heroes. No complaints here!
Spider-Man’s next MCU appearance would be the massive Avengers: Infinity War in 2018, and the following year’s Avengers: Endgame. In Infinity War, Spidey heads to space with Iron-Man and Doctor Strange where he meets up with the Guardians of the Galaxy to battle Thanos. Star Lord goes off-script and Thanos defeats the team in space before heading to Earth to complete his collection of Infinity Stones. With the snap of his fingers, Thanos breaks the heart of every person in the theater as they witness Peter Parker dissolve into dust in Tony Stark’s arms. Five years of movie time (and one very long real year) pass when Endgame picks up again as the remaining Avengers devise a plan to travel into the past and borrow the Infinity Stones from previous MCU films. (Endgame is also the final film with a Stan Lee cameo.) The Avengers snap-back everyone dusted by Thanos, who’s past self shows up to try the whole snapping plan again. Spider-Man joins the Avengers and everyone else from every MCU film (sans Natalie Portman?) as they fight the big purple guy once more and his massive army of Chitauri. Tony Stark sacrifices himself to save the world, proclaiming once again that he is Iron-Man. The Earth’s Mightiest Heroes hold a funeral for their friend.
Spider-Man: Far from Home once again picks up just days after the events of the previous film, coining the disappearance and reappearance of those affected by Thanos’s snap as “the blip.” Conveniently, all of Peter’s classmates are blipped, so they all return for the sequel. The class takes a little field trip to Europe, where Spider-Man meets a version of Nick Fury and Maria Hill, and encounters new BFF Quentin Beck/new arch-nemesis Mysterio. Spider-Man is given special Tony Stark designed spectacles, called E.D.I.T.H., that can summon killer drones and hack smartphones. Peter also self-designs a new black and red suit in a homage to the original Iron-Man suit design montage, complete with “Back in Black” soundtrack. (Happy gets the reference.) By the end of the film Peter’s secret identity is now known by Happy Hogan, Aunt May, Ned, MJ, Mysterio, everyone working at S.H.I.E.L.D, everyone fired from Stark Industries, and, oh right, the entire planet, as J. Jonah Jameson shares Beck’s final parting words with all of New York: “Spider-Man’s name is Peter Parker!”
Yikes. This is all new territory in the world of Spider-Man. Very rarely has Peter Parker been unmasked, with a public unmasking occurring once in the comics only to be reversed a few issues later with a massive continuity reset for the character. But the MCU has never treated secret identities as anything more than a design element of the costume. At the end of Iron-Man, Tony Stark proudly (and a little egotistically) announces, “I am Iron-Man,” and from then on the masks were off — or never put on in the first place. Captain America wears a mask, but his identity is known publicly. Black Panther’s identity is known to at least all of Wakanda, and Ant-Man is a known felon to the local police. Even Wanda Maximoff has never gone by her “Scarlet Witch” hero/villain name. (This is possibly due to the rights to the mutant-version of the character being owned by FOX at the time, with Marvel “borrowing” Wanda and her brother Quicksilver for Avengers: Age of Ultron on the condition they aren’t named as mutants — they instead get their powers from experiments conducted on them with the Mind Stone. Of course, this issue is now moot with Disney having purchased FOX and re-claiming the X-Men film rights.) So is unmasking Spidey a big deal in the MCU? Probably not. I don’t see Marvel undoing this reveal, and instead Peter Parker will need to deal with the consequences of being a public figure. (I’m hoping we get to see Flash’s response to the news.) This gives the filmmakers all new adventures to explore with the character, too: even if Spider-Man’s next foe is the Green Goblin, the Lizard, Electro, or Sandman, this will be a completely new story from the previous movies. This is a road the films have never trodden with Spider-Man, and with Marvel behind the storytelling, I’m fully onboard for whatever they have planned next.
Shortly after Far from Home crossed the billion dollar box office mark, a new record for a Spider-Man film, Marvel and Sony announced they had been unable to reach a new agreement to continue co-producing future Spider-Man films. Spidey would exit the MCU, and Sony would return to independently producing future Spider-Man films, with Tom Holland reprising his role as Spidey. A few weeks later, Marvel and Sony announced a new agreement had finally been reached, and Spidey would continue with the MCU for another multi-character crossover film (Avengers or Civil War style) and Marvel would co-produce the next standalone Spider-Man film. Financially, Marvel’s parent company, The Walt Disney Company, will be footing 25% of the cost of production and taking 25% of the box office haul – and as Far from Home has proven, 25% of a Spider-Man box office is still a massive payday, even for Disney.
This was an important agreement for Disney to make. With the Marvel lands opening at various Disney Parks over the next couple of years, and the Spider-Man ride specifically swinging into DCA in 2020, getting Spidey back into the MCU was a must. The story as Disney CEO Bob Iger tells it is Tom Holland actually called him on the phone about the deal with Sony and encouraged him to fix it. Iger called Sony and he said, “we have to get this done, for Tom and for the fans.” And they did. The third Spider-Man film is scheduled for release on July 16th, 2021, co-produced by Marvel and Sony, with Tom Holland returning for the sixth time as Spidey.
Spidey will return again in 2022 or 2023 with an ensemble cast of MCU characters; while this film has not yet been announced and this is the final film in Holland’s current contract with Disney and Sony, I’m hopeful this is not the final appearance of Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Sony released Venom in 2018, a reboot of the character from the Toby Maguire Spider-Man days. In the comics, much of the character of Venom is based on Spider-Man, but this film version of Venom is not set in any Spider-Man universe, and his film origin shares nothing with the wall crawler. In the comics, the design of Venom is based heavily on Spider-Man. Venom’s eyes, the way he attacks with those tentacle-like globs, his ability to wall crawl, his ability to react to danger – basically everything that makes the character who he is, he learned from Peter Parker as the symbiote. Including, crucially, Peter’s sense of power and responsibility, which changes Venom from the monster that he was into the comic book hero he’s become in recent years. Venom as a standalone character without the Spider-Man origin feels hollow and turns the Venom film into a generic monster movie.
Despite Venom receiving mostly negative reviews from critics, it made a lot of money at the box office, so Sony has begun work on a sequel. Tom Holland filmed a Spider-Man cameo for the first film but Disney/Marvel asked Sony to remove it. With the new agreement between the studios, Sony will be allowed to use Holland’s Spider-Man in their non-MCU films, including Venom 2 and the upcoming Morbius starring Jared Leto. The films are set to serve as Sony’s second attempt at launching a cinematic universe using Marvel’s Spider-Man characters. The films are not considered canon in the MCU, although Sony considers the MCU events canon for their films. Confusing? Think of it like this: Sony’s films are fan fiction for the MCU. I’m betting Sony is counting on this crossover confusion and will use it to drive MCU fans to their own films.
Meanwhile, Sony won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature with 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This was my favorite film of 2018 (a year with a lot of great movies, including Infinity War) and its Oscar win was well deserved. Into the Spider-Verse finally brings Miles Morales to the Big Screen, telling an amazing Spider-Man story with real heart, humor, and stunning animation. Swinging along with Miles is Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man, but a kind of washed up, out of shape, down on his luck Spider-Man who recently suffered a breakup with MJ. Gwen Stacy, aka Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage), the anime-inspired Peni Parker and her SP//dr mech, and Peter Porker/Spider-Ham also help Miles as he fights the Kingpin and saves the world from a collapse/explosion of the multiverse. Multiple animated Spider-Verse sequels are already in production, including a direct sequel with Miles and Gwen with an April 8th, 2022 release date, and a Spider-Women spin-off with Gwen, Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman), and Cindy Moon (Silk). I know a lot of people won’t watch an animated film on the assumption it’s a cartoon made for kids, but Into the Spider-Verse is so much more, and well worth your time. Watch it on the biggest, highest-definition screen you can find with HDR enabled.
In 2020, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters Stage 4 with new heroes, new movies, and new streaming series on Disney+. Spider-Man’s future on the big screen is certain to continue in some form or another; the only question is if the web slinger will continue on in the MCU. Marvel and Sony have a unique opportunity to work together and share these fan-favorite characters over the next decade to tell powerful, Spider-Man centric stories that has never before been told on screen. As long as Marvel and Sony can continue their Spider-Partnership, and as long as audiences continue going to the movies, the cinematic future of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has never been more promising.