By now, you’ve probably seen every comic book geek in your life doing cartwheels in the streets—because Spider-Man is finally joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the movie home of The Avengers. But the MCU is already a pretty complicated place, with a detailed plan already set for the foreseeable future. So how could Spider-Man fit into the Marvel machine that’s already in motion?
Let’s take a look at some comics and see what usually happens when Spider-Man meets The Avengers.
This might shock you, but for much of his fifty-year history, Spider-Man wasn’t really involved with The Avengers. In fact, many stories went out of their way to declare him unfit for membership. Consider 1983’s Avengers #236 (titled “I Want to be an Avenger!”), in which Spider-Man learns that being an Avenger comes with a $1000 weekly stipend, and decides to apply because he wants some of that sweet coin (I’m not making this up).
So of course, he barges into Avengers Mansion, walks in on She-Hulk showering, and all-around makes a pretty lousy first impression. Despite these gaffes, Captain America tells Spidey that there’s simply no room on the team, because there can only be six standing members on The Avengers (which at this time includes Cap, She-Hulk, Scarlet Witch, Wasp, Vision, and Captain Marvel). Instead, he offers to make Spidey a trainee alongside Starfox. Spider-Man is offended; you would be too if you knew what Starfox looked like.
That pretty much sets the tone of Spider-Man’s relationship with the Avengers for the next twenty years. They team up to fight some big crazy threat (or to sell more comics, because that’s what happens when Spider-Man is on the cover), and while the Avengers generally appreciate his help, they usually deem him unfit for membership. Mostly because they think he’s a jackass.
This is a weird, but pretty consistent decision on Marvel’s behalf. Spider-Man is The Avengers’ annoying kid brother; a perennially immature and grating bit of comic relief. Although he would eventually be offered reserve membership, he’d never become a full-fledged member of the team, preferring to work alone.
This remained the status quo until Brian Michael Bendis took over Avengers in 2004, asking a simple question: Why doesn’t Marvel’s biggest team include Marvel’s biggest characters? So he disbanded the team in a catastrophic event called Avengers Disassembled, then created a new team he dubbed The New Avengers. It was filled solely with heavy hitters: Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Spider-Woman, among others. In their debut story, Breakout, a maximum security prison for supervillains is cracked wide open, and the team is spontaneously formed by whoever is able to respond to the crisis.
The dynamic between Spider-Man and the Avengers doesn’t really change once he’s a part of the team. The relationship is a bit less abrasive than it was in the ’80s, but he’s still the comic relief—sometimes surprising his teammates with the fact that he’s a closet scientific genius—but there was never a definitive story about what makes him an integral part of the team. The closest we get to this is Civil War. In the comic version of this story, the central issue of Superhero Registration ends up hitting Spider-Man the hardest.
It’s unlikely that this will be reflected in the MCU version of Civil War, mostly because the framework for Superhero Registration isn’t really present there—and because Spider-Man has zero in-universe history to hammer home the same themes that the comics do. Spidey still might appear in the Civil War movie, but don’t expect him to take a very big role.
Then again, Marvel movies don’t always take their cues from the mainstream Marvel Universe. Just as often, they look to the Ultimate universe—a second universe Marvel started in 2000 to update its characters with 21st century sensibilities. It’s the Ultimate universe that gave us Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, The Avengers as a government initiative, and the Hulk as an attempt to recreate Captain America.
It’s the Ultimate Universe that has the clearest example of how the MCU’s Spider-Man might look.
Ultimate Spider-Man is one of that universe’s most enduring characters because this characterization zeroes in on something the mainstream version of the character abandoned long ago, something the movies have always been eager to leave behind: his youth.
Ultimate Spider-Man is very much a teen story, a YA comic before YA became a thing. Angsty and cathartic, Ultimate Spider-Man tapped into what made Peter Parker’s story resonate so strongly in the ’60s—Spider-Man was the ultimate aspirational hero. Writer Chris Sims really delves into that in an excellent essay over at Comics Alliance, but the gist is this: Spider-Man works because he’s a teenager, learning to be an adult in spite of his insecurities and perceived inadequacy. His story was a perfect coming-of-age metaphor at a time when comics didn’t really have any.
In Ultimate Spider-Man, writer Brian Michael Bendis really homes in on this. Peter is just a high school kid doing his best to be a hero, although he’s never really sure how—and all the while, there are adults trying to tell him what to do with his life. Norman Osborn (The Green Goblin) says he owns Peter, since it was his experiment that led to Peter’s spider bite. Nick Fury says he belongs to the governenment once he turns 18. The Ultimates (what the Avengers are called in the Ultimate Universe) keep telling him to quit being Spider-Man. Like most teens, everyone in the world wants to lecture Peter about what he’s doing, completely ignoring all the good he’s done.
It’s within this sort of context that an MCU Spider-Man can work. He could be an inexperienced yet morally grounded teen thrust into the political machinations and complicated problems that come with being The Avengers’ world. Given a little bit of time, he could become the unfailingly optimistic heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as its established heroes head toward despair and start to lose their way. That’s another thing about Spider-Man: he never quits. Ever.
One of the most curious aspect of the Marvel Cinematic Univerese, both as it stands and as it looks to expand in the future, is its distinct lack of teen heroes. This is odd, because as Spider-Man clearly shows—both in Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man run and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s classic tales—the teenage experience is one that’s uniquely suited to superhero stories.
When you’re 16, every problem is huge; every emotion is loud and violent; every adult has machinations that don’t account for your own agency. Similiarly, superhero stories take problems, emotions, and schemes and turn them into things that can be punched or outwitted. They hold their characters to a higher set of ideals that never waver. They show us worlds full of selfless people doing the right thing, simply because it’s the right thing. They’re not just the sort of stories teens need to hear, they’re the sort of stories that teens belong in. The middle-aged men calling themselves the Avengers? Soon enough, they’re going to be the ones to blame for messing the world up—and it’s going to be up to the kids to fix things.
There’s one more aspect of Ultimate Spider-Man’s story we should explore: He dies. When the heroes of his world succumb to infighting, he takes a bullet meant for Captain America—and then, refusing to fall down, he fights his way through a gauntlet of the worst villains to protect the people he loves. Inspired by his legacy, another, even younger boy who was bitten by an altered spider decides to become Spider-Man in his stead. His name is Miles Morales, and he’s one of the best things to happen in a Spider-Man story.
It’s unlikely that Marvel/Sony will introduce Miles Morales as the primary Spider-Man with their reboot of the character. They should, but chances are they won’t—although there is absolutely no reason for them not to at least introduce Miles in the MCU. In a media landscape that’s slowly becoming aware of a diversity deficit, it’d be in pretty poor taste to add yet another white male face to a roster almost exclusively made up of them.
Superheroes are universal. They’re ideals personified, and those ideals—like the costumes they’re wrapped up in—are almost never exclusive to any race or creed. Spider-Man is about power and responsibility, about taking whatever you’re given and using it to make the world a better place, about never quitting and always striving to do what’s right. He’s bigger than Peter Parker, and that’s the point—growing up, dark-skinned kids like me could always pretend to be Spider-Man, because he had a costume that covered him entirely. He could be anyone, and he inspired everyone.
Really, that’s what matters about a new Spider-Man more than anything: He needs to inspire.