What Marvel needs to stay on top at the box office

No matter how big the MCU gets, it "always comes down to the characters," says Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige.

Caitlin Petrakovitz Director of audience
Caitlin Petrakovitz studies the Marvel Cinematic Universe like it's a course in school, with an emphasis on the Infinity Saga years. As an audience expert, she rarely writes but when she does it's most certainly about Star Trek, Marvel, DC, Westworld, San Diego Comic-Con and great streaming properties. Or soccer, that's a thing she loves, too.
Caitlin Petrakovitz
6 min read

Until recently, we couldn't be sure how Spider-Man would fit into the carefully crafted Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, we saw him in "Captain America: Civil War," but we didn't learn much of his backstory onscreen. Now we know: Peter Parker grew up idolizing the very heroes he fought alongside.

Tom Holland

Third time's the charm?

Chuck Zlotnick

"Guess what? There was a Spider-Man within this world the whole time," said Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, the man who has crafted and molded the MCU since its inception. "We just hadn't met him yet." That's right, while Marvel's Avengers were off fighting aliens and an evil artificial intelligence, Spider-Man was in school.

Almost 60 years in print, and with a million (OK, closer to 25 or so) portrayals on television and in films, wise-cracking Spidey has long been one of the most beloved characters in comic book lore -- but he's always existed outside of Marvel Studios' and Disney's purview. Even though Disney has owned Marvel since 2009, Sony retained the rights to Spider-Man, which meant Spidey had never appeared on the big screen as part of the MCU until "Civil War."

Next month we get our first real look at the life of the teen in "Spider-Man: Homecoming." Not only is it the 16th entry in the sprawling, ever-growing MCU, it is also the first version to cast an actual teenager as high schooler Peter Parker, with Tom Holland playing the awkward boy wonder. Where the previous non-MCU live-action movies featured the boy hero fighting crime on his own in Manhattan, Marvel will give us a different view, one filled with other heroes in unexpected ways, like Iron Man awkwardly attempting to mentor Spidey.

Watch this: Newest 'Spider-Man' trailer peeks into Marvel Universe

Welcome, Spidey!

"It was fun to be able to tap into something that none of the prior Spider-Man films could, which is [to show] what it's like to be a young hero in a world full of heroes," Feige said. "It wasn't just cool that he had web shooters [or that he] could crawl a wall. … But here was this young kid in great contrast to supersoldiers and Norse Asgardians, immortals and billionaire weapons industrialists."

The fear is that featuring a younger actor won't be enough to reboot a beloved series -- Sony's five Spider-Man films grossed an average of more than $400 million (adjusted for inflation), which means a whole lot of people saw them. If "Homecoming" merely rehashes the Spidey origin story and shows his trials after getting bit by a radioactive spider, then this new version won't be bringing anything original to the table.

Feige said that won't happen: "Homecoming" is a new take on an old classic. He describes the film as an homage to John Hughes '80s high school films. "What we want to do with 'Homecoming' is [something] we had never done before: a big, giant, epic Spider-Man saga set within our Cinematic Universe but it's also a high school movie," he said.

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"Black Panther" is set for a February 16, 2018 release. 


Expand, expand, expand

With such a deep catalog of heroes, villains, humans and aliens to draw from, the challenge for Marvel since the inception of this universe has been how to present these stories in new and engaging ways while still maintaining the same overall voice and draw.

Feige insists the studio has already succeeded at that: from the 1970s political thriller that was "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," to the space opera of both "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies. And he said there's more work to come. He describes 2018's "Black Panther" as a "very cultural, geopolitical African story."

"Black Panther" will be Marvel's first in the universe with a black superhero lead, while 2019's "Captain Marvel" will be the studio's first female-led film.

Feige said diversity has always been important to Marvel, citing Spider-Man's creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko as progressive for their time, notably for their introduction of flawed mortal heroes like Spidey, to a realm of "perfect" invincible superheroes. "You look at any of our films and they've been very diverse," Feige said. "We feel like we're just doing justice to the books by representing that fully."

He said Marvel and director Jon Watts want to make sure diversity is an organic part of "Homecoming," beginning with Peter's day-to-day life at school. While the lead and main villain are both white males, much of the supporting cast features women and persons of color.

Feige said Watts "brought in real pictures of real high school students in real New York; it is as diverse as you could imagine. And he said, 'I want this film to look like this. I want this film to represent real high school, real New York, today.'"

Watch this: Journey to Wakanda in this 'Black Panther' teaser trailer

Future forces

As the MCU continues to grow, it's becoming harder and harder for those on the outside looking in to envision of what might come next. Including "Homecoming," the MCU consists of 16 films and six current or past TV shows -- that's not including the seven films planned over the next three years or the five announced or in production TV shows. (Phew!) 


A version of this story appears in the Summer 2017 edition of CNET Magazine.

James Martin/CNET

Since the next Avengers film, 2018's "Infinity War", could easily take place in multiple universes, how do you remain relatable and accessible to both existing and new audiences?

"It always comes down to the characters," Feige said. "No matter how crazy something gets, no matter how otherworldly -- either literally otherworldly or seemingly otherworldly -- the storylines get or the locales get [what's important is] the characters remain relatable and stay rooted in an emotional reality." 

There's no telling where the universe expands to next -- in the last decade onscreen we've already been to space, an alternate universe, the Veil, Asgard, the past and the future, alternate dimensions and... you get the idea -- but the fact is, Marvel's next properties need to address another frequent, more homegrown, criticism: a lack of deep, engaging villains.

With the popularity of the few dynamic "bad guys" like Loki or Daredevil's nemesis Kingpin, we can keep our fingers crossed for a dynamic film focused on a character typically deemed an antagonist.

"There are comics where they focus on the villain, (and) I think someday it would be fun to make a film that focuses on the villain," Feige said.

How about sooner rather than later?

"It's no secret that Thanos is the villain of our upcoming adventure," he said, speaking about "Avengers: Infinity War." 

"That film is as close to focusing on a villain as we've ever done before; he is a primary player in that movie in a major way, and much of the film is from his point of view." As Thanos has been slowly revealed as the big bad of the MCU, this showdown between the Avengers and him has been building in the universe for five years.

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You are Spider-Man

As a universe pushing the decade mark onscreen -- with no signs of slowing down, and plans for quite a bit more -- the trick is for it to remain relatable, meaning there need to be strong characters who aren't aliens, gods or billionaires. 

And that's where this Spidey comes in.

In our cover interview, Holland told CNET Magazine Editor In Chief Connie Guglielmo that being accessible for all ages was important for this version of Spider-Man, and the ultimate goal was to embody onscreen just how awkward those teen years can be. "He goes through something that every kid goes through, whether it's having trouble with homework or talking to girls," Holland said -- all while trying to save his corner of the world.

"Here's somebody who is as big a hero as all of them," Feige said. "But he has to be home or his aunt gets worried. And has to do his homework and has a curfew. … He just hung out with these rock stars, with these amazingly powerful, famous people. And now he's supposed to go back to high school? That's the worst."

To be fair to Peter Parker, high school isn't really the best on a good day, sans superpowers.

"It might be the worst," Feige said.

Finally, a Marvel film and a sentiment everyone can understand.

"Spider-Man: Homecoming" opens worldwide July 7, 2017. 

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