In Spider-Man: No Way Home the Peter Parker of the Marvel Cinematic Universe encounters Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin. And Sandman and Electro. And the Lizard. And possibly someone else so lacklustre that I have already forgotten them. And then he encounters two other heroes named Spider-Man. They are presented as characters from elsewhere in the multiverse. But everyone knows what they really are: characters from elsewhere in the franchise. Characters from other movies.
If the Peter Parker of the Marvel Cinematic Universe can meet the Peter Parkers from the previous films, does it follow that the Peter Parkers from the previous films have acquired a new kind of fictional reality? Or does it follow that the M.C.U.P.P is just a character in a movie?
In the beginning, there was no Marvel Cinematic Universe. There was the X-Men (2000), a very good film about a team of super-powerful beings. There was the Fantastic Four (2005), a not very good film about a team of super-powerful beings. (There was another attempt to make the Fantastic Four in 2015, which was also not very good.) There was Hulk (2003), a weird, art-house interpretation of a big green superpowerful being, directed by Ang Lee. (You wouldn't like me when I'm Ang Lee.)
There was no suggestion of a shared universe. Indeed, one of the things which made sense about the X-Men was that Mutants were presented as the only super-powerful beings on earth: not merely a sub-class of superdude. It hadn't crossed anyone's mind that the unique selling point of Marvel Comics might also be the unique selling point of Marvel Movies.
The first Spider-Man movie, imaginatively called Spider-Man, came out in 2002 and said pretty much everything that there was to say about the character. The second -- given the equally imaginative title Spider-Man 2 -- said it all again, only in a rather more depressing tone of voice. Spider-Man 3, the one with the black costume, went down so well that they had to rebooted the franchise, meaning that mainstream audiences had to go through the whole not-saving-Uncle-Ben's-life thing for the second time in ten years. Andrew Garfield was less nerdy than Toby Maguire, but got more of a chance to do Spider-Man's sarcastic repartee. His second film was even more depressing than Toby Maguire's. It tried to end on an upbeat note -- Parker comes to terms with the death-of-Gwen and resumed the hero trade -- but the second spider-cycle lurched to a halt after only two movies.
Superheroes last forever, but not so young actors. Ten years is a long time for an actor to stay in one role; but three movies is not very much screen time in which to represent decades and decades of Spider-Man comics.
Sometime around 2008, the penny dropped. It may have helped that Iron Man was a character who people outside the insular world of comics had not heard of, and that the first Iron Man movie was very good indeed. It also helped that the big paradigm shift happened in a post cred and could be ignored if you wanted to. Samuel L Jackson turned up at the end of Iron Man 1 to tell Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative; and Tony Stark and Nick Fury both turn up at the end of The Incredible Hulk; and Iron Man 2 ends with the discovery of Thor's hammer. Comic book fans jumped up and down with anticipation; and mainstream audiences were tentatively introduced to the idea that the heroes of Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor could all come crashing together in a huge Avengers shaped mash up. It worked so well that "trying to create another franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe" has become the holy grail of commercial cinema. Snyder wants to do it to the Justice League; Russell Davies wants to do it to Doctor Who; She Who Must Not Be Named want to do it to Harry Potter. Only Star Wars has come anywhere near it; and Star Wars was a universe before it was a series of films.
Tom Holland swung into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Avengers: Civil War (2016); the third reboot in fourteen years. There had obviously been some serious soul-searching about how to put Spider-Man into the vast Marvel Universe Phase Three meta-movie. If you are trying to sum up who Spider-Man is "He's a super-hero...but he's still in High School" is not a bad way of doing it. That was, after all, the essence of the Ultimate Spider-Man reboot.
Indeed, quite a lot of the Miles Morales characterisation bled over into this new Peter Parker. In the comic book, Ned Leeds is, in order, a Bugle reporter, Peter's rival for the affections of Betty, a supervillain and dead. His namesake in the M.C.U is a close friend and contemporary of Peter Parker who bears more than a passing resemblance to Miles Morales' close friend and contemporary, Gank Lee. Peter's red haired lover is Michelle, not Mary Jane, but she is sometimes called EmJay to confuse us.
Maguire and Garfield began their stories as high-school students but rapidly grew-up; Holland is coded as "young" throughout his tenure, and the M.C.U Spider-Movies are presented as High School rom-coms. The first one, Homecoming, is focussed on old reliable, the High School Prom.
It would have been unkind to make audiences sit through Spider-Man's entire twist-ending morality play of an origin story for a third time, and the arrival of Peter Parker as a red, blue and webby fait accompli was a great cinematic moment. But the apparent excision of Uncle Ben from the mythos raised a few eyebrows. (And by raised eyebrows I mean "Waa-waa-waa #notmyspider you raped my childhood.") To a great extent, Tony Stark took over the mentor role, gifting Parker with a bells-and-whistles Iron Man inspired Spider-Costume. The first movie was more focussed on Parker learning to drive his Iron-Spider-Man costume than on his actual Spider-Powers. I couldn't blame it for this: Kid Iron Man is by no means a bad premise for a story. The idea of a character with a powerful set of super-heroic hardware that he hasn't learned how to drive put me in mind of the criminally underrated 1991 Rocketeer movie. But some people understandably thought that it wasn't quite the Spider-Man they had known and loved.
The previous five movies had promiscuously burned their way through Spider-Man's back catalogue of villains: the Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, the Lizard, Electro, Venom and even the Rhino, leaving Tom Holland to face off against barely recognisable versions of the Vulture and Mysterio. One way or the other, the Goblin and the Octopus, at least, were going to have to be brought into the continuity. Spidey without Doc Ock is like Sherlock Holmes without the Daleks.
The obvious casting choice to play Doctor Octopus was Alfred Molina, who had memorably appeared in Spider-Man 2 in the role of....Doctor Octopus. And since the audience had already accepted Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin -- and since no one does barking mad insane like William Dafoe -- why not get William Dafoe to reprise his role as the Green Goblin as well. (He, that is to say the Green Goblin, was dead the last time we saw him, but that can be got round. No-one dies forever
except Bucky.) In fact, why not go for a full on supervillain reunion? But if you haven't bothered to tell the audience how Peter Parker came to be swinging around new York on a thread; why waste their time on a series of Just So stories for what are definitely not going to be called the Sinister Six. ("How Doctor Octopus got his arms." "How the the Goblin got his gob.") Why not take them for granted too? Why not, in fact, take "bring Doctor Octopus into the Marvel Cinematic Universe" literally?
I don't know whether it was the success of Into the Spider-Verse that made the franchise masters decide that the time was right for there to be multiple live action Spider-People. With the Thanos Saga out of the way, the Marvel Universe had to go somewhere, and replacing the big purple guy with Kang the Conquerer or Galactus would feel like more of the same. (They are also big and purple, come to think of it.) So a sideways move into What Iffery may have been a conscious change of direction for Marvel Universe Phase Seven, Eight and Nine.
But then comes the fatal step. There had been a half-warmed plan to have Tobey Maguire voice Peter B. Parker in Into The Spiderverse. If there are other world's with Alfred Molina's Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe's Goblin living on them; then the idea of the Three Spiders becomes overwhelming.
From 2000 to about 2008, the Marvel Movies were Just Stories: each series locked off in its own separate world. From 2008 to 2022, every movie was connected with every other movie. No Way Home appears to offer us the opportunity to have our cake and eat it. Toby Maguire's Spider-Man is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but he is not not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, either. It is one thing to imagine how Admiral Thrawn, or Mara Jade, or Jaxxon the Giant Green Bounty Hunter Rabbit might be written into the primary Star Wars universe as characters. It is a very different thing to say "Itchy and Lumpy have crossed over into the Mandalorian from a parallel universe where the special effects aren't as good and people burst out singing for no readily apparent reason.
There is a nice scene in a No Direction Home involving a blind lawyer. The blind lawyer did come from a different part of the franchise; but he did not come from a different universe. The Netfux TV shows regarded themselves as taking place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Characters are aware that New York has been invaded by aliens; there is a reference to a big green monster; and Luke Cage is described as being like a black Captain America. (This was before Captain America was black.) The brief cameo by Matt Murdoch confirms that the movies regard the TV shows as "canon".
Daredevil appearing, however tangentially, in Spider-Man is fun, because it opens the possibility, however remote, that Spider-Man and Daredevil could meet up and go on an adventure together. But from the fan point of view, it's importance is that it give us permission to suppose that Daredevil and Jessica Jones and Iron Fist and Luke Cage and the Punisher all happened in the same world as Far From Home and Endgame. It expands the great story; it pastes new material into the meta-text.
A story involving Spider-Man and Daredevil could be a lot of fun because they both live in the same city; fight the same kinds of villains; but have a different approach. Peter Parker vs the Hand would be interesting because at one level he would be out of his depth -- he's a kid, they're born again Ninja -- and from another point of view they are small fry to someone who helped defeat Thanos. But even if that never happens, Daredevil, and all those TV shows, have been afforded Secondary Reality.
Also it's cool and made me smile.
But the appearance of Charlie Cox is a different kind of thing to the appearances of Andrew Garfield or Toby Maguire.
When the voice of David Hyde Pierce appeared opposite the voice of Kelsey Gramer in a 1997 episode of the Simpsons, the story was entitled "The Brother From Another Series" -- an in-joke on at least three levels. When Evan Peters turns up as Quicksilver in WandaVision, we are presumed to know that he played the character in the X-Men series, even though the same character is played by Aaron Johnson in the Avengers. (The story works fine if you don't know that.) The arrival of Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin is a metajoke on the same level. From Peter's point of view, these are just villains from some weird other universe. From our point of view they are Villains From a Different Franchise.
NOTE: Tom Holland is the young man who plays Spider-Man in the Marvel Universe. Tom Hollander is the older man who plays the vicar in the remarkable Rev. I think there is probably a multi-universe crossover to be written in which Tom Holland and Tom Hollander come face to face with Tom Hollandest.