Spider-Man: Homecoming just made a longtime fan theory canonical, putting the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the same category as numerous other TV shows, movies and books. But the problem with this confirmation is its disingenuous intent.
Earlier this week, we learned from Spider-Man actor Tom Holland that Peter Parker made a cameo appearance in in 2010’s Iron Man 2. Before this, we were made to believe that Spider-Man’s debut came in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. Homecoming is Spider-Man’s feature-length debut in the MCU, meaning his history had to be altered to reflect the movies preceding it. As producer Amy Pascal told i09, “The movie is designed for you to feel the movies that have been made in the Marvel Universe [are] the history that’s in the books Peter studies.”
One one side, most of what Marvel has planned seems genuine. The writers want to make it clear that Parker belongs to the Marvel Universe (even though he technically resides in Sony’s) while avoiding the messy fact he hasn’t been in any MCU movie between 2008 and 2016. That leads to questionable things, like the studio’s obvious retcon of making a faceless child character in 2010’s Iron Man 2 into a young Parker.
Director John Watts tipped off that Parker’s “inclusion” in Iron Man 2 could have been an afterthought in this interview with Uproxx.
“I mean, I remember watching that with Kevin Feige and everyone and being like, ‘Does the math work on that?’” Watts said. “He was like, ‘It might, maybe.’”
That’s the issue: the gimmicky nature behind the decision. Feige has previously said that the goal was always to have Spider-Man in the MCU, but up until a few years ago, it just didn’t seem possible. It would have been much cooler if this had been the plan all along, to string along this feeling of hope that Parker could someday appear by including little Easter egg references to him along the way.
That’s not the case, though. It never was.
Regardless, the fact remains that Parker’s canonical history in the MCU has changed fundamentally. Now his first appearance is in Iron Man 2, not Civil War. Marvel isn’t the first company to take a popular fan theory and run with it. Sometimes, the change works and the new canonical fact makes more sense. Other times, like multiple Harry Potter announcements after the series ended, they feel like afterthoughts.
The lingering question is knowing when to include it and when not to.
Let’s use Harry Potter as an example. J.K. Rowling often uses fan theories to continue a story and make them canonical. In 2015, Rowling tweeted an announcement confirming that Harry’s oldest son, James, had been sorted into Gryffindor. This development disappointed Teddy Lupin, who had become the head boy for Hufflepuff. That led to a storm of replies from people celebrating their theories about James ending up in Gryffindor. It was clear that Rowling had taken inspiration from fans’ conversations and questions in order to add more information to a story that was already over. As a result, the canonical history behind James Potter’s story was forever changed.
As far as canonical changes go, that’s rather innocuous, but it represents something interesting about technology, creators and the worlds they create. If anything can be added or changed on the fly, does that mean that any popular fan theory can become canonical? And what does that mean for the sacredness of what has come to pass?
In an article for The Atlantic, David Sims questioned whether a tweet here and there — or a confirmation in an interview — can become canonical fact. If it can, he continued, should it?
Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
The internet, like everything, has changed the way creators and fans relate. Jonathan Nolan, one of the creators behind Westworld, routinely hung out in the Westworld subreddit and would watch what people were saying. Although Nolan never alluded to using theories that he saw in the subreddit, he was keenly aware of theories that were springing up.
In an interview with Vulture toward the end of the show’s first season, Nolan said he thought of Reddit as one of the most interesting places for fans of shows like Westworld and True Detective to hang out, talk and, most importantly, theorize.
“Reddit was where you could catch up with that content, and frankly, it’s where most of the content comes from that appears 48 hours later on other social places. It’s also a really interesting aggregator of wisdom,” Nolan said. “You can take thoughts and you can vote them up or down. So you have this collective intelligence that goes to work on whatever you’re working on.”
There’s no reason to believe, then, that a fan theory on Reddit couldn’t become canonical in future seasons if Nolan and co-creator Lisa Joy thought it fit.
They wouldn’t be the only creators to make something canonical, either, based on a theory they read about on Reddit. One of the more popular fan theories regarding Frozen is that it took place in the same universe as Tarzan. The theory explains that Elsa and Anna’s parents were the same parents stranded on the island at the beginning of Tarzan. During a Reddit AMA, co-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck (Buck also directed Tarzan) joked that it all made sense.
“According to Chris, they didn’t die on the boat,” Lee wrote. “They got washed up on a shore in a jungle island. The queen gave birth to a baby boy. They build a treehouse. They get eaten by a leopard.”
In a followup interview with MTV News, Buck clarified Lee’s comments, explaining that while Anna and Elsa’s parents didn’t die, the movies were indeed connected.
Yes, there was a shipwreck, but they were at sea a little bit longer than we think they were because the mother was pregnant, and she gave birth on the boat, to a little boy. They get shipwrecked, and somehow they really washed way far away from the Scandinavian waters, and they end up in the jungle. They end up building a tree house and a leopard kills them, so their baby boy is raised by gorillas. So in my little head, Anna and Elsa's brother is Tarzan—but on the other side of that island are surfing penguins, to tie in a non-Disney movie, Surf's Up. That's my fun little world.
This isn’t a singular issue isolated to one studio or creator, but the question comes down to authenticity. If it’s an idea that works and one that the creator or studio has had in mind for a while, then it’s interesting and cool. But when it comes across as retcon, as the Parker situation does, it seems like a sales pitch that people see right through.
Spider-Man returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t need to be oversold. This has been a moment that fans have been waiting years for. The one thing that could ruin Spider-Man: Homecoming is Marvel trying too hard to sell it instead of letting it just exist.
Hopefully, once Spider-Man makes his feature length debut, Marvel will look forward instead of trying to find a way to bring back the past.
Spider-Man: Homecoming will be released on July 7.