The following article contains spoilers.
Through sheer might and successful long-term planning, Disney, through its control of both Marvel and Lucasfilm, has become the epicenter of the geek universe. The company steers Hollywood’s two most successful movie franchises, the Avengers saga and a revitalized Star Wars universe, and has over the past half-decade perfected the art of fan service. But thanks to a single line of dialogue in its latest film, Captain America: Civil War, Disney has seemingly blown up any chance of the ultimate fan event: A Star Wars-Marvel crossover.
During the gigantic battle royale that marks the apex of directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s new blockbuster, Spider-Man is portrayed as a fresh-faced geek just excited to meet his heroes (even if he has to fight half of them). He’s also a boy genius with a love of retro tech, and when he’s faced with the challenge of taking down a very giant nemesis, he quickly concocts a plan inspired by science fiction; after all, he’s still very new to this superhero thing, so he doesn’t have much practical experience to fall back on.
As he swings through the air, he asks his fellow Team Iron Man combatants if they’d ever seen that old movie, The Empire Strikes Back. Then proceeds to use his webbing like Luke used his T-47’s tow cables to trip up the AT-ATs in the battle on Hoth. It’s a funny moment that highlights his youth. Tony Stark was definitely alive when it hit theaters in 1980 — and shows off Peter Parker’s quick thinking and ingenuity. But it also carries some mind-blowing connotations, if you think hard enough about it (and considering the fan bases involved, people will).
For the most part, the Marvel movies have avoided too many pop culture references, so as to stay accessible in the coming years; Captain America’s famous to-do list from The Winter Soldier had timeless references like Nirvana, Rocky, and I Love Lucy. There’s no doubt that Star Wars is just as immortal, and unlikely to confuse anyone who streams Civil War 15 years from now (probably before watching the Cap reboot, let’s be honest). So in that respect, it’s no big surprise that the Russos, who also directed Winter Soldier, would pick such a safe reference. It’s very funny to think that Spider-Man sits at home watching Star Wars, which in his super world is fictional.
But there’s more to it than that. Star Wars very famously takes place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. So sure, it’s not as if there was much of a logical chance that Captain America and co. would run into a Wookiee or have to deal with a pesky Ewok at any point in their adventures on earth. But with Guardians of the Galaxy taking place in space and the upcoming Doctor Strange involving whole different dimensions, it’s not unreasonable to think that they could run into one another if Disney so willed it.
And why wouldn’t they? They invented that sort of thing. The current rush for sustainable intellectual properties —which Disney foresaw and then helped trigger with its purchases of Marvel and Lucasfilm — has made crossover events a sort of ultimate prize for entertainment conglomerates. Captain America: Civil War is in and of itself a major crossover event, combining characters from a handful of movies into a superhero smorgasbord that will make far more money than any solo adventure can earn; it seems obvious now, but 2012’s The Avengers was a major gamble that brought everyone together. Sony gave up sole rights to Spider-Man just so it could cash in on the multiplying effect.
This is what Warner Bros. was aiming for when it made Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the disappointment of that film, both critically and at the box office, shows just how hard it is to pull off.
Fans had their hopes for a Star Wars-Marvel crossover raised when Stan Lee mused on the topic in January. Speaking to The Big Issue, the 93-year-old Marvel mastermind said, “If [Disney] feels that incorporating Star Wars with the Marvel characters will be very successful, they’ll find a way to do it. Can you imagine Spider-Man saying, ‘May the force be with you’? It may come to that!”
It turns out the Spidey did make a Star Wars reference, but not in the way Lee suggested. The joke in Civil War makes Lee’s idea much more difficult. There’d have to be a hokey “Wow, you’re real?!” moment, at the very least — though in a world of Norse gods coming to Earth and AI systems turning into purple humanoids, it’s not totally far-fetched. After all, Marvel does print the Star Wars comic books now.