Following the dissolution of the Sony and Disney deal that kept Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many were uncertain about the wall-crawler's future. However, while the cinematic future of Spider-Man remains up in the air, it doesn't appear that Peter Parker is done with the MCU. At the D23 Expo, it was confirmed that the Disney+ series What If...? will consist of 23 episodes -- one episode for each Marvel film. That includes episodes based on Tom Holland's Spider-Man movies.
So, if Spidey is out of the MCU and Disney can no longer use Spider-Man in their films, how can they produce a Disney+ series based on said character that Sony now owns? And, even more importantly, what does that indicate about the future of Spider-Man, if anything at all?
In the initial Comic-Con International at San Diego announcement for What If...?, Tom Holland wasn't mentioned in the cast list. Many would argue that this means Spider-Man was never intended to appear in the series, but that simply isn't the case. Consider also the lack of announced actors for Captain America and Iron Man. It is unlikely that Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. would reprise their roles following Avengers: Endgame. Yet, undoubtedly, their characters will appear.
Furthermore, during D23, it was announced that nearly every MCU actor would return to voice their characters, whether they've been announced or otherwise. This includes Tom Holland's Spider-Man.
Given the indication that the series would have at least two episodes focused on Tom Holland's Spider-Man films, as well as the potential appearance of Spider-Man in the episodes covering Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, as well as the Marvel Zombies episode, this indicates that Tom Holland might reprise his Spider-Man role in a Disney production sooner rather than later.
Disney Didn't Need to Sign a Deal with Sony
As of the writing of this article, negotiations between Disney and Sony are ongoing. This means that, no, Spider-Man's presence in What If...? is no sign of a deal being signed in secret or Spidey returning to the MCU. Nor, however, is it a sign that won't happen.
The rights Sony and Disney are negotiating over are Spider-Man's film rights, which were sold many years prior. However, Sony does not own much beyond that. Disney and Marvel own the merchandising rights, for example. Disney also owns the television rights.
Spider-Man on Television
The Spider-Man film rights are a tricky subject to approach. While Sony owns the cinematic rights to Spider-Man, they don't own the television animation rights to Spider-Man. Many people remember the animated series The Spectacular Spider-Man. Many also remember how the series ended after its second season, prematurely coming to a close before showrunner Greg Weisman could finish his story.
The reasons for the show's cancellation had entirely to do with Disney purchasing Marvel and the televisions rights for all its characters. This led to Sony being unable to produce any future Spider-Man series from that point onward.
Shortly after, Disney started producing animated Spider-Man content -- and has continued to do so ever since.
What-If is Animated
One reason why Disney is able to include Spider-Man in What-If...? is because the series will be an animated television series, falling in line with the Spider-Man content it retains control over.
But this is where things get a little tricky, since this animated project is directly tied in with their film characters. Will Disney be able to create an animated episode -- or, more drastic, additional content involving Spider-Man -- if they no longer have the rights to the film version of the character?
Simply put, it almost doesn't matter. Disney is within their rights to use Spider-Man however they please outside of live-action films. This includes in their theme parks, animated series and Disney+ animated shows...
So, What Does This Mean For the Future?
There are two important takeaways from this information that could have a drastic impact on future Sony and Disney negotiations, even beyond Spider-Man existing in the MCU. Since Marvel retains the television rights to Spider-Man, is this a possibility for them to utilize Spidey in their MCU-related content?
Additionally, in the past, Sony has announced their intentions to create an animated series based on Into the Spider-Verse. They legally cannot do this unless they strike a deal with Disney, who owns Spider-Man's television rights. Will this force the two studios to start negotiating again? These are both distinct possibilities that may have an impact on the future of Spider-Man and the MCU.
This is all assuming, of course, that Sony and Disney don't negotiate a new contract, either in the near or distant future, which would allow Spider-Man to appear in the MCU.