Can Sony Make a Spider-Man Cinematic Universe Without Spider-Man?
So the short answer is ‘no’, but hear me out.
It doesn’t take a fool to understand why Sony are so eager to hold onto the cinematic rights to Spider-Man. Every studio needs a franchise to turn into an epic expanded universe and it’s far more practical to do so when said IP is superhero focused. It’s Disney’s world and we simply live under the shadow of those mouse ears. Disney’s own grasp is increasing too, as its growing media monopoly begins to encompass some of the most iconic aspects of international entertainment. Soon, their prized jewel - the Marvel Cinematic Universe - will include the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Deadpool. The only thing stopping them from having the full deck completely and undeniably under their control is that friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.
Technically, Spider-Man is still Sony’s domain, although it’s easy to argue that the franchise only became truly relevant in the post-Iron Man age once Marvel made a deal to bring a fresh new web-slinger to their universe. Andrew Garfield’s tenure as Peter Parker proved disappointing and it was only in the Tom Holland era that fans felt like the studio had done the character right. It was a win-win deal for everyone involved: Marvel got a key icon in their ensemble and Sony had a new shot of relevance and audience interest in their corner. The question following on from the success of Spider-Man: Homecoming was simple: What now?
According to Variety, the franchise is currently being developed under the name Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters, or SUMC for short, which really rolls off the tongue. Next on the cards for Sony’s Spidey-verse is Venom, wherein Tom Hardy will play Eddie Brock, the dogged journalist who becomes the host for the alien Symbiote that turns him into, as the marketing is keen to play up, the ultimate anti-hero. Venom is a long-time favourite adversary of Spider-Man, one with a fascinating central dynamic between Eddie and the Symbiote that has been at the centre of some of the best arcs in the comics. The big-screen potential is there but the last time the films tried anything with Venom, we got Spider-Man 3 and Topher Grace didn’t fare too well with the CGI splurge. Now, he’s getting a solo movie with a hefty $100m budget and major star power in the lead roles. The marketing push has been major but the early buzz hasn’t been encouraging. The trailers looked cheap and many joked that Venom had the potential to be the best superhero film of 1996. It will probably fare well in its opening weekend - its main competition is A Star is Born - but the speculation around its long-term game plan remains less clear.
It’s easy, when we see a trailer for a film that looks unpromising, to joke that nobody asked for it. With Venom, it’s clear that there are Spider-Man fans who would love a movie focused on Eddie Brock and his journey. It’s a great story. Still, I’m not sure if there were large swaths of the general movie-going public asking for a PG-13 Venom movie that doesn’t feature or ever acknowledge Spider-Man. These characters have operated Spidey-free in the comics for many years but it’s a tougher translation bringing that to the big screen without dealing with the countless arcs that made the canon so sturdy.
The MCU can get away with making solo movies of lesser known characters because their franchise has become an indomitable force over the past decade and a brand big enough to sustain it. It remains to be seen if the DCEU can do the same, on top of a Venom-style focus on a villain independent on his main nemesis courtesy of their Joker movie, but that’s also a franchise with strong historical foundations. Spider-Man has a strong lineage - it could be argued that, along with Fox’s X-Men, Sam Raimi’s original trilogy shaped the superhero blockbuster as we know it - but it’s far more limited in scope. Essentially, Sony are starting their Spidey-verse from scratch for the third time.
The key difference between this reboot and the Andrew Garfield years is that now, the franchise is inextricably tied to the MCU. That’s not just because of Tom Holland’s universe hopping either. Sony are clearly hoping that by keeping their Marvel world intertwined with the big dog at Marvel Studios will give them greater exposure and access to those beloved characters. After all, it would be kind of daft if we had more Spider-Man stories were Tony Stark or other New York centred Avengers didn’t turn up from time to time. This strategy does present its own problems, the most notable one being that Venom can’t be an R-rated movie, as was previously hinted at. Disney don’t do R-rated movies and, even after the upcoming acquisition of 20th Century Fox, probably won’t make it a major priority in the future. The odds are that Sony wouldn’t want anything with Spider-Man in it to be an R-rating either given his constant appeal to younger audiences.
That could seriously limit what they do with characters like Venom, but he’s not the only one. Sony are now pushing ahead with a Morbius movie, starring Jared Leto, and have plans for a Black Cat film, although the latter will not be connected to the Silver and Black project that Gina Prince-Bythewood was attached to for many months. On the upside, Sony do seem interested in planning Spidey-verse spin-off movies centred on a lot of women, such as Silk, Silver Sable, Black Cat and Jackpot. It would be good to see a superhero franchise more dominated by women than men, but few people seem to genuinely believe Sony will get that far in the process. Hopes just aren’t that high for this spider-less web.
Their best strategy may come with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a clumsily titled but intriguing animated film that puts Miles Morales front and centre alongside Peter, Gwen Stacy and more. It’s a project that gives Sony an edge in an under-explored section of the superhero market - animation - and doesn’t have to adhere to a rigid franchise plan.
The real test will come with the box office for Vemon. A Variety post from 13th September predicted an opening weekend of between $60 - 65m, which would be up there as one of the strongest October debuts on record. Ideally, Sony would like this film to do MCU numbers, but an acceptable final gross would be about $400m, once marketing costs were taken into consideration. Can it pull it off? Or will the film flounder like a turd in the wind?
Yeah, I’m still baffled by that line in the trailer as well.
Header Image Source: Sony Pictures
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