Can Sony's Spidey-verse Break The Shared Universe Mold?
Variety published an in-depth look at the ways Sony is planning to build on the success of Spider-Man: Homecoming, reviving their hopes for an extended cinematic universe built around other characters from the Spider-Man comics canon. Already in pre-production is Silver & Black, a film team-up joining the mercenary Silver Sable with the burglar Black Cat, to be directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (who is also helming the first episode of Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger series). Next on the docket is a Venom stand-alone film starring Tom Hardy as the long-tongued villain, to be directed by Zombieland’s Ruben Fleischer.
“Superhero movies have now transcended [the point] where they’re no longer superhero movies per se; they are essentially genre movies,” is how Sanford Panitch, President of Columbia Pictures (a division of Sony), summed up the company’s philosophy. So rather than finding a Kevin Feige-esque mastermind to oversee their Spidey-adjacent slate and make sure everything is tied together in a neat bow, Sony seems to be doubling down on creating individual stories, each with their own unique style. If Homecoming owed a debt to the John Hughes movies of yore, then Silver & Black will be a buddy film in the vein of Thelma & Louise, while Venom will lean into the darker, horror-tinged elements of the character and go for a more John Carpenter/David Cronenberg vibe. They will take the ideas on a case by case basis, with the possibility of lower-budgeted fare and R-rated installments as warranted.
But Homecoming’s success wasn’t just on Sony; it was due in part to their strong working relationship with Marvel (and Kevin Feige), who produced the picture in a hands-on way and tied it into the MCU, leveraging the already successful shared universe by including the likes of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. It was a collaboration that yielded results, but so far the partnership doesn’t appear to extend to Silver & Black, Venom, or the other possible stand-alone pics. Marvel may not be the only one uninvolved, however — because it sounds like there is no guarantee Spider-Man himself will turn up in them.
Look, just because Marvel’s Big Damn Shared Universe is stupidly popular and lucrative doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do things. Fox is starting to shake things up with their X-Men-related properties by releasing R-rated films like Deadpool and Logan — films with a strong creative vision that feel wholly separate from the familiar merry-band-of-mutants output they have had success with in the past (despite the films explicitly taking place in the same cinematic universe). Universal also seems to be trying to forge their “Dark Universe” out of a series of disparate monster films, of varying budgets and styles, with only the shadowy Prodigium group to tie them together the way S.H.I.E.L.D. did in the the MCU Phase 1. It’s hard to tell what the future will hold, however, because we’ve only got one one film to go on: the Tom Cruise-led Mummy movie, which made plenty of money overseas despite taking a domestic drubbing from critics. While it won’t be a financial loss for Universal, it also won’t be the springboard they were hoping for to launch their franchise, so that work will fall to the next film in line (Bill Condon’s Bride of Frankenstein reboot, from the sounds of things).
Meanwhile the DC Extended Universe is approaching the long-awaiting Justice League film, but arguably has only had one true hands-down success in the lead up to it: this summer’s Wonder Woman. While Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad all made plenty of money, they earned very mixed receptions, with many people questioning the creative direction of the franchise. It’s hard to assess the DCEU, however, without comparing it to the MCU, and that may be to its detriment. The comparisons are obvious, given that Marvel is DC’s competitor in comic book stores as well, but on screen they are going for wildly different tones and are in very different stages of their universe-building at this point. Of course, Marvel has yet to launch a female-fronted tentpole superhero movie, so the scales aren’t tipped entirely in their favor either.
Sony is smart to play up the genre possibilities of the Marvel IP they have rights to, because a) not every character IS a superhero, so why treat their movies like “superhero” movies, and b) it will be refreshing to see some creative risks taken with franchise output. As Fox has proved, it works (even if they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to that consensus, thanks to some well timed Deadpool leaked footage). Still, their collaboration with Marvel may just muddy the waters for audiences, leaving people disappointed if Spidey doesn’t show up, or if all the films don’t eventually tie into the MCU in some way. Is it possible for them to have their cake and eat it too? Can they leverage Marvel for Spidey, then leverage Spidey to make the other characters happen — but never the twain shall meet?
In a media landscape riddled with shared universes, we’ll just have to wait to see how Sony’s gamble will pay off. And for the record, I would absolutely watch the shit out of a Cronenberg-esque Venom flick. Crazy symbiote suits are totally body-horrorific! Though if they want to really impress me, they should try to actually hire David Cronenberg himself. Can you imagine?