Film Critic Matt Taylor delves the depths of the Sony superhero slump
On October 3rd 2018, the latest big-budget comic book movie from Sony hit our cinema screens. It seemed like a bit of a gamble. Based on a character we’d seen in live action once before, whose appearance had not been well received at all, the film doesn’t tie into any existing continuity of superhero films, yet has the potential for a franchise in and of itself. I am, of course, talking about the Ruben Fleischer-directed, Tom Hardy-starring, Venom. If you have been out to see it, you will probably know that it’s no good whatsoever. If you haven’t seen it, don’t bother.
I didn’t like Venom at all. I didn’t like the dialogue, I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like the villain, I didn’t like the utterly nonsensical climactic fight, I didn’t like most of the acting, and I didn’t like the way Venom’s lips don’t come together to form sounds like ‘m’ and ‘b’. It’s all so completely forgettable; I saw it with my girlfriend (to whom I have repeatedly apologised for making her watch this garbage), and we realised on our way home that we could remember so very little of what happened – the death of a supposedly main character was completely forgotten by us both. I feel like it says a lot that may favourite part of the film was the five-or-so-minute sequence from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that came at the end of the film’s credits.
But this got me thinking; Venom is supposed to be kick-starting a new universe of superhero movies for Sony. The way it’s looking with the film’s critical reception, it will be a miracle if that happens. They are struggling, somehow, to make use of the excellent comic book properties they have – but that wasn’t always the case. If we wind the clock back 15 years, Sony were at the top of the superhero movie game; they had just seen the release of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, a film that revolutionised the modern comic book origin movie, and were in the midst of producing a sequel that is still ranked as one of the best comic book movies ever made. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) wasn’t yet born, DC hadn’t recovered from 1997’s abominable Batman & Robin, and Fox were only just starting out on their X-Men universe. Sony had the entire world of superhero movies at their feet – so what happened?
The point where it all went wrong can most likely be traced back to Spider-Man 3; the second film in Raimi’s trilogy had been a critical and box office smash, and Sony were keen to get out a third film as soon as possible. Sadly, it was not as successful as either of the first two films. Granted, it made the most money ($890.9m worldwide) – but the lukewarm critical and fan reception to it left the franchise dead in the water, and Raimi was unable to make a fourth movie work. No one has been able to pinpoint exactly what caused this, though many attribute it to the film’s shoehorned inclusion of Venom; reports say that Raimi wanted another villain in the film (alongside Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman), and Sony pushed hard for Venom, even though Raimi was initially sceptical. The results spoke for themselves; as a villain, Venom feels half-baked in the film, and actually takes away more than he has to give. Nevertheless, Sony tried to push ahead with a fourth film (with fifth and sixth instalments allegedly in the works too), but Raimi couldn’t agree with Sony on where the film should go, and quit the project. Soon after his departure, Sony announced a reboot of the franchise was due for release in July 2012: The Amazing Spider-Man. And we all know how that went …
Sony pinned everything on the Amazing Spider-Man franchise. After the first film turned out to be a relative success (I myself find it mostly rather bland), they planned to use a sequel as the foundation for a shared Spider-Man movie universe … but these plans were all over the place. Here’s what we do know: there would be two further Amazing Spider-Man films in 2016 and 2018, though director Marc Webb and star Andrew Garfield were extremely unsure of returning for the fourth; Drew Goddard was to write and direct a Sinister Six movie in 2016 (the titular villainous group having been woefully set up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2); Alex Kurtzman would direct a Venom film, to which there would be a Carnage-starring sequel; Lisa Joy Nolan (of HBO’s Westworld) had been hired to write a film based on Black Cat, played by Felicity Jones in The Amazing Spider-Man 2; a Spider-Man 2099 spin-off for release in 2017 (though it is extremely unclear how this would be linked up with the continuity of the rest of the series); and lastly, leaked emails from the hack on Sony in 2014 revealed plans for a spin-off centred around the younger days of Aunt May, who was alleged to be a CIA agent or similar.
This is an extremely interesting case to examine. There is nothing wrong with announcing lots of movies to expand a cinematic universe – Marvel Studios did it in 2015 when they announced Infinity War, for example; but this wasn’t that. These were not the plans of a thoughtful studio who wanted to take the time to set up a carefully constructed, real-feeling shared universe. These were the plans of a panicking studio who wanted to catch up with their competitors as soon as possible, and in any way they can, and it somehow isn’t the only recent example of this (Warner Bros. did something almost identical with their DC movies, but that’s a whole other story). To announce so much having released so little is either very bold or very stupid – but after The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was released, it blew up in their faces.
I should admit to being an apologist for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It does get a lot wrong; its ending and the way it tries to shoehorn in the Sinister Six feel both contrived and anticlimactic, and it suffers from an overabundance of underdeveloped villains. Having said that, I still think it’s pretty good – I enjoy the relationship between Peter and Gwen, and I think her death scene is beautiful (even if it would have been rendered mute by the third film, in which she was to be resurrected somehow). Sadly, I’m in the minority. Although the film raked in over $700 million worldwide, the mixed-to-poor critical reception (as well as Andrew Garfield’s firing) forced Sony to rethink their plans. Seemingly overnight, all their announced movies just disappeared. The third Amazing Spider-Man film was pushed to 2018, while the fourth was put on indefinite hold, and the spin-offs just never materialised. Then the hack happened.
As I mentioned earlier, Sony’s email servers were the subject of a massive hacking operation, allegedly perpetrated by the ‘Guardians of Peace’, who claimed to have had access to private servers and information for over a year, and to have taken over 100 terabytes of data (though this has never been confirmed). The emails released detail conversations between Sony and Sam Raimi about returning to direct a new trilogy of Spider-Man films (another reboot from the sounds of it), and also details of a proposed deal with Marvel Studios which would give them the ability to incorporate Spider-Man into the MCU. At this point, both of these talks had reached a stalemate, and Sony appeared to be stuck. When the emails were released, however, a massive online push reignited talks between Sony and Marvel Studios, and a deal was struck that was a dream come true for fans all over the world: while Sony would have final creative decisions and rights to distribution, Marvel Studios would be able to introduce Spider-Man to the Avengers. With Tom Holland hired to portray the latest iteration of the character, directors Antony and Joe Russo were tasked with introducing him in their sprawling epic Captain America: Civil War.
Tom Holland’s take on Peter Parker was met with universal praise – after three appearances in the MCU to date he’s one of the franchise’s most beloved characters. Spider-Man: Homecoming was a success on nearly all fronts, and plans are in place for a sequel (currently filming) and a third film. Holland’s performance in Avengers: Infinity War was one of the many, many highlights: at that line (“Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good”), you could hear every heart in the cinema break. This is all well and good – in fact it’s fantastic – but where does it leave Sony?
That’s a very good question, and it doesn’t seem like anyone has a proper answer. While the Spider-Man side of things is going extremely well, Sony are still extremely keen to make their own independent universe. Venom is the first step in this, and does some world-building of its own; a mid-credits scene introduces Woody Harrelson as Cletus Kasady, who’s signed on for a sequel. Tom Hardy is contracted for two more films, and both he and Ruben Fleischer are apparently looking forward to opportunities to integrate some version of Spider-Man into the films (though no one seems to have any clue what’s going on there – Marvel Studios are not involved in any capacity, but Sony consider Venom to be ‘in the same world’ as Spider-Man: Homecoming). Also in the works are Silver & Black (centred around Silver Sable and Black Cat); Morbius, with Jared Leto portraying the titular vampire; Kraven the Hunter, about which very little is known; and the aforementioned Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which is entirely separate from any current continuity, but does introduce the concept of a multiverse.
In all honesty, the only one of these projects I have any semblance of faith in is Into the Spider-Verse, which looks to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen from an animated film, let alone a superhero movie. I am beyond excited for this. As for the rest of them? Almost zero interest. If they ever see the light of day I will go and watch them, if only to marvel (pun intended) at how it all went so wrong for Sony. They had it all, and they messed it up. And, like Miles Morales’ venom strikes, that stings.