Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sony's Amazing Spider-Man Franchise: What Went Wrong?

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What happened to Spider-Man?  Sony had such high hopes for him when they acquired his rights.  The first two Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies were so well received that they planned multiple sequels to them.  However, after Spider-Man 3 received poor reviews, things started to change.  Back in 2010, the same year Iron Man 2 was released, Sony was working on its fourth Spider-Man film, a continuation of the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire film series that began in 2002.  However, rather than continue that series, Sony decided to reboot its Spider-Man franchise with The Amazing Spider-Man, a film which was released in 2012, just 2 months after The Avengers changed the game as far as blockbuster superhero film series were concerned.  No longer was it enough to release sequels and the occasional spinoff; the real money was in the shared universe.  When all the movies are independent but interconnected, a fan who wants the full experience has to watch all the films, buy all the films, buy the merchandise from all the films…  A shared universe can have a massive financial payoff for the studio ambitious and smart enough to pull it off.

Naturally, after The Amazing Spider-Man made a respectable $757.9 million at the box office, Sony decided to produce a sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and expand the Amazing Spider-Man universe with multiple sequels and spinoffs.  The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was intended to serve as the launching point from which several future spinoff movies could follow:  The Amazing Spider-Man 3 and 4 were both announced a year before the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, followed 6 months later by the announcement of plans to develop movies based on Venom and the Sinister Six.  Unfortunately, this was when things started going horribly wrong.

When The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was released, it was critically panned and failed to live up to Sony’s expectations commercially ($709 million on a $255 million-budget (according to Wikipedia).  Though it made nearly triple its budget at the box office, it made less than its predecessor on a slightly-larger budget.  However, this was not the movie’s only fault.  The critical reception ultimately doomed the shared universe concept for Sony.  So what went wrong?

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The reason The Amazing Spider-Man 2 sunk the franchise was because they placed all their shared-universe eggs in that basket, and the basket broke.  There were too many villains, story threads, and universe-building elements, and not enough plot.

They tried to introduce at least three of the six members of their Sinister Six—Electro, Green Goblin, and Rhino—a large number of villains, but not impossible for a single movie.

Holy villains, Batman!  How can they develop all of them in a single movie???Image Courtesy
Other movies attempted that many villains or more and succeeded:  The Dark Knight (Joker, Two-Face, the mob), The Dark Knight Rises (Bane, Talia al Ghul, Cat Woman), The Incredible Hulk (General Ross, Abomination, Leader), Guardians of the Galaxy (Ronan, Nebula, Thanos).  What made The Amazing Spider-Man 2 sink?  I think it was as simple as a lack of focus.  Instead of focusing in on one villain or one storyline, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 split its time between Electro and Green Goblin, so that neither character was developed satisfactorily.  When you look at the successful movies I listed, you can pick out the clear primary villain in each one:  The Dark Knight and Joker, The Dark Knight Rises and Bane (with Talia al Ghul pulling the strings), The Incredible Hulk and Ross (though that movie was only marginally successful, it did handle its multiple villains reasonably well), Guardians of the Galaxy and Ronan.  Who was the main villain in The Amazing Spider-Man 2?  Electro?  Green Goblin?  Both were treated equally, so neither got a really satisfying character arc.  Electro is introduced first and has the biggest fights with Spider-Man, but Harry Osborn’s Goblin established himself as the brains of the operation (ish…) and had the most meaningful fight with Spider-Man.  Both of them have something going for them as far as being the “main villain” of the movie, but after watching the movie it just doesn’t seem clear which is the true “main villain.”  And without a clearly-defined “villain pecking order,” it doesn’t matter how many or how few villains you have; they’re not going to be satisfying.

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The second reason The Amazing Spider-Man 2 didn’t work was the overemphasis on universe-building.  A good point of comparison here would be the MCU equivalent of The Amazing Spider-Man 2:  Iron Man 2.

Like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Iron Man 2 was tasked with setting up future installments in the shared-movie universe—specifically The Avengers (in fact, the same can be said of Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger).  Iron Man 2 did not introduce Nick Fury or the Avengers Initiative, but it did give a lot of screen time to Nick Fury and tease future developments in the Avengers Initiative, such as the Wakanda and Atlantis Easter Eggs on the map and multiple references to New Mexico (site of Thor).  Iron Man 2 also introduced a new character who would play a somewhat larger role in The Avengers in the form of Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow.  One of the last scenes of Iron Man 2 was basically Tony Stark and Nick Fury talking about The Avengers!  No one who saw Iron Man 2 could possibly say that it wasn’t trying to set up The Avengers.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2, for its part, was expected to set up an entire universe.  They used it to set up their Sinister Six spinoff by introducing Max Dillon/Electro (who may or may not have been expected to return as part of the Sinister Six), along with Harry Osborn/Green Goblin and Alexei Sytsevich/Rhino.  They may have been teasing Venom with the “spider venom” that Harry used on himself.  They even shoehorned Felicia Hardy, aka Black Cat, into the movie so they could set her up for a larger role in either The Amazing Spider-Man 3 or Sinister Six or her own Black Cat movie—and she really wasn’t necessary in this movie in the first place.

The key difference between Iron Man 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the level to which they are beholden to future developments in their respective franchises.  Iron Man 2 was clearly setting up The Avengers; at the same time, Iron Man 2’s plot came first.  The intertwined plots of Tony’s self-destructive tendencies and Hammer’s ill-fated decision to work with Ivan Vanko (a madman with a grudge against the Starks) clearly shines through the finished product.  The universe-building elements work with the main plots—particularly that of Tony’s palladium poisoning and self-destructive tendencies—and take a backseat to them when necessary—or at least from my watching it they do.  Is that the case with The Amazing Spider-Man 2?  The various plots are connected, but the focus on introducing as many villains as possible—and trying to set up the Sinister Six movie—muddies the plot.  Ultimately, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was expected to do far more than any movie really could—and to build up half of a super villain team simultaneously, along with setting up a sequel and 3 spinoffs.

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If Sony had focused the movie a little more on a single villain plot—either Harry Osborn/Green Goblin dying or Max Dillon/Electro’s love/hate relationship with Spider-Man—in addition to a deeper plot involving Peter Parker (more than just the “true love” plot with Gwen Stacy), it might have worked better and helped to set up a successful franchise.  If they had left Felicia Hardy and the Rhino out of this movie entirely, it would probably have done the same thing.

However, I don’t think Sony could possibly have expected to turn the Spider-Man intellectual property into a rich cinematic universe like those of Fox (X-Men and Fantastic Four), Disney/Marvel (MCU), and Warner Bros./DC (DCMU—though that’s only just starting).  After all, what characters does Sony really own?  They obviously own Spider-Man and his various villains (Venom, Carnage, Green Goblin, Electro, Lizard, and the rest).  They own Peter Parker’s various love interests and family members (Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson, Uncle Ben, Aunt May).  They have the Daily Bugle.  Who else?  All I can think of are Black Cat (Felicia Hardy), maybe Puma (Thomas Fireheart; an anti-hero and occasional ally of Spider-Man’s), Man-Wolf (John Jameson; another anti-hero and occasional ally of Spider-Man’s—there are a lot of those come to think of it…), and maybe all of the alternate versions of Spider-Man (Mile Morales, Spider-Ham, Spider-Man 2099, etc.)—but maybe not.  The list of characters they don’t own who are associated with Spider-Man is probably larger:  All the Avengers, Daredevil, Kingpin, the Defenders, Spider-Woman (I’m pretty sure Marvel’s always owned Jessica Drew’s rights)… the list goes on.  They could make movies about everyone associated with Spider-Man, but who would really want to see them?  Would anyone ever actually see a movie just about Aunt May???  Could they turn Black-Cat into an interesting movie without Spider-Man or any true heroes (which is what I’m pretty sure they were planning to do)?  After all, Black Cat is about as closely associated with Spider-Man as Cat Woman with Batman:  you can’t really tell her story without him (they tried it with Cat Woman… I’m pretty sure Halle Berry still has nightmares).  The best bet for that would be to find other heroes to play her off against—something that only works when you actually have other heroes!

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For April Fool’s Day, ScreenRant published a joke article announcing Sony’s plan to create a Spider-Man multi-verse with numerous Spider-Men running around.  It was a complete joke (Spider-Man the Musical? Really?), but in thinking about it, that’s about the only chance Sony would have had to create their own Spider-Man Cinematic Universe.  And yet they couldn’t really do that because it would just become confusing for the casual fans to have new movies released which were only connected to some other movies about the same characters.

Ultimately, I think the reason The Amazing Spider-Man 2 failed and Sony chose to make a deal with Marvel is because Sony didn’t have the guts or the capital to try pushing past a semi-flop.  Marvel did, when they continued their plans even after Iron Man 2 wasn’t as great as the first one.  The only option Sony had to continue making money from Spider-Man was to put him in the MCU:  give Marvel access to their repertoire of villains in exchange for access to Marvel’s heroes (and money printer).

However, the fact that Spider-Man is now in the MCU does not mean that all those spinoff movies are dead as well.  In fact, we could easily see some of those spinoffs happen, but with a Marvel Cinematic Universe twist.  That will be my third article in this series.  Next week I’m going to talk about how Marvel can bring Spider-Man into the MCU and where they can go from there with the character.

Why do you think The Amazing Spider Man 2 failed?  Would you like me to publish reviews of the 2 Amazing Spider-Man movies?  What was your reaction on hearing that Spider-Man was coming to the MCU?  Let me know in the comments!

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  1. Too many plots, easter eggs, and Peter Parker crying throughout the film. They should have introduced Goblin in the third film as well as Rhino. And forget about Felicia, and sinister six, save those for spin-offs. One last point, Gwen should have lived(spares the audience of more of Peter's crying).


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