How Can Sony Pictures Save Spider-Man?

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Sony Pictures has a problem, and its name is Spider-Man.

Amusingly, you could reverse the placement of names there and it would make the same sense. Things are not going great for the ongoing partnership of one of the biggest media companies on the planet and a similarly supersized superhero. That can be a hard thing to wrap one’s head around, when there are numbers like “$91 million first weekend!” being thrown around; but that is the movie business, where accounting is designed to make sure that the only success that registers is mega-success – and that’s a number they keep redefining upwards.

Because the first Amazing Spider-Man reboot feature opened on a Wednesday because of the 4th of July holiday, Sony opted to downplay box-office comparisons between it and the sequel, which was opening on a normal Friday and thus wouldn’t be a “fair” measure. Instead, they set their sights (in the press) on Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s impressive $95 million haul from a few weeks ago (doubly impressive, since the first Captain America film only opened in the mid-$60s) … and were found wanting.

Apart from the occasional animated hit (less so, now that the Ice Age series has concluded) and the infrequently produced James Bond movies, Spider-Man is at this point the backbone of Sony’s entire feature film business. And while said backbone is by no means broken… it’s not in the shape to carry an entire studio. $91 million in a weekend is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s also not a reason to break out the champagne this time. While part of the original reboot “edict” was to make Spider-Man movies less expensive, that went out the window for this sequel: Sony is said to have spent over $200 million on TASM2 (before marketing, and either way it’s a lowball estimate) and some analysts project that it will have to earn $800 million worldwide just to start turning a profit … and at this point it’s not looking good for the film to even equal the $750 million final take of its (much less expensive) predecessor.

That means a “downward trend,” and studio investor’s hate downward trends. Almost as much as they hate widely disseminated news stories about the film’s production having been a sloppy, haphazard mess (again) or the prospect of headlines about getting bounced from the top box-office spot by a Seth Rogen comedy, or having one of the most popular/respected new-wave movie commentators on the web eviscerate your movie and convincingly postulate that your problems stem from the creepy hang-ups of one of the guys you hired to write it.

What’s more, while most studios making movies like this tend to be content with “only” breaking-even on ticket sales if it means keeping the brand fresh for merchandising, Sony doesn’t have that luxury: In order to keep total control of the Spider-Man movie franchise, they agreed to sell all of the characters merchandising rights back to Marvel/Disney. So no matter how well these movies do, the ticket and DVD sales are the only money Sony sees from them. Everything else – every doll, every toy, every knick-knack, every Halloween costume, every Happy Meal based on this film… that all goes to The Mouse.

Amazing Spider-Man Film

Oh yeah, and Andrew Garfield is already saying he’s out after Part 3 when his contract is up; which either means another new actor or an expensive renegotiation. And the studio is still planning on having either a new Spidey sequel or spin-off coming out at a pace of one per year.

In other words: This isn’t working. The reviews are getting worse. The audience is getting visibly franchise-fatigued (while other franchises are, improbably, expanding) and diminishing returns are being treated like a forgone conclusion. Amazing Spider-Man 3 and Alex Kurtzman’s Venom spinoff are still likely to happen, but beyond that?

Something has to change. And while some fans are openly rooting for Sony’s “Spiderverse” to fail in order to trigger an unlikely scenario where Marvel Studios would “reclaim” the character… it’s not like they wouldn’t need to shelve him and let the dust settle for a few years before reviving him anyway. Instead, allow me to humbly offer a few suggestions that might lead to a less… “apocalyptic” scenario.

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richard parker

1. Nobody cares about Richard Parker

In the broad strokes, it doesn’t really matter to me if this series’ obsession with clockwork-fate and genetic-destiny is the result of Roberto Orci being a conspiracy-theorist lunatic or just because the studio cares more about franchise-minded worldbuilding than coherent storytelling, but either way it’s the number one thing holding this series back.

There’s probably no getting around the broad-strokes stupidity of the convoluted “sins of the father” gobbledygook built into both Peter Parker and Harry Osborn’s stories at this point, but you can minimize it by making a concerted effort to stop going back to it. Drop all that noise. Nobody cares about “The Osborn Curse.” Nobody cares about Parker DNA. Nobody cares about all that stupid DaVinci Code time-wasting with Richard Parker’s super-secret subway lab.

See, right now Sony and the filmmakers have the mechanics of this stuff backwards. It’s the character/emotional/relationship development that you’re supposed to spread across multiple movies in a series. Plot-mechanics and world-building? Successful franchise movies generally keep as much of that as possible contained in individual films. Example: There’s a coherent personal narrative (so far) to Captain America as a character across First Avenger, The Avengers and Winter Soldier; but each of those films tells a complete beginning/middle/end individual story in itself.


2. Not Everything needs to be connected (even if it is)

A lot (and I mean a lot) of big comic-book crossover “events” have the same big climactic reveal: A designated uber-villain stands before the assembled heroes, demonstrates his (or her, but usually his) tremendous power and reveals that every damn seemingly random catastrophe that has befallen them in their own separate adventures have actually all been part of his master plan the whole time!

It’s goofy, it’s implausible, it’s kind of a cheat and it will be all that and more when Thanos eventually does it in Avengers 3. But when done right it works narratively, and usually doing it right means working backwards. That’s generally how comics do it, and it’s what Marvel has been doing: They’ve got various “goalposts” marked out of things they need/want to happen, but how things get there is largely dictated by which films and characters are successful. If audiences hadn’t fallen head over heels for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (or worse, if Thor had bombed) the Big Bad role in Avengers could’ve been swapped-out with The Mandarin, or The Red Skull, or The Leader, or anybody, really.

And if necessary, they just throw stuff out. Iron Man 2 sets up a long-term storyline about Tony Stark looking for Howard Stark’s hidden-secrets while exorcising his daddy issues. Nobody cared. So it never once comes up in Avengers, and in Iron Man 3 when Tony meets a young moppet similarly abandoned he takes the opportunity to let us know he’s over it: “Yeah, well, sometimes dad’s leave, alright? You don’t need to be a p**** about it.”

So even though the end of Part 2 clearly lays out your intention to do exactly this, Sony? Don’t just have Harry Osborn give those Doctor Octopus tentacles, Vulture wings, etc. to various guys as a shortcut to getting more characters into your movies. If you take out the continuity/franchise-building connections, Electro has a pretty solid story-arc in the middle of TASM2 in terms of a new villain’s origin providing a storyline for this installment. Let’s have more of that, and if you really do have some big gargantuan Master Plan to reveal? Just fit in somehow. One of your main characters has a blood disease that turns him into a goblin in power-armor – you’ve got the wiggle room.

black cat

3. Do something Interesting with The Black Cat

Okay. You managed (well, Orci and Kurtzman managed) to miss on the easy-layup of the Gwen Stacy story. Spilled milk. Get over it. But you also devoted several scenes to reminding us that Felicity Jones is playing Felicia Hardy, aka the other well-known Spider-Man girlfriend who isn’t Mary Jane, The Black Cat. Here’s an idea: Maybe find something to do with her that’s more interesting than the “crazy-but-amazing-in-the-sack bad-girl” for Peter to rebound/blow-off-steam with en-route to Real Love with MJ that she winds up as in every other retelling of these characters.

Real talk: A problem with Spider-Man is that he lends himself to self-insert avatar for fans-turned-comic-writers better than almost any other superhero. That’s why he’s a science-club dweeb who’s also secretly super-awesome and routinely beds supermodels, prom queens and Bond Girls even outside of being Spider-Man. And it’s why he winds up with a supporting character like Black Cat: “Well, I’ll never sleep with Catwoman… but I can write/vicariously-project-myself-into Peter Parker sleeping with what is essentially just Catwoman!”

Sony? You’ve already thrown the tone and canon of Spider-Man out in a lot of bad ways, maybe throw it out in a good way and make Felicia more of a character than she usually gets to be? The Madonna/Whore/Porridge-that’s-just-right dynamic usually applied to the Gwen/Cat/MJ is tired and all kinds of problematic; so why not break the mold a little more and possibly get an unconventional female screen heroine out of it? Maybe one whose story-arc doesn’t tell young women that owning/flaunting their sex-appeal doesn’t mean they have to end up evil or “good, but not relationship-good?” Just a thought.

And speaking of unconventional …

Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales

4. Two word: Miles. Morales.

Okay. Short version: Marvel publishes an alternate-universe series of comics called “Ultimate Marvel” where all the heroes have the word “Ultimate” in front of their names and things are supposed to be less complicated except now it’s been going on long enough that things are just as complicated but mostly dull. Most of it is just awful, and always has been. But Ultimate Spider-Man was usually pretty good, and eventually got around to actually doing something genuinely novel and interesting with it’s ongoing story: Ultimate Peter Parker died (for real), and was the Spider-Man mantle was taken up by a young black/latino teenager named Miles Morales. Miles Morales is awesome.

You get where I’m going with this, Sony. Andrew Garfield is eager to jump out of this series. Nobody expects you to be delivering a “classic” Spider-Man at this point, so why not go all the way and do something really different and also really positive?

There’s very little downside here. Suddenly, your movies series – widely seen as disposable even as blockbuster also-rans go – now gets to be the center of a big national conversation… where you get to be the good guys bringing a positive black role-model to the big screen. Yes, the “Spider-Man is black now??” will also bring out the jerks, haters and sad fanboy rage-monsters… but publicity is publicity.

Also, because I know that for some reason you and the other studios involved really are this childish about this stuff… you would be putting Marvel/Disney in a REALLY rough spot. Think about it: Eventually, they’ll get Spider-Man back, one way or another. They made him, you’re just renting him, basic math. But when they do, they’ll be stuck with Sophie’s Choice: Bring back Peter Parker to better mesh with the MCU’s fidelity-to-material sensibilities to the disappointment of a generation of Miles Morales fans? Keep Miles and deal with endless wailing from fanboys about never getting to see the “real” Spider-Man meet The Avengers?

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.