Just Stop Trying

The Failure of the Sony Spider Universe

Common wisdom is that, at this point, superhero films are on the outs. You can blame any number of factors for this, from oversaturation of the market, to COVID introducing new viewing habits, to companies undervaluing their superhero properties leading people to expect to view those works for cheap on streaming instead of in movie theaters. The movie industry is, itself, struggling to figure out the new trends in viewing habits, with home theaters replacing big theaters, and streaming replacing reliable revenue streams like theater tickets and DVD sales. Superhero films, being the big-ticket money-makers they were for years (see: the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) are suddenly tanking, barely able to turn a profit.

Note, that’s not to say that all superhero films are struggling. If a film features a big-ticket hero – specifically the likes of BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. or SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002. – then it can be reasonably expected to turn a profit. When we look at The Batman or Spider-man: No Way Home or Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse, we have movies that bucked the trend and still managed to make a ton of money. But one could reasonably argue that the days where a Marvel logo turning a D-list character into a billion dollar hit are over. Studios need to figure out a new way to do things when it comes to their superhero properties.

Into this volatile market we have Sony, still plugging away, attempting to get their Spider-verse going. They have the rights to Spider-man, one of the heroes that can still do good business, and they are loath to waste an opportunity to make money off the web-head. Teaming up with Marvel they were able to relaunch their flailing Spider-man property, kicking off a solid trilogy of films with Spider-man: Homecoming. While they could use Spider-man as they liked (see: Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse) they couldn’t use the Tom Holland version featured in the MCU without the express permission of Marvel, and Marvel didn’t want their Spidey crossing over with whatever Sony was doing. Thus, Sony decided to create a Spider-man universe just without their most popular Spider-man.

They started this weird idea well enough, putting out Venom. That movie was a solid success, pulling in $856.1 Mil against a budget of $116 Mil. Following that was the animated Into the Spider-Verse which pulled in a respectable $384.3 Mil on a $90 Mil budget. Seeing dollar signs at that point, Sony then expanded their plans, announcing films for every villain they had in their stable. Oh, sorry, every anti-hero in their stable. These guys weren’t the bad guys, they were just the misunderstood underclass with superpowers. Audiences should love that, right?

Well, as Morbius illustrated, the answer to that was “no”. The announced slate of pictures – Morbius along with the announced Kraven the Hunter, El Muerto, Nightwatch, Silver & Black, and an eventual Sinister Six films – all felt like they were putting the cart before the horse. And then we have Madame Web, Sony’s latest offering in its sort of Spider Universe, which has also landed with a resounding thud, the question really is: “what the hell is Sony thinking?” They have to realize this isn’t working, right? They can’t be this dumb, can they?

Madame Web, in particular, is interesting. Not the movie itself which, by all reports, is a dreadful bore (it came and went so fast in my area I didn’t even get a chance to see it before it was gone). It’s interesting as a case study in Sony throwing every Spider-man character they have at the wall. How many people outside of true Marvel fans even know who Madame Web is? Sure, she has Web in the name, but the trailer had to make every desperate connection to Spider-man it could to try and get people interested. There’s spiders in a jungle. There are some girls dressed up in Spider costumes. “This is a Spider-man movie, guys! Honest!”

However, this is all an illusion. From all reports the film is a prequel to a prequel to what might eventually be a Spider-verse film. The three ladies who get into costume don’t actually do it in the movie (it all happens in dream sequences that may never come to be). Uncle Ben (played by Adam Scott) is in this for some reason, but the film can’t actually say, “this is the character who will be the uncle to Tom Holland’s Spider-man.” It just winks and nudges and hopes you’ll stick around for some later movie where maybe Uncle Ben dies (as if we haven’t seen that already). It’s like a two hour trailer for a film to eventually come, but none of that occurs in this film. All for a film built around a character no one cares about.

Okay, that’s dismissive. There might be five or six people out there that like Madame Web and wanted to see a movie with her. This isn’t that movie, of course, since Sony changed a lot of her details. But hey! Someone like her with her name got a movie so Sony could burn more money on projects no one cared about. This really sounds like such a terrible idea you have to think someone in Sony’s studios was sitting there, writing memos, going, “hey, guys, are we sure we should be doing this?”

And yet this isn’t even Sony’s only misguided Spider-man-without-Spider-man film in the works for this year. The aforementioned Kraven the Hunter is coming out in August after a trailer that left the entire world underwhelmed. And then we have Venom 3, which comes on the tail on the lackluster Venom: Let There Be Carnage. I enjoyed the first Venom for what it was but that was the absolute high point for this Spider Universe, and Carnage really felt like a low point… right up until Morbius and then Madame Web and then…

Look, I get it: Sony has a big name property and they really want to use it. Every time they put out a Spider-man film with Spider-man in the film it makes bank. They put out one movie in his shared continuity without him in it, Venom, and that also made bank. What Sony didn’t realize, though, is that Venom is a special case character. He’s been working as an anti-hero, on his own, for decades, getting his own huge core of fans. He may not be as popular as Spider-man but his fans are devoted and they turned out for his film. That doesn’t mean the template can be applied to other characters, especially when their films are half-baked ideas that can’t work because the core character uniting them all, Spider-man, can’t be there.

Of course, what would also help would be good scripts for good films. Let There Be Carnage was a terrible movie all due to an incredibly bad script. I’m not saying every one of these films could have been saved by a better script – Morbius was a terrible idea on all fronts – but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Sony, though, is rushing this universe, desperate to get as much money has they can, as much blood from this stone, until the superhero market takes a downturn and everything crashes and burns.

Oh, wait. That already happened. Sony, seriously just quit while you’re behind. No one likes your non-Spider-man movies in this franchise at this point. Just stick to what works, the films actually featuring Spider-man, and let the rest of this ill-conceived universe go.