Marvel: Back in the Fold… Where can it all go right for the new Spider-Man?

Spider-Man and Marvel's New York

Your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man is finally future-proof. The Amazing Spider-Man’s two film haul of $1.5 billion was stopped in its tracks with the wintry news of Sony Pictures’ deal with Marvel Studios. Having looked at those two films, now destined to be written out of history, Jokerside looks to the future of Sony’s top superhero franchise… In the bold new ‘world’ of Marvel Cinematic universe. Spider-Man’s not alone anymore.

FOR EVERYTHING THAT CAN CLAIM TO BE PURE MARVEL COMICS, SPIDER-MAN’S AT THE TOP. Until the Dark Knight and the Avengers leaped the billion barrier he was the dominant force in superhero flicks during the formative days of their 21st century cinematic takeover.

The background web

Bucking the rule of diminishing returns

Let’s jump the 1970s TV movies as affecting as they were. The 80s and 90s saw Spidey film rights jump around Hollywood studios like Cannon and Carolco while Tinseltown Alphas like James Cameron and Tobe Hooper circled. The end result was Sam Raimi effective Spider-Man in 2002, a film that served up an eye-watering $821million to prove that the comic movie was ready to seize the heart of the blockbuster season and that the web crawler was top of the pile. By the time Spider-Man 3 was released to lack-lustre reviews five years later, that trilogy had amassed nearly $2.5 billion. By contrast, Fox’s X-Men trilogy, which concluded a year earlier, grossed just over $1.1 billion. Almost inevitably it was Spider-Man’s weaker final entry that took the top spot in his franchise with nearly £900 million. But despite bucking the rule of diminishing returns, the critical stock of the property had fallen sharply as ‘creative pressures’ between director, producers and the studio were clear to see in the finished product.

After some prevarication over a fourth Raimi instalment, Sony’s decision to reboot the franchise five years later, complete with a fresh origin, raised plenty of eyebrows. Just how would the public take to yet another version of that well known Spider-Man origin?

The answer wasn’t too clean cut. 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man got a lot right. Praised but blockbuster-rookie Marc Webb swung into the director’s seat and produced a confident and stylish film, ably backed by the late James Horner on scoring duties and a fine cast; in particular Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in central roles that conjured up better chemistry than the Raimi films managed. In all, that was just about enough to power past those unsettling re-origin problems. But it seemed strangely unsure of how it should react to those Raimi films. It set a course closer to the comics but hastily established a great deal of baggage on the way.  And the CGI-overload and bland villain’s plot brought to mind some unsettling comparisons with the dark and icy days of the mid 1990’s Batman films.

The web of competition

Superhero films were in no danger of fading away

Most importantly it had the misfortune of emerging in the same summer as Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and the last part of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Saga, The Dark Knight Rises.  Those films took $1.5 billion and $1 billion respectfully. In comparison, The Amazing Spider-Man fell to the lowest gross of the Spider-Man franchise with $757.9 million.  A small slide, but a slide nonetheless.

Despite that, a sequel was not so much a formality but an opportunity for Sony. The Avengers had elevated superhero movies to an even greater level and signalled change in every film studios’ approach to the genre. The market was to rapidly saturate. Over the studio gulf, Fox had found a nifty way to reboot their X-Men franchise while plans were afoot to reboot their other prime property, Marvel’s most famous family the Fantastic Four while spearheading their reach beyond film and onto the small-screen in Marvel’s wake. Beyond the Marvel stable, Warner Bros set about franchise building after Man of Steel made a sizable impression at the box office. Although Sony should have taken some comfort in the fact that Superman’s return took $89 million less than The Amazing Spider-Man. It was clear that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) ever growing wake was setting the agenda. Superhero films were in no danger of fading away and ‘build or fail’ seemed to be the only way forward. The pressure had never been greater and Sony had every intention of responding to it.

Spider-Man may represent rather solitary rights, but it comes with a prize package of villains and heroes that only the Batman property can compete with. Sony Pictures duly took about creating their own cinematic universe, announcing not only The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for 2014 but a third film for two years later. Also in the mix were franchise expanding films for the crawler’s villains, The Sinister Six and Venom, alongside an untitled film that was mooted to shine the spotlight on a Marvel heroine (quite possibly of the feline variety).  It was a real statement of intent, reflecting the clout that the Spider-Man property retained, but also marking the kind of bullish response that Marvel and Fox’s regrouping necessitated.

But there was another web that seemed intent on causing problems.

The worldwide web

The other web

All Sony’s franchises, including the James Bond machine that is fast approaching contract renewal later this year, were affected by the Sony’s hacking scandal in 2014. A group named The Guardians of Peace demanded the cancellation of Sony’s controversial film The Interview and a series of hacks released a series of significant amounts of company data; ranging from employee salaries to executive emails and film release schedules. The effect on the Sony Corporation strung across electronics, videogame consoles and film was devastating to the point that Sony requested the media stop reporting the hack in December 2014. On the film side, money was set aside to deal with damages while electronic infrastructure was significantly improved. It came on top of years of prolonged attacks on the Sony Playstation Network, resulting in several service outages and raising questions of stability that the Sony of half a decade before would have batted away.

The web of little return

The second film didn’t quite add up to the promise of the first

And just months earlier the franchise-centric The Amazing Spider-Man 2 surfaced to less than dazzling reviews. In some ways it built on the success of its predecessor, but this time Webb’s continued improvement and Garfield and Stone’s chemistry weren’t enough to dispel the nagging suspicion that the second film was just a trailer for franchise expansion.  The score, masterminded by Hans Zimmer as part of the so called Magnificent Six included Pharrell Williams and Johnny Marr and was boisterous, electro, commercial and just a little bit hollow. Just as that lost much of the subtlety of Horner’s work on the original, so the film itself didn’t quite add up to the promise of the first. In the narrative, all the heavy hints at the franchise’s direction were labelled “The Future” – and that was one thing it wouldn’t have.

Grossing $709 million, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was the worst performing Spider-Man film yet. Combined with dire critical notices, the franchise suddenly looked shaky at its very beginning. So, in a twisty way and all things considered, it’s no surprise that Disney and Marvel developed a conversation deeper than their standard production chat. The result was a resounding break and a benchmark change in Hollywood dealings.

The web of a new future

A deal that means a lot for fans

This past week Fox Studios made a large show of their slate of upcoming Marvel movies at the San Diego Comic Con. With a strong line-up stretching a few years into the future, they have built a strong line-up, albeit one not yet touching the intense interconnectivity of the MCU. Despite persistent fan hopes that a Wolverine or so might slip across the rights divide, it seemed a distant hope. Only the politics of Hollywood could stop the combined might Marvel superheroes.

But now there is a new Spider-Man, not only back at school but ready, willing and permitted to finally join the MCU. In fact, newly cast Tom Holland will appear in Marvel’s 2016 tent pole film, Captain America: Civil War before he makes his solo-bow. And based on its source material, that’s a timely appearance. Mark Millar’s influential 2006 event comic series of the same name forms the back-bone of Cap’s third outing, quite possibly the First Avenger’s last, and as that saw Spidey revealing his identity to the world it may well provide a key and memorable entrance for the web slinger into the bigger universe.  And it certainly helped to dismiss the untenable idea of another origin story.

Sony and Marvel’s is an interesting deal, where Marvel can build the web-slinger into their grand plan while Sony have a propped up and refreshed solo campaign; not in opposition with the dominant power but feeding on its creative support. In short, Sony will continue to own, finance, distribute and have the final say in future Spider-Man films, although in this shared universe Marvel will likewise be able to bleed the MCU events and characters into future Spider-Man films. The latest talk is of tackling villains new to the screen and capturing a John Hughes high-school vibe – an era of Parker’s life they can easily spin out with their freshly signed 19 year old Holland.

The web of implication

The immediate consigning of The Amazing Spider-Man franchise to the trash bins of New York

In no uncertain terms, the outcome of this deal means a lot for fans, and much for the imminent changing of the guard at Avengers HQ. But it also has to mean more stability and more box office for Sony’s slowly declining series.

The immediate impact of this new strategic partnership had to be the immediate consigning of The Amazing Spider-Man franchise to the trash bins of New York. Despite the unravelling that came as part and parcel of the immense and dedicated set-up of the second film, the franchise has fallen to ashes with almost indecent haste. That’s a real shame for director Marc Webb and lead Andrew Garfield who had built for the most part a compelling version of the myth closer to the comics than Raimi and Maguire brought to the big screen a decade before. In many ways that Amazing Spider-Man sadly died too young.  And while Sony have tentatively suggested that Drew Goddard’s long gestating The Sinister Six film and made no comment on the other announced projects, they must be in some doubt. Unlike the flexing Fox and Warner Bros, Marvel and Sony steered clear of this year’s San Diego Comic Con.

Jokerside’s previously looked at the mutual benefits Disney and Marvel enjoyed when the Houses of Ideas and Mouses combined. So aside from some stability and growth in the face of diminishing returns for Sony, could there be more in it for Marvel than just the trophy of winning back one of their favourite sons?

The web of rights

Spider-Man brings a legitimate mimicry of mutation alongside an untapped demographic to the MCU

When Marvel originally gave the film keys to the X-Universe to Fox it looked like they gave away much of what was crucial to the Marvel universe. In that Fox world, mutation is the undercurrent of a fast changing society, building a franchise that lends itself to civil rights and the recent history of the United States. In the comics, mutations account for most meta-humans, with any super heroic exceptions generally regarded as mutants regardless of their genetic make-up. While the Fantastic Four (and their well-publicised incident) are an exception in New York, Spidey and Daredevil are essentially mutants by proxy.

In the MCU, that distinction now matters little. While the analogies provided by the mutant gene have great stock over at Fox, the MCU had to swiftly do without them. Much like Adamantium, mutation isn’t mentioned. Agents of SHIELD talk of powered people, and experimentation, Daredevil talks of masks. And the prolonged seeding of Inhumans in SHIELD conveniently looked to the extra-terrestrial corners of the MCU at just the right time (helping and through the reassuringly successful big gamble of Marvel’s Phase Two, Guardians of the Galaxy).

The Avengers proved a slight sticking point, with the division between the universes leading to the appearance of the comedic mutant Quicksilver in the X-Men universe in 2014 while the Marvel Cinematic Universe sported a tortured and experimental version in this year’s Age of Ultron. That found a quick and definitive resolution. Spider-Man brings not only another legitimate mimicry of mutation from an often-time member of the Avengers, but also a previously untapped demographic to the drama of the MCU.

The web of narrative

Marvel needs to diversify its story-telling

As Marvel looks to expand on screen, so it needs to diversify its story-telling. Daredevil has just burst onto the small screen with great success following Marvel’s recent regaining of the rights from Fox. Playing to the strengths of the small screen and episodic storytelling, he’s set to be joined in Hell’s Kitchen by Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke ‘Power Man’ Cage, culminating in a Defenders event. That super team being the more individualistic and selfish cousin of The Avengers. While NBC’s Agents of SHIELD is unlikely to chuck off its early missteps to achieve the ratings it should as one of the best genre shows on television and Agent Carter will do well to rise above well regarded inter-season novelty, that Netflix deal is another belter from Marvel.

Overall, the imminent arrival of everyone’s favourite neighbourhood Spider-Man into the MCU is the big deal. It’s huge and uplifting. It a real chance for the web crawler to swing back to the top of the super-box-office, although beating the Avengers would be a remarkable feat.

The other side of the web

It’s not all about the heroes

But it’s worth considering that while the Marvel Cinematic Universe is growing, it’s not all about the heroes. The X-Men and Fantastic Four keep Magneto and Dr Doom locked in the Fox universe, away from their natural scheming in the MCU.  And Spider-Man brings not only one of the greatest rogue galleries to Hollywood’s biggest universe, but some of the biggest. At the top of that tree is major bad Norman Osborn. It’s almost luck that Osborn hasn’t been in the MCU before, allowing it to grow naturally with a reduced roster of mega-threats before his arrival.

But from now on the skyline of New York will look just that little bit different, with OsCorp Tower springing up near the recently vacated Avengers Tower. Maybe The Amazing Spider-Man had the right idea pinning so much of the universe on that tower… Whichever way this brand new future takes us, there’s no way that Osborn and the rest of those rogues will let us forget that it’s not all about that pesky arachnid.

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