Why the Amazing Spider-Man Franchise is Probably Doomed
By now you’ve probably seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but just in case you haven’t, we are about to talk about some spoilers. Not that you need to worry about that. Sony spoiled its own movie – and possibly its whole Spider-Man franchise – a long time ago, when it revealed that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 would be followed not just by The Amazing Spider-Man 3 and 4, but also by spin-offs featuring Spider-Man’s supervillains Venom and The Sinister Six, both due by the time Amazing Spider-Man 4 hits theaters in 2018. That’s four Spider-Man movies in four years.
These announcements may have been met with interest or even a certain amount of excitement from the fan community at large, if for no other reason than because these would be the first mainstream comic book movies to focus on the villains of a franchise, not just the heroes. But what may have been overlooked was the fact that this path is, from a dramatic perspective at least, not much to look forward to, a point that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 may have just proved to audiences worldwide.
The studio that was previously content to just make Spider-Man movies has now seen Marvel Studios’ successful multi-film business model and, understandably, they now want a piece of that sweet franchise action. Audiences may tire of the same hero every year, but spinning that hero’s supporting cast off into their own movies could transform The Amazing Spider-Man into a perennial tentpole release that audiences will clamor for over and over again. That makes sense, right? Right?
Well, no, not for Spider-Man.
Sony does not own a huge sprawling universe of characters along the lines of Fox's X-Men or Disney's the majority of the rest of the Marvel Universe. They own Spider-Man and the characters related to Spider-Man, and Spider-Man’s world is very “street level,” to use the comic book parlance, and very contained. The characters in X-Men can be exploited in giant action movies, time-traveling sci-fi stories, samurai sagas and beyond. The characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are comfortable populating in giant fantasies, spy movies, man on the run thrillers, space operas and tales of corporate espionage.
But Spider-Man is a teenaged vigilante whose cast of characters are bank robbers, cat burglars, disenfranchised scientists. Unless they go completely nuts and turn Spider-Man into Captain Universe (and it’s hard to imagine audiences falling in love with that), all of his films are relegated to the streets of New York City, punching thugs in power armor and nerds in lab coats whose latest superweapon will always – ALWAYS – be shut down at the last possible second. The novelty of putting the villains center stage may be intriguing on its own, but the genre is inherent: street crime, a series of colorful Martin Scorsese joints populated with heroes and anti-heroes with simplistic motivations. And even that might be okay if Sony was content to spread the franchise out, with one movie ever 2-3 years. But they’re not.
The reason why Marvel Studios has been getting away with two superhero movies per year has been because they have all felt a little different, and despite an occasional cameo and infrequent team-up, none of the characters appear often enough to become tiresome. But Spider-Man movies don’t have the freedom to give Peter Parker a new job, or place him in a wildly different context, or put him in a position to save the planet from exploding, aliens from invading, the President from starting World War III or to travel back in time. And it’s unlikely that any of the Sinister Six are going to have that freedom either, or that Venom is going to be that big a gamechanger.
Could Sony make money like this? Possibly… but the tide appears to be turning. The critics and audiences who hailed the first Amazing Spider-Man for being the movie they supposedly wanted to see all along (but didn’t love enough to prevent it from being the least successful film in the franchise), have turned. The new movie made a decent amount of money on its opening weekend and overseas, but only in an environment devoid of new big budget action movies to compete with (Captain America: The Winter Soldier was already a month old and had already been knocked out of the #1 spot). Reviews of Amazing Spider-Man 2 are the worst of any Spidey movie to date as well, with many outright declaring it outright awful.
Granted, folks who make and/or defend blockbuster movies (see: Transformers) like to pretend that quality either doesn’t matter or is less important than sheer spectacle, but if that were true these franchises would never die and need to be rebooted in the first place. If the audience stops caring about seeing new Amazing Spider-Man movies there will be no reason to keep making them, and there’s no faster way to exhaust their interest than to oversaturate the market with movies that feel like the same thing over and over and over, especially with the previous film(s) still fresh in our minds, playing on cable all the time and – by some distributors’ standards – still a “new” home video release by the time the follow-up hits theaters.
While it’s easy to appreciate that Sony – or, for that matter, any studio – would want to turn their most popular franchise into a perennial tentpole release, it’s not wise. Look what happened to Guitar Hero and Rock Band: video games that everyone loved that were released so often that nobody bothered buying them anymore. The previous version was still in our consoles so the follow-ups seemed like an unnecessary expenditure. And now they’re deader than disco.
Could the same thing happen with Amazing Spider-Man? Yes, of course it can. It could also theoretically happen with the X-Men movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe or James Bond (again). You can over-exploit a franchise the same way you can overwater a plant, and with the same essential effects: a withered carcass. To quote every Spider-Man movie except the newly rebooted ones, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and Sony has a responsibility not to screw up a good thing by turning this franchise into something it’s not.