'Spider-Man' spins off: 20 thoughts on 'Venom,' 'The Sinister Six,' and Sony's franchise gambit

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Image Credit: Marvel

1. Jesus.

2. Sony’s announcement that they will expand their rebooted Amazing Spider-Man franchise in every conceivable direction represents a new peak in Hollywood’s current vogue for franchise-building brinksmanship. Marvel Studios revealed their master plan gradually: Release an Iron Man here, announce a Thor there, wait until Avengers is a hit before you start really freaking people out with Guardians of the Galaxy.

After X-Men: First Class was an okay-not-gangbusters hit, Fox carefully retrenched: Mix in the original director and the original cast, throw out one fan-bait title (Days of Future Past) and then, when they least expect it, throw out another (Apocalypse.) When Disney announced Star Wars: Episode VII, they led with a creative-team announcement: Michael Arndt is writing it! You know him! Toy Story 3! (There followed a lengthy search for a director — the Internet Age equivalent of Selznick looking for his Scarlett O’Hara — and the eventual departure of Arndt.) Warner Bros. is building up to Justice League one granular casting announcement at a time.

3. Now here’s Sony, announcing a sequel and two spinoffs to a movie hitting theaters next year, with a “brain trust” of five writers who are big names in the Comic-Con crowd. (Though perhaps not for the right reasons: See #13.) I’m not sure how you trump that.

4. Like, by comparison, imagine that tomorrow Paramount and Hasbro release a joint announcement: Next year’s Transformers 4 will segue into a new Transformers trilogy and also a linked-universe franchise based on Hasbro properties, with a Transformers/GI Joe crossover coming in 2015 a Jenga spinoff coming in 2016 and a Hungry Hungry Hippos film coming in 2017, and the series will be curated by a brain-trust including Joe Cornish, J.H. Wyman, Matthew Vaughn, and Jon Favreau, and it’s all leading up to a mega-crossover in 2018, when Optimus Prime and The Rock’s Roadblock and Shailene Woodley’s cyborg hippo-hunter Riley Rockwell all join forces to prevent the evil Jenga corporation from taking over Candy Land.

Yesterday, that would not have sounded much crazier than the idea of Sinister Six movie from the guy who made The Cabin in the Woods.

5. But this was always going to happen eventually. Compared to other studios, Sony is precariously low on recognizable franchises. And they just had a rough summer. After Earth and White House Down looked like sure-thing franchise launches built on familiar brands — Will Smith Fighting Aliens and Roland Emmerich Blowing Up The White House — but After Earth was a net negative for everyone involved and White House Down achieved the rare feat of losing to Gerard Butler. Sony can depend on the James Bond series, sent via Trans-Atlantic care package from the Broccoli family every few years. But that’s not enough, post-Avengers. They have one crown jewel: Spider-Man. They already aggressively plotted out an Amazing quadrilogy through 2018. Now they want more.

6. You argue that this is ridiculous. Here’s Sony’s corporate strategy in a nutshell: Write “Duplicator” on the side of a cardboard box and throw in the Spider-Man franchise in. Step 3: Profit!

7. But the idea that Sony is trying to turn Amazing Spider-Man into Avengers misses the central weirdness of this announcement: Venom and the Sinister Six are villains. And they are weird, unsettling, colorful, occasionally outright grotesque villains. The original Venom was a full-crazy psychopath whose main catchphrase was some variation on “I’ll eat your brains!” Venom was originally drawn by Todd McFarlane, and he became the best running advertisement for McFarlane’s style: Sinuous, gooey, nightmarishly over-detailed. He was the comic-book incarnation of the monstrous prosthetics in John Carpenter’s The Thing. (McFarlane later created Spawn, the coolest dumb superhero ever, and part of what made the early issues of Spawn so cool was that every character and every object and every panel seemed to be made out of Venom’s suit.)

8. There’s not a single character on the Sinister Six as popular as Venom, but together they have just as much potential. The supervillain squad — which was teased in the Amazing 2 trailer — has a shifting roster. But it almost always features Doctor Octopus, the Vulture, Electro, and the Sandman, plus some kind of Goblin and maybe even Mysterio. They’re essentially a collection of villain tropes taken to extremes: Mad scientist (Doc Ock) and criminal mastermind (Mysterio) and outright lunatic (Goblin) and the relatively not-evil small-time thug who might break good anytime (Sandman). The visual possibilities are exciting.

9. Even more exciting is the prospect that — by focusing on the villains — Sony is colonizing a very distant corner of the playground from the bright-happy uber-jocks of the Marvel Studios universe. Even if they don’t make Venom a complete psychopath, the character trends dark and weird: When Marvel tried to make Venom the star of his own solo series in the ’90s, his devotion to his alien symbiote-suit simultaneously vibed like a drug addiction and a bad romance. It’s a great role for somebody. And Sinister Six could very well be the anti-Avengers: A group of very dysfunctional people, constantly spiraling into chaos.

10. Remember how I mentioned that Venom was the star of his own solo series in the ’90s? That wasn’t quite true. He actually starred in a series of miniseries, which constantly tried and failed to create a status quo for a genuine ongoing series. (If memory serves, at one point Venom was headquartered in a secret subterranean hobo-city underneath San Francisco.) Venom as a solo character never really worked. The best they could manage was trying to turn him into a hero, which made him boring. Further attempts followed in the 2000s — including grafting the Venom suit onto a lady, an intriguing proposition — but they never quite stuck.

11. Which brings up a central question for all these movies: Are they really building movies around bad guys? That would be awesome, and a welcome change from the current wave of superheroic messiahs. But it could be that they’re building movies around kinda bad guys, who turn good around Act Three.

12. Like, remember that unofficial Venom short film? That comes as close as anything shot for two dollars can come to capturing the Venom I remember from my childhood. (In hindsight, my parents seriously underestimated just how crazy Venom was.) The Venom movie will definitely cost roughly nine thousand million times the cost of that short film. But will it be even half as interesting?

13. The talent could be a clue. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are next-wave kingmakers in Hollywood. They rebooted Star Trek, made Transformers a thing, couldn’t do anything with Cowboys & Aliens. They get serious cred as the creators of Fringe, the wonderful cross-universe cult show whose third season constitutes one of the flat-out best winning streaks in sci-fi TV history. On the other hand, the fact that Sony is trumpeting their involvement so heavily probably feels like a threat in some corners of the geekosphere, in light of various Into Darkness kerfluffles.

They’re bringing along Jeff Pinkner, who co-ran Fringe during its best years. (He left after season 4 to co-writer Amazing 2; perhaps coincidentally, season 5 was a mess.) They’re co-writing Venom with Ed Solomon, who writes eccentric stuff like Bill & Ted’s and last summer’s curiously fun Now You See Me. Kurtzman is directing Venom; his only previous directorial effort was People Like Us, a movie which was definitely a movie and let’s leave it at that.

Frankly, The Sinister Six sounds much better on a gut level: Goddard co-wrote and directed the incredible Cabin in the Woods, which managed to simultaneously indulge in genre tropes, do those tropes well, and deconstruct them. (He also helped Damon Lindelof on the rescue-mission rewrites of World War Z.) Goddard’s the guy you want if you’re putting together an anti-superhero superhero movie.

14. Side note: The Spider-Man announcement has a weird reverb in a different corner of the geek-franchise universe. Orci and Kurtzman’s full investment in the Spidey spinoffs seems to continue the stealth exodus from the rebooted Star Trek saga in the wake of Into Darkness‘ weird reception. Abrams? Gone. Lindelof? Gone. Kurtzman? Gone — Orci is co-writing the next Trek, but with two new writers, and although I wouldn’t dream of casting aspersions on the depth of Orci’s involvement in that project, I will just note that the other Trek 3 writers are decidedly less busy than Orci.

If I’m Paramount now, I’m getting a bit nervous. If I’m Paramount now, I’m trying to figure out how quickly I can put together a press release promising Star Trek: Rise of the Klingons coming 2016, followed by a Sulu-centric spinoff Star Trek: Excelsior and a deep prequel about the Romulan-Vulcan schism, all written and directed with some combination of Ronald D. Moore and Edgar Wright and Elizabeth Sarnoff the guys who wrote Mass Effect. Or just anything at all, anything, anything.

15. Of course, Venom and The Sinister Six are still years away. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 needs to be a hit, first. A lot can change in a couple years. (Ask Michael Arndt.) You could read this announcement as a pure PR move for shareholders: “Don’t worry. We’ve got plans, and our plans have plans, and there are two movies inside our next movie.”

16. And, cards on the table: I didn’t really like The Amazing Spider-Man. Marc Webb has a good eye for visuals, and the Garfield-Stone chemistry was great. But it really was the first Spider-Man all over again. Silly green villain; Uncle Ben taking forever to die already; bridges. And the decision to give Peter not one, not two, but three dead father figures  — Hi, Captain Stacy! Bye, Captain Stacy! — smelled like post-Nolan overcompensation. If you didn’t remember the first Spider-Man, it was probably grand — sort of like how you prefer whichever version of The Ring you saw first. But it seemed to auger in a depressing final conclusion for the franchise era: Series would just repeat, over and over again. (Why not just restart Harry Potter, now with new actors?)

17. An analogy: The Amazing Spider-Man is to Spider-Man what pop-punk was to punk. Same notes, played louder, with all the outsider-culture auspices removed. Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker was a legit nerd; Garfield was a handsome guy in a mournful hoodie, the very definition of emo. I mean no offense by that anlogy: I grew up in the suburbs in the ’90s, so I loved Green Day. But I can certainly understand why anyone who grew up before the ’90s thought Green Day was terrible.

18. But it’s worth remembering the old conventional wisdom that every first-in-a-series superhero movie is a dry run for the sequel. And if nothing else, Amazing 2 looks pretty, a nice color-blasted counterpoint to the USA Network bland-brite visual style of Marvel Studios or the war-correspondent grit of Man of Steel or Bryan Singer’s shadowy Xthetic.

19. And there’s another reason to get excited about Sony’s ludicrous plan. Superheroes are trending cosmic just now. The X series is entering its time-traveling big-cast decadent era. The Marvel films are building towards The Infinity Gauntlet. Superman and Batman are hanging out. There’s something old-fashioned-in-the-best-way about the idea of micro-focusing on Spider-Man and his rogues’ gallery. Peter Parker is an average-guy superhero. His villains are almost as crazy as Batman’s, but without the relentless psychoanalytic myth. (Jamie Foxx’s Electro is being set up as a bizarro-Peter: A nerdy nobody who becomes a somebody in the worst way.)

There’s a sense that this Amazingverse could be carving out a distinctive space for itself: The superhero franchise for the little guy. Spider-Man was always for the freaks, but that’s especially true now, when the whole idea of superhero is personified by dudes like Hemsworth and Jackman and Cavill, with pecs the size of bowling balls. This year’s Comic-Con was jam-packed with big casts and big reveals, but the most moving thing I saw in Hall H came during a Q&A session with Andrew Garfield said: “Spider-Man stands for everybody: black, white, Asian, gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual.”

If the Spider-man sequels and spinoffs can latch onto that kind of idea — and explore it’s implications, and find a way to turn the villains into recognizable misfits who garner your sympathy despite whatever nastiness they get up to — then this whole thing might just work.

20. If Amazing Spider-Man 2 underperforms — and post-Into Darkness, it’s possible for a movie to gross plenty hundreds of millions and underperform — this whole thing might just not work. Which would be sad, because I’m really pulling for Silver Sable. (Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.) (Starring Olivia Wilde.) (Unlikely, but so was Sinister Six yesterday.)

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