'Amazing Spider-Man 2' and the Too Many Villains problem

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 arrives in a mere three months, but it feels like the web-swinging reboot-sequel keeps expanding its cast every day. Just yesterday, director Marc Webb officially announced via Twitter that former Officer perma-temp B.J. Novak will play A. Smythe, which is almost certainly some version of Alistair Smythe — a character who eventually becomes the bad-guy criminal scientist behind a line of nasty robots called Spider-Slayers. It’s possible that Novak will only be in the movie for a short while — and it’s worth remembering that Dylan Baker played Curt Connors through two Spider-Man movies without every transforming into the Lizard. Then again, Novak is a pretty familiar face playing a familiar name — and besides just being the latest sequel in a hugely possible franchise, Amazing 2 is also world-building towards a supervillain-spinoff megafranchise.

And it’s worth pointing out that the advertising for Amazing 2 has shifted decisively in the last few months. Initially, the film seemed mostly focused on Jamie Foxx’s Electro. But the latest trailer featured a longer look at Paul Giamatti’s Rhino while confirming that there will be some sort of Green Goblin in the movie. We know for a fact that the film introduces father-and-son Goblins Norman and Harry Osborn. There are rumors that Felicity Jones is playing the Black Cat, a woman who dresses up as a cat but is totally not Catwoman, although she serves a roughly equivalent not-so-bad guy/less-boring-love-interest role in the Spidey mythos.

So we have at least three confirmed villains, plus maybe a couple more. This is worrisome only because, for a very long time, conventional wisdom about superhero movies was that More Villains = Too Many Villains. This specific origins of this truism probably vary depending on how old you are. Batman & Robin threw Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Bane into a stew that also included a new sidekick and a love interest. Ten years later, Spider-Man 3 awkwardly wedged The Sandman, Venom, and the Green Goblin into a movie — a pile-up that resulted in uniformly fuzzy character arcs across the board. (The Sandman disappears for most of the middle; Venom only becomes Venom in the last half hour; James Franco’s neo-Goblin develops extremely convenient amnesia.)

There are other examples. Iron Man 2 could never quite figure out whether the bad guy was Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, the U.S. government, or Tony’s daddy issues. X-Men Origins: Wolverine had so many problems, so many problems indeed, but one big issue was that Liev Schreiber’s gloriously scenery-chewing Sabretooth had to share bandwidth with Danny Huston’s William Stryker and Fake Ryan Reynolds’ Fake Deadpool. But Spider-Man 3 is the clear correlative here. Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Men are wild and purposefully uncentered movies, but part of what makes them fun is that they only need to service a single Big Bad.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that before Batman & Robin there was Batman Returns, a movie with three lead villains: Catwoman, Penguin, and Max Schreck, a character whose whole purpose was to ensure that Christopher Walken would haunt the nightmares of young moviegoers everywhere. And although it’s debatable what precisely the difference is between a Big Bad and a minor villain, you have to take The Dark Knight into account. Technically it features two beloved supervillains, the Joker and Two-Face. But the movie’s first act focuses on nefarious accountant Lau — he’s the reason Batman goes to Hong Kong, which, remember when Batman went to Hong Kong? Eric Roberts’s gangster is in much more of the movie than you remember. Hell, the Scarecrow even has a cameo.

So it’s more complicated than a numbers game. Those two great Batman movies managed to weave their various villains together into a combined force of antagonism that energized their respective movies. Other films with multiple villains play a different game, with third-act twists that basically hand off the baton from one bad guy to the next one. (See: Iron Men 1 and 3, The Wolverine, the first Thor.) The fact that Amazing Spider-Man 2 was made with an eye towards the eventual supervillain team-up Sinister Six could indicate that the villains have strong narrative links — as opposed to, say, Spider-Man 3, which basically endgames with Venom running into The Sandman on the street and saying “Hey, dude, we should team up or something!”

Still, the villain pile-up in Amazing Spider-Man 2 does seem to indicate that we’ve decisively moved away from the era of the great supervillain Big Bads. In all the Marvel movies, only Captain America had a nemesis who clearly announced himself as Evil Evil Evil from minute one. Likewise, the X-Men franchise generally tries to match its swelling ranks of good mutants with even more bad mutants: There was something kind of pleasant about First Class, which let Kevin Bacon do his best ’70s Bond Villain. Consider this: We now live in an era when Mary Jane Watson can’t make it into a Spider-Man movie, but Alistair Smythe can.


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