Since “Batman Begins,” superhero films have upped the ante as far as casting legit names to act out action-packed costumed melodramas for mass audiences. But it’s hard to say we’ve seen anything like the upcoming sequel to “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which last week added Oscar winner Chris Cooper to a cast that includes Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Shailene Woodley and Dane DeHaan as well as fellow Oscar winners Sally Field and Jamie Foxx and former nominee Paul Giamatti. That would be a whole lot of acclaim for a small indie film, but it’s also the sort of prestige unheard of for a mega-blockbuster that was received coolly by critics and diehards.
Spider-Man has a rich, colorful history of characters stretching back fifty years, but it’s been buoyed by a few key principle characters buttressed by other one-dimensional participants in the life of your friendly neighborhood webslinger. And that would make it an honest decision to populate the coming film not only with Spidey’s nemesis the Green Goblin (Cooper) and his son (DeHaan) but also goofy space-fillers the Rhino (Giamatti) and Electro (Foxx). The idea of Spider-Man doing battle with a host of villains as essentially cannon fodder is ripe for adaptation, and has been seen frequently in the comics.
But do you really cast Foxx and Giamatti as “cannon fodder”? Details about the general story in regards to “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” are being kept under wraps. But shortly after the first film was released, rumors persisted of matching Spidey against the Sinister Six, a super-team of villains from the comics that the wall-crawler frequently defeated. It’s a fine way to dial up the stakes in regards to the ineffectual first film in director Marc Webb’s proposed series, but the casting already suggests these villains will warrant substantial screen time, with more possibly to be announced -- rising star Felicity Jones is also a part of the cast in an unspecified role, and some have speculated she could be playing villain Black Cat.
If there’s ANYTHING studio executives should have learned from past superhero films, it's that the temptation to cram in multiple storylines and characters will usually backfire. The combination of a “cure” story, the rise of the Phoenix and the multiple deaths of key cast members created the dizzying mess that was “X-Men: The Last Stand.” “Batman And Robin” was sunk not only from teaming Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy, but also shoehorning in the character of Bane and debuting a glammed-up Batgirl. And that same mistake was even made in this very series: balancing the symbiote storyline, the birth of Venom, the creation of Sandman, the romantic rivalry between Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy and the add-ons to Peter Parker’s origins in “Spider-Man 3” proved far too much for Sam Raimi to handle.
It’s possible there will be some key changes to the mythology, but we’ve already been privy to the knowledge that Stone’s Gwen Stacy is not long for this world. In the comics, her death at the hands of the Green Goblin was a watershed moment for the industry, and it's likely that will be replicated either in the next film or in a third installment. The romantic tension provided by new girlfriend Mary Jane Watson (Woodley) is already a considerable requirement of this plot, and we haven’t even been introduced to either her or to potential Goblins, Norman Osborne (Cooper) or son Harry (DeHaan).
That’s enough for a couple of films, really. But then there’s Foxx and Giamatti, who don’t get hired to play glorified henchmen. Lest we forget, Foxx's “Django Unchained” is about to cross $400 million worldwide, and it would be unwise to lend himself to a thankless role in a franchise sequel. And while Giamatti could conceivably take a part somewhat beneath him given his outspoken fandom of the Rhino, what of rising star Jones? To say nothing of Field or the returning Martin Sheen (likely playing Uncle Ben in a flashback). Or the still-alive Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans), who apparently still has information about Peter’s missing parents; a mystery that will require follow-up, and possibly the returning participation of Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz. Oh, and the teleporting shadowy figure visiting Dr. Connors in the last film’s post-credits sequence played by Michael Massee… yeah, we’ll need answers to that as well.
In the previous trilogy, Raimi planted the seeds early by foreshadowing, through two entire films, the heel turn from Harry Osborne (James Franco) into the eventual “New Goblin.” But Franco didn’t have to compete for screen time with this sort of clutter, nor did Raimi work in an industry enamored with the cross-pollination of their superhero brands. “The Avengers” changed everything for superhero films, all of which are now meant to be part of their own separate multi-character franchise. Fox is attempting to re-unite the chaotic “X-Men” universe with “The Wolverine” and “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” while juggling the possibility of subtle crossover with Josh Trank’s upcoming “Fantastic Four.” And Warner Bros. views this summer’s “Man Of Steel” as a possible springboard into a “Justice League” movie.
On its face, 'Spider-Man' offers Sony no such opportunities – the other major Marvel property owned by the studio is “Ghost Rider.” But talk has been bandied about a “Venom” film that would spin off from the new 'Spider-Man' series, itself eyeing a new installment every two years, a Herculean commitment for a studio and filmmaking team considering consistent $200 million budgets. This is about 'Spider-Man' in perpetuity, with the character ready with new installments and/or ancillary extensions ready to go when the public, and stockholders, demand. Which all makes sense for a financial perspective.
Except that it doesn’t. Sony is lucky that 'Spider-Man' has a considerably large rogue’s gallery. But in the earlier films, they used four major villains, five if you count both Goblins. After Rhys Ifans’ Lizard, the new film will sport at least the potential presence of both Goblin characters, as well as Electro and Rhino, and whomever Jones is playing, as well as a possible Venom shout-out. That’s all well and good, but how do you follow that up? You use four villains this time, next time you’ll have to use eight. You bring out the Sinister Six, you can’t have a sequel featuring only two tougher baddies. It’s short-sighted, based upon the implication that audiences will still turn out for “The Amazing Spider-Man 6” with Jared Leto as Carrion, Blair Underwood as the Jackal, and Miles Teller as the Scarlet Spider. Hell, we still don’t know how “Thor: The Dark World” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” will fare without any direct involvement with “The Avengers.”
What’s galling about all of this isn’t studios making the same mistakes all over again, and it isn’t unwise business decisions. It’s the idea that these film series can trap fine actors into films and film series where they’re not only forced to act alongside green screen backgrounds, but see their dramatic work treated as just another ingredient in a franchise stew to be mixed indiscriminately with other elements. The idea of the talented trio of Cooper, Foxx and Giamatti in the same room tickles us a bit. The idea that they’ll be wearing ridiculous costumes and doing so as the third or fourth subplot in a crowded superhero tentpole, less so. Much less so.