Though they've been made since the very beginning of the medium, studios are still learning how to craft sequels. Follow-ups used to be frowned upon, perceived as nakedly commercial tactics that frequently didn't involve the participants of the originals. Then they became elaborate, ongoing serialized stories, ones where filmmakers were permitted to present a full saga in chapters. And now, “franchises” have become something else, a lifeblood of Hollywood, one that has flummoxed Sony in regards to the “Spider-Man” movies.
Raimi's first three “Spider-Man” films featured one basic,
somewhat malleable storyline: here was Peter Parker, the young
crimefighter who battled baddies like Doctor Octopus, Sandman, and a
really inattentive super in a crummy New York apartment. There was
continuity, but was it really going anywhere? “Spider-Man 3”
ended up grossing $890 million, a series best, but in America it was
the weakest performer in the series. When Raimi pitched a fourth film
that played out like a James Bond film, with only a tenuous nod
towards an ongoing story, Sony passed.
At this time, Marvel was building their massive multi-film empire. When “Spider-Man” debuted, he was the only superhero on the block, and fans would merely get excited by the idea of a follow-up. But Marvel had people talking about “Easter eggs” and post-credit sequences, minutiae that had no place in the broadly-drawn “Spider-Man” world Sony had established. Sony's attempt at imitating this approach was “The Amazing Spider-Man," which re-aligned and rejiggered the basic “Spider-Man” origin to allow for additional layers. In the first “Spider-Man,” as in the comics, Parker's Uncle Ben is shot dead during a carjacking, leading our hero to learn an important lesson about responsibility as the killer fell to his death. But “Spider-Man 3” “retconned” this by establishing that we hadn't seen the full story, that the trigger was pulled by the villainous Flint Marko. This was Raimi's sideways path into the movie's themes of reconciliation and forgiveness, but most couldn't forgive him for the random last-minute revelation.
Never again, said Sony, fully planning out the new “The Amazing Spider-Man” universe. Now Parker's powers were the result of his previously-unmentioned parents. Now he would become obsessed (temporarily!) with the questions of his own lineage. Now that lineage could be tied to a scientist who eventually becomes the villain the Lizard. And that villain could work at OsCorp, an organization that longtime fans easily understand will factor into future installments. Oh, and don't get too attached to Parker's cute new girlfriend Gwen Stacy. Well, get attached enough to follow her to a sequel, please.
At Marvel, events of “Iron Man 2” set up revelations in “The Avengers," which were eventually discussed in “Captain America: The Winter Solder," and so on. The difference was that Marvel could space this out over a few years and take the time to develop movies and stories that appealed to fans. Sony seemed ready to shove everything into “The Amazing Spider-Man,” to the point where whispers all over the internet spoke of fully-developed deleted sequences based on unaccounted-for footage in the promotional material.
Even though the worldwide and domestic gross was lower than the previous Raimi films, Sony somehow felt emboldened by their reboot's $757 million gross. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” was still in extensive post-production when the studio announced their plans: “The Amazing Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 4” would hit theaters within two years of each other, accompanied by spinoff films for “The Sinister Six” (based on plot strands teased by “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) and “Venom." Sony crowed about the “braintrust” attached to the franchise, which included the superstar hit factory Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (writing the second, third and fourth films), Ed Solomon (co-writing “Venom”), Drew Goddard (writing and directing “The Sinister Six”) and Jeff Pinkner (co-writer on part two). And privately, the studio predicted a billion dollar earning for 'Amazing Spider-Man 2,' the biggest film in the series. Instead, it was the lowest-grossing of the the entire series. By a considerable margin too.
But Sony isn't the only studio rushing into world-building tentpoles. Earlier this year, Paramount suggested the Kevin
Costner character in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” could be used to
populate future Tom Clancy adaptations where Ryan would interact with
other Clancy heroes. And Universal has been trying to cobble together
its classic monsters into a fully-realized universe, without once
considering why they exist independent of each other. The former didn't work out when 'Shadow Recruit' failed at the box office, and the latter approach is unproven at the moment, but it underscores the one size fits all approach going around Hollywood.
Now the future of this new “Spider-Man” series is “up for grabs” according to Kurtzman, and Orci is no longer involved with the series. The fate of the franchise is very much in doubt, with rumors of “The Amazing Spider-Man 3” being bumped to a later date and “The Sinister Six” being canceled. The Disney/Marvel universe is vast, with several characters and stories at the studio's disposal. Sony's gamble has been that “Spider-Man” is comparatively richer, but the new movies do not bear that out—we're already recycling Green Goblin, and sequences with Mary Jane Watson filmed for 'Amazing Spider-Man 2' were excised during editing (though she's sure to turn up in the sequels).
In fact, if you were to look anywhere for reasons as to how Sony went wrong, maybe Marvel isn't to blame. Maybe it's “Harry Potter.” The 'Potter' films influenced an entire generation of studio executives as Warner Bros. released a new, massive 'Potter' film almost every year, allowing the audience to grow with the characters and the stories. But the corporate thought behind that concept was that the WB had a captive audience, one who wouldn't look elsewhere for their thrills when the latest adventure wasn't too far away. J.K. Rowling and the WB got away with this because of prophecies, promises, the idea of destiny carrying Harry's actions forward moreso than his actual actions. Why do you think most YA adaptations are built around kingdoms, lineages and preordained missions? (It certainly didn't hurt the series was based on one of the biggest book phenomenons in recent memory.)
Sony foolishly applied those principles to “Spider-Man” just as that trend was dying out. The face of today's YA adaptation isn't one character assuming his or her position of power within a mighty kingdom. It's material like “Divergent,” “The Hunger Games,” “The Giver,” movies where the youth grow into a comfortable position only to learn it is a lie, that the kingdom and power promised to them is an illusion. The generation watching these films doesn't care about rising up to assume a birthright, but establishing your own against the wishes of selfish, vain adults and parental figures. See how Raimi's Spidey seemed desperately in search of a father figure, from Doc Ock to Norman Osborn. Now see how the new Spidey routinely interrupts the search for the truth about his father, see how indifferent he is to the villains/mentors that surround him. See him stumble upon hidden train sets inexplicably left behind by his late dad that tell him nothing that advances the plot. If Spider-Man has a lack of agency, you could easily spit out a movie a year where he does the same thing over and over and over again. Rinse, repeat, collect profit.
The answer to Sony's “Spider-Man” riddle is the same as the answer to all major Hollywood problems: spend less money. When you have to gross $800 million to simply break even theatrically, you're making poor decisions. But they maybe waited too long for the “discount” installment in the series, so what do they do now? Interestingly, “The Sinister Six” and “Venom” give Sony a chance to make a big blockbuster without Spider-Man. But it was never certain if those movies would or wouldn't feature Spider-Man, and if they didn't it would be difficult to tie them into the “Amazing Spider-Man” movies. So chuck 'em.
Sony needs to give “Spider-Man” a break. Do the minimum required to keep the rights from Marvel, but sit on it. Spider-Man fights crime in New York, so have “Sinister Six” (presumably starring Dane DeHaan, Felicity Jones and Paul Giamatti) and “Venom” (with a familiar leading man of choice) take place somewhere else. Craft stories around these characters so that by the time they do face Spider-Man, the conflict is relatable, understandable. Spidey has starred in five movies over the course of twelve years. Comparatively, the “X-Men” have been featured in seven films over fourteen years, but characters like Wolverine have been seen in previous decades, new genres, Westchester to Japan to Washington D.C. Fox has kept that property fresh by diversifying. Sony needs to take these steps, to make something that costs less and makes less like “X-Men: First Class,” which sidelined the wildly popular Wolverine. Only then will people want to see the wall-crawler again.