It’s been an odd cinematic journey for Spider-Man. Arguably the most popular and recognizable character in Marvel’s stable, the webhead was one of the first characters the comic book publisher attempted to bring to the screen. Since then, Spidey’s long and winding movie evolution has led to two separate reboots and an unprecedented deal between Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures to share control of the character.
Now, Sony has started production on a film starring actor Tom Hardy as Spider-Man villain Venom, the first in a planned series of movies based on secondary Spidey characters. It may sound convoluted, but it’s only the latest in the long series of strange gambles that have come to define Spider-Man’s cinematic history.
Spidey’s movie debut technically came in 1977, when the recently-formed Marvel Television partnered with Columbia Pictures Television to create a live-action Spider-Man TV movie starring Nicholas Hammond. The film was intended as a pilot for The Amazing Spider-Man, a 1978 CBS television series which wowed younger folks, but ultimately failed to draw the adult demographic and thus lasted only two seasons.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Marvel bounced the Spider-Man rights around from studio to studio, leading to a series of messy legal disputes, until at last Sony’s Columbia Pictures managed to land the license to the character. Columbia’s Spider-Man film finally went into production in 2000.
The result, as most moviegoers will remember, was an unprecedented success. 2002’s Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, earned the largest opening gross in history and became the most successful comic book film to date. In addition to helping to kick off the modern superhero genre, the movie led to two sequels, 2004’s celebrated Spider-Man 2 and 2007’s critically-panned Spider-Man 3.
But in 2008, the game changed. Instead of merely licensing out characters to other studios, the powers-that-be at Marvel’s film division, known as Marvel Studios, had decided they were ready to handle production themselves. Their initial effort was 2008’s Iron Man, a box office smash that once again redefined the superhero genre, revived Robert Downey Jr.’s ailing career, and launched the string of interconnected movies collectively referred to as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In the years that followed, as Marvel Studios continued to churn out hit after hit, Sony found themselves floundering creatively. After Spider-Man 3’s disappointing reception and a souring of the relationship between the studio and Sam Raimi, they cancelled a planned Spider-Man 4. In 2007, Sony reportedly toyed with the idea of a Venom spin-off film in which the title character would function more as an antihero than a villain. Venom had previously been introduced in Spider-Man 3, played by actor Topher Grace. The studio commissioned several writers to work on a screenplay for the spin-off, including Gary Ross, who was also tapped to direct. Development continued for a couple of years, but by 2012, the project seemed to have been shelved, if not thrown out entirely.
The chaos continued as Sony opted to start from scratch with a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, hiring indie director Marc Webb and casting British-American performer Andrew Garfield in the title role. 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man received a fair critical response, but failed to match the financial success of its predecessors. Still, the studio moved forward with a sequel and signed Webb and Garfield for a third film, with discussion of a fourth apparently in progress.
Sony then announced their bold plan to create a shared universe around Spider-Man, presumably in an attempt to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The studio set a release date for a new Venom spin-off movie directed by Josh Trank that would also include the character Carnage, as well as a film focused on the super villain team known as the Sinister Six. Writers Alex Kurtzman, Ed Solomon, Roberto Orci, and Drew Goddard began working on screenplays for these films, while also planning an additional spin-off centered around female character Black Cat. After Trank exited the Venom film, Kurtzman was set to direct.
Then, Marvel Studios once again shook things up. Hoping to finally win back the rights to Spider-Man in order to use the character in their film translation of the popular Civil War comic book storyline, Marvel reached out to Sony in an effort to strike a deal. In February of 2015, it was announced that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige and Sony’s Amy Pascal had agreed to allow Spider-Man to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as a solo Spidey film co-produced by Feige and Pascal. Sony would still own, finance, distribute and maintain final creative control over Spider-Man films, but a certain degree of collaboration would be required for every cinematic entry involving the webhead.
The announcement of this deal, paired with the financial underperformance of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, led to the immediate cancellation of the third and fourth Garfield-starring movies, as well as all planned Spider-Man spin-off films. Apparently, Garfield’s Spidey was intended to appear in those movies, and now that Feige and Pascal had decided to once again start over with a new actor in the suit, the spin-off movies fell apart.
Feige and Pascal spent much of 2015 auditioning actors to portray the new shared Spider-Man, finally settling on English actor Tom Holland. Holland’s Spider-Man was introduced in Marvel Studios’ Captain America: Civil War in 2016, and next headlined this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, a co-production between Marvel Studios and Sony’s Columbia Pictures.
This (finally) brings us to today. While Holland will be appearing in two upcoming Avengers films, as well as a sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming, Sony Pictures has been quietly developing an entirely new set of spin-off movies, retaining some elements of their past projects. While Sony now has to collaborate with Marvel on any films involving Holland’s Spider-Man, other Spider-Man characters still technically belong to Sony (though Marvel has been able to make arrangements with Sony to include characters like Aunt May in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). This means that Sony is free to do whatever they’d like with Spidey’s supporting players.
The only catch is that, due to a lack of approval from Feige, Holland’s Spider-Man will likely not be appearing in any of Sony’s planned spin-off films. In other words, Sony is now developing a Spider-Man cinematic universe without a Spider-Man.
If this plan sounds risky, it is. The studio is banking on fan recognition of Spider-Man’s second-tier characters to sustain this new endeavor, though telling their stories without involving Spidey will likely prove to be a considerable narrative challenge.
The plan still seems somewhat hazy. While the spin-off films were initially described by Feige as part of a new Sony universe completely independent from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pascal almost immediately clarified that Sony did intend its films to take place within Marvel’s universe, with the slim possibility of Spidey appearing in future installments.
Feige publicly disagreed with this remark, adding further to the confusion. It has recently been stated that Sony’s films will occur in the “same reality” as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but there will be no crossover between the two franchises (if that makes any sense). Sony also no longer refers to their movies as spin-offs anymore, since they are intended to establish a brand new franchise.
In any case, the first film in this planned lineup will be Venom, which will utilize a new script by Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg. The movie aims for an R-rating, hoping to establish a gritty, horror-esque tone that would contrast sharply with Holland’s Spider-Man films.
Soon after the announcement of Venom, the second film in Sony’s planned Marvel lineup was mentioned, a project entitled Silver & Black. This movie, set to be written by Christopher Yost and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, will focus on female Spider-Man characters Black Cat and Silver Sable. Any further information has yet to be released.
Another Sony project will be an untitled 2018 animated Spider-Man film featuring Peter Parker’s web-spinning successor, Miles Morales. Other than the fact that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller will be writing and producing the film, and Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey will direct, little is known of the project.
In terms of Venom’s progress, last May, Sony announced that Tom Hardy had signed on to play Eddie Brock / Venom, and Ruben Fleischer had been hired to direct. The studio claimed that the movie would launch “Sony’s Marvel Universe.” As the summer rolled along, actors Jenny Slate, Michelle Williams, and Riz Ahmed were added to the cast. At the same time, writer Kelly Marcel was brought in to work on an additional draft of the script. Reportedly, the film will include some elements derived from previous versions of the screenplay, including the portrayal of Venom as a dark anti hero and the inclusion of Carnage (Ahmed is rumored to be playing this iconic Marvel villain).
Last week, shooting officially began on the film, an event that the movie’s official Twitter account marked with a photo of a smiling Hardy on set. After nearly a decade of false starts, this photo was likely intended to not only build hype, but also to console worried fans who thought the movie may never happen. Filming is scheduled to take place in New York City and Atlanta, though specific plot details have yet to be revealed.
Some reports have indicated that Hardy will be portraying Venom through performance capture, as the character’s suit is in fact a living alien organism. This would suggest that the film will be relying heavily on computer-generated effects, which would be surprising, considering its relatively short production schedule. The movie began filming last week and is scheduled for release on October 5th, 2018, less than a year from now. Assuming that the shoot lasts a standard five or six months, this would leave only a few months for post-production. Completing extensive digital effects in that span would be difficult to say the least.
But the real challenge will be introducing a new version of Venom without Spider-Man in the picture. In the comics, Venom’s origin is a direct result of Peter Parker’s actions. While battling villains on another planet, Peter is coated in a strange black liquid that morphs into a new Spider-Man suit capable of responding to his thoughts and producing its own supply of webbing.
He wears the black suit for a time, until he realizes that it seems to be making him more aggressive and violent, while also controlling his actions to an extent. A desperate Spider-Man eventually turns to Fantastic Four member and scientist Reed Richards, who studies the suit and informs Peter that it is actually a symbiotic alien organism attempting to form a permanent bond with him. Later, Peter uses the powerful sound waves from a cathedral’s church bell to weaken and repel the creature.
Meanwhile, after a story he wrote is debunked once Spider-Man reveals the true alter ego of a criminal he had misidentified, disgraced reporter Eddie Brock visits a church seeking solace. This happens to be the same church where Peter Parker is ridding himself of the symbiote, and once it breaks away from Spider-Man, the creature latches onto Brock. Gaining increased strength and all of Spider-Man’s powers (which the symbiote has learned to imitate), Brock calls himself Venom and works with the alien organism to hunt down Spider-Man, whom he blames for the collapse of his career.
In the years since his debut in 1986, the comics have occasionally depicted Venom as a hero of sorts, as Eddie Brock is often motivated to use the the symbiote to protect the downtrodden (having handled a great deal of bad luck himself). At one point, while Brock is imprisoned, the symbiote reproduces, leaving a new creature that bonds with Brock’s sadistic serial-killer cellmate Cletus Kasady to become the villain Carnage.
While these later storylines could certainly make for a fascinating film, the fact remains that without Spider-Man present to introduce the symbiote and pass it on to Brock, Venom’s origin will be difficult to portray. Either the film will have to change this story element (which will likely infuriate most fans), or avoid including it altogether. Perhaps the movie will begin with Hardy’s Brock already bonded with the symbiote, and the circumstances that led to him acquiring it will only be mentioned in passing.
Regardless, it seems that Sony has its work cut out for it in terms of reaching a wide audience and establishing fan loyalty with Venom, considering Spider-Man’s conspicuous absence from the movie. And even if the film succeeds, continuing the franchise with a movie centered on lesser-known characters Silver Sable and Black Cat will present an even greater risk. It will be interesting to see how Sony’s universe plays out, whether it grows to rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe or fizzles out and ends with the swift cancellation of another slew of planned projects. This uncertainty, after all, is characteristic of the Spider-Man film series. The one consistent factor that runs through Spidey’s checkered movie history seems to be its inconsistency.