Taking a cue from Marvel Studios and its success with solo superhero films leading up to the ultimate crossover in “The Avengers,” Sony recently announced that it will be creating something similar with its “Amazing Spider-Man” franchise. Not only will there be more sequels after “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” debuts on May 2, 2014, there will be spinoff films focusing on Spidey’s spectacular rouges gallery.
It’s been over a decade since “X-Men” helped define the modern superhero film, so why has it taken so long for filmmakers to focus on the villains? In most of these movies, they’re simply there to get beat up or die, and while we’ve seen some nuanced performances here and there (particularly Ian McKellen’s Magneto, Heath Ledger’s Joker, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki), audiences rarely have an opportunity to connect with them in the same way they do with the heroes. There were rumors of a Magneto movie in the works years ago, but that apparently turned into “X-Men: First Class,” a film we wished was just about Magneto and Professor X anyway, considering their rocky relationship trumped anything the good guys had going on.
It looks like Venom will be the first to receive his own movie, and since he is really an anti-hero, this seems like a logical choice, though the last interpretation of the character on screen, played by Topher Grace in “Spider-Man 3,” was downright laughable (as was that entire film), so Sony has its work cut out for it on this one. First, they’ll need to decide which version of Venom they’re going with, as several characters in Peter Parker’s life have worn the living symbiotic suit. Reporter Eddie Brock is the first and most popular of the bunch, and his “writing” has already appeared on viral marketing websites for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Flash Thompson has actually appeared in the first film, however, bullying Peter like the jerk that he is, so he’s a possibility as well. If we get into the numerous other “hosts,” we’ll be here all day.
The point is they can do whatever they like with this version, so hopefully Sony’s creative team will see the potential in this complex antagonist and do him justice. In fact, justice is key to the character. Eddie Brock initially bonds with the alien symbiote to destroy Spider-Man, blaming him for ruining his journalism career after Spidey disproves one of his stories, but eventually he lets go of this and becomes a dark vigilante who must never let his powers overtake him completely. With subplots involving a battle with cancer and losing his wife, it’s easy to sympathize with him while still detesting (or loving, depending on what kind of person you are) his violent methods. Written by Sam Raimi, who reportedly hated the character and was forced to include him in “Spider-Man 3,” Grace’s portrayal was one-note and tacked onto an already crowded movie, so it’s about time that Venom, after many memorable cartoon and video game appearances, is granted the same star treatment he’s given in the comic books.
A film about the Sinister Six is the other plan Sony announced, though what this means exactly is unclear. With three villains shown in the “Amazing Spider-Man 2” trailer alone, does this mean that the movie will just be the Webslinger battling all his foes like a typical superhero film, or will this actually follow the bad guys more closely? Typically, most of the screen time involves following the hero in and out of his secret identity while the villain is given a scene or two explaining his origin before the two characters must fight. Will this instead be written from the perspective of the Sinister Six, a group of Spidey’s greatest adversaries, allowing them to develop an insidious and complex plan before trying to squash the spider as well as more legitimate reasons for doing so than just being naturally evil?
The other major question involves the lineup – will it be made up of confirmed movie villains, like the Lizard, Electro, Rhino, and Green Goblin, or will we see Mysterio, Chameleon, Sandman, Scorpion, Shocker, Hobgoblin, Kraven the Hunter, Hydro-Man, Beetle, and so many others in there somewhere? Dr. Octopus and the Vulture are both hinted at in the latest franchise trailer, so they’re fairly likely candidates, but how will they get together? How will they get along? Do they want world domination or just piles of stolen money? There’s definitely enough material here to fill a film, but will they all get a chance to shine? Will this be “The Avengers” of the dark side?
So many questions remain, and we’re probably years away from answers. As much as I want to see all of my favorite evildoers brought to life in all their big budget live action glory, though, it’s the scripts I’m most concerned about. The writers behind “The Amazing Spider-Man” really did their best not to copy Raimi’s original films while still remaining true to the comics, and where they got that right was in the characters. Peter acts much more like his comic counterpart both in and out of the costume – Tobey Maguire’s Parker lacked the quick wit that Andrew Garfield captured, and his brooding was much more believable than Maguire’s increasing goofiness. The Lizard is much closer to the split personality found in the comics than a villain like Dr. Octopus, who is a ruthless egomaniac in the pages but was a good man driven insane in “Spider-Man 2.” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” on the other hand, seems to be deviating quite a bit from the original source material, so let’s hope they remember why these characters have lasted since the early ‘60s.
That reason is simple – they’ve been given years to develop into something truly special. Movies only have a few hours, but as they grow into franchises, they’re allowed the same serialized storytelling readers are used to. After “The Avengers,” people now want that same level of quality. Screenwriters typically love using villains as throwaway plot devices or as means to an end in a hero’s story arc rather than as multifaceted human beings with the same powers and responsibilities as the good guys – they just don’t always make the same choices, and they certainly don’t have the same personalities. This tired trend could start breaking down with Sony as they experiment with Spider-Man movies that don’t have “Spider-Man” in the title, or they can play it safe with features that simply ape the superhero formula for easy money but ultimately don’t hold up when building a long-lasting “legacy” of stories, as the company’s Dec. 12 press release claims it wants to do.
Either way, I’m curious to see what they come up with. With so many adaptations out there right now, it’s clear that almost anyone can make a decent superhero movie. Those who make great superhero movies are few and far between; I suspect it will be the same with villain-centric films. Does Sony have what it takes to be the next Marvel Studios, but with well-casted, well-written criminals?
I hope so. Bring on the bad guys.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at [email protected]