Shared universes have been a major feature of superhero comics for almost as long as capes and thought bubbles, but it’s only relatively recently that they’ve become anywhere near as notable a feature in superhero movies. In the first wave of comic book films, 1984’s Supergirl was the only example of a spinoff from an existing franchise, while the best-forgotten Batman and Robin hinted at the existence of Superman in what was little more than a throwaway joke.
In the post-X-Men era, meanwhile, the Spider-Man films remained resolutely standalone, while even X-Men Origins: Wolverine was more the only available route for the producers to continue after X-Men 3 than it was a genuinely separate story strand. The fragmentation of Marvel’s character rights across various companies, and the stagnation of DC’s film efforts (with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which by its very nature resisted being part of any kind of superhero universe) meant that each individual set of films was very much able to keep itself to itself.
But with the arrival of the Marvel Studios cinematic universe and the buildup to – and eventual payoff of – The Avengers, all of that has changed. The most successful superhero movie franchise of all time, it’s not just a possible new approach to the genre: it’s practically become a mandatory approach. As such, those studios that only have their hands on a particular set of characters are suddenly chomping at the bit to set up their own shared universes, even if it means thinking creatively about which areas of the property they can exploit.
The current rush to start new movie universes is so frantic that Sony, despite only having kickstarted their Amazing Spider-Man reboot two years ago, has already announced far-reaching plans for a seemingly mammoth slate of films and associated spinoffs. It was already clear that the first Amazing Spider-Man was intended to be the leadoff for a series – hence the hints about Norman Osborn, and post-credits sequence, that bore little to no relation to the actual plot of the main film itself – but the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems to be setting up several distinct elements that can be spun off in different directions.
We’re still yet to get a clear picture of exactly how The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s three villains – the Rhino, Electro and the Green Goblin – will fit into the film, so much so that Sony hasn’t even actually officially announced that Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborn is actually going to become the Goblin, merely hinting at it in early-release posters and trailers. It seems unlikely that all three will be focused heavily, however – certainly, most of the pre-publicity seems to centre on Jamie Foxx as Electro – so the likelihood is that the others are in more minor roles, to be set up for future films.
As far as those future films go, despite The Amazing Spider-Man 2 being three months away, a further two films in the main series have already been announced as having ethereal future release dates (3 in 2015, and 4 in 2017). It seems likely that several elements from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will lead directly into the third film – although obviously we’ll have a better idea of exactly which ones once we’ve seen the movie. The second film, however, even bears the tagline “His greatest battle begins”, suggesting that the battle in question won’t actually be concluded by the end of its running time. The likelihood would seem to be that the exponential increase in villain activity will have grown yet further by the time the second film ends, creating a threat so large that it’ll take a further two films to tell the story of Spidey overcoming it.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of Sony’s attempt to build an expanded universe out of the Spider-Man franchise is that, at present, the webslinger and his support cast are the only group of Marvel characters that it actually has the rights to. And while the character has possibly the best rogue’s gallery in comics (Batman’s enemies might be more famous to the casual punter, but Spidey’s are an altogether more fun and rounded set, and almost all relate to him in some way, whether thematically or for direct story reasons), the rights to his world don’t really come with a lot of other heroes (although there hangs a question mark over whether characters introduced in the Ultimate Spider-Man comic, like Bombshell or indeed the replacement Spidey himself Miles Morales, are part of Sony’s package).
This would explain, at least, why the so-far-announced plan for what we’re calling the “Spideyverse” seems to revolve so heavily around villains. The only films that have so far been announced as actually starring a hero are the third and fourth Amazing Spider-Man films, with the other two on the slate being Venom and The Sinister Six.
Let’s deal with Venom first. While initially introduced as a Spider-Man villain, the character was popular enough with fans that he was eventually upgraded to “anti-hero” status, even scoring his own occasional miniseries. Spider-Man 3 showed just how difficult it was to convincingly work the symbiotic monster into a movie setting, however – so it’s a pretty bold step to announce a solo film even before The Amazing Spider-Man films have successfully brought him to the screen in the first place.
While you would expect Venom to be introduced in one of The Amazing Spider-Man films as a villain before being spun off into his own in a more anti-hero/vigilante kind of role, perhaps one route to go down – if they do indeed want to make him a “hero” capable of leading a film – would be to use the current comics’ incarnation, in which Peter’s former schoolmate Flash Thompson wears the symbiote and carries out wet work for the government, rather than the traditional Eddie Brock, “grudge against Parker” version.
After all, it seems unlikely that of the four films announced, fully two will have out-and-out villains as their lead characters – and there seems to be no way the Sinister Six film could go other than to present its titular bad guys as… well, as bad guys. Perhaps the bigger question with that film, though, is which characters will be featured. The original Six were made up of Electro, Mysterio, the Sandman, Doctor Octopus, Kraven the Hunter and the Sandman – but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that it’ll be a different lineup in the movie, as much as we’d absolutely love to see Mysterio finally make his big-screen bow.
It seems a pretty safe assumption that the three villains featured in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will make up half of the lineup – leaving three further spots to be filled. That’s a lot of characters to have to introduce in one or both of the two remaining Spidey films, but a clue as to the fourth member could lie in the casting of Felicity Jones. Her character in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 remains unnamed, but it’s hard to shake the suspicion that she might be playing Felicia Hardy – also known as the Black Cat. Having Felicia as one of the Six would bring a much-needed female presence to an otherwise sausage-heavy lineup, and with her more ambiguous moral nature she might also be a useful character to steer the film’s narrative in a more sympathetic direction.
It would be astonishing, meanwhile, if Otto “Dr Octopus” Octavius didn’t make his way into the new film continuity somehow. As arguably Spider-Man’s greatest foe (yes, we said it, ahead of Norman Osborn – after all, did the Goblin ever successfully steal Peter’s body for a year, as Ock has done in the recent, and brilliant, Superior Spider-Man series?) Ock is easily a strong enough character to carry a film of his own, and would be a prime candidate for introduction in one of the “main” films before potentially playing a major role in Sinister Six. On the other hand, the fact that he was so strongly portrayed by Alfred Molina in Spider-Man 2 would possibly make it difficult for anyone else to come in with a definitive take – a problem already demonstrated by the fact that the Amazing films have yet to go near J. Jonah Jameson, so great is the shadow cast by J.K. Simmons.
As to the remaining slot, though, it’s anybody’s guess. We’d bet on a mid- or lower-tier villain like the Vulture, the Sandman or Shocker – someone nice and straightforward who can fill a slot without eating up too much screen time on character development. Of course, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Rhys Ifans’ Lizard will make a reappearance, either – although the lukewarm reception to his role in the first film may count against him.
Whoever ends up being on the Sinister Six team, it’s undeniably something of a risk to try and make a superhero film that’s entirely based around villains. But it also represents an opportunity to do something new – and as pretty much all the other heroes Spidey tends to hang around with have their rights tied up elsewhere, it’s just about the only option. In the meantime, once Amazing Spider-Man 2 is released we’ll have a better idea of just how well these assorted villains are being handled – and if they are indeed as sufficiently interesting to carry their own films as Sony thinks they are…