The Mother Brain Files: Web Head Blues
By Mother Brain
The next few years appear to look bright for superhero movies. Marvel Studios will release The Avengers: Age of Ultron next summer and will follow it up with a four year schedule of sequels and establishing new characters in the lead up to their epic Infinity War two-parter. Warner Bros. has Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice set for 2016 and will follow up with Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and a host of other D.C. Comics properties that will eventually come together for the long awaited Justice League movie. Other comic book publishers are throwing their hats in the ring as well. But one particular wall-crawling icon just can’t seem to catch a break.
Of any Marvel Comics character, Spider-Man is the most recognized worldwide. Since his debut in Amazing Fantasy Issue #15 in 1962, Spider-Man was unlike any superhero that came before. Unlike the godly Superman or the wealthy vigilante Batman, Spider-Man (as his alter ego Peter Parker) was an awkward teenager who has dealt with the realities and insecurities of teenage life. While having extraordinary abilities to climb walls, shoot web slingers, to super-strength to fight crime, Parker is still a kid struggling to make ends meet, get through school, and impress girls with his geeky nature. It’s those relatable traits that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko conceived for the character that made Spider-Man a billion dollar franchise over the course of several decades not only in comics but also TV, action figures, video games, and countless other licenses. This was not lost on Hollywood; however, it took a long time for them to get around to it.
As a kid in the late 80s and early 90s, I was a bigger fan of the Web Slinger than I was the Dark Knight. I used to be confused why he hadn’t made the leap to the big screen while D.C. Comic characters were getting the royal treatment. What I did not know until a decade later was that several attempts for a Spider-Man movie had failed not only because of the lack of technology to do him justice on screen but also creative and legal issues. Cannon Films held the rights throughout the 80s with a young stuntman named Scott Leva attached to star. Several lousy scripts and a roulette of directors later, Cannon fell into financial troubles that forced them to sell the rights to Carolco, the studio that brought us Terminator 2, Rambo, and Total Recall. They immediately gave the film to James Cameron to write and direct for most of the 90s. After years numerous rewrites, however, Carolco would fold due to financial woes and the rights got tangled in court until Sony won over them in 1999.
The Sony Corporation had bought out Columbia Pictures in the fall of 1989 and would also merge Tri-Star Pictures under its banner. Though Columbia saw major success in the 80s with Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, Tootsie, and The Big Chill, there were also one too many flops that affected its business. Sony purchased Columbia and Tri-Star in hopes of creating new franchises for the new decade, but they didn’t get off to a good start due to major disasters (Hudson Hawk and Last Action Hero) and financial successes that didn’t meet studio expectations (Hook). Things didn’t truly turn around for the studio until 1997 when Sony released several worldwide hits: The Fifth Element, Men in Black, Air Force One, and My Best Friend’s Wedding just to name a few. They started to position themselves for even bigger profits in the 2000s with Spider-Man to become their flagship property.
In 2002, 40 years after his comic book debut, Spider-Man finally hit the big screen starring Tobey Maguire under the direction of Evil Dead’s Sam Raimi. There was no question that this was the most anticipated movie of the year and it had hype much like 1978’s Superman: The Movie and 1989’s Batman. Raimi alongside producers Laura Ziskin and Ian Bryce and screenwriter David Koepp, crafted an origin story that was as faithful to the comics as possible. It was a story driven by Uncle Ben’s motto: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Not only was Spider-Man an origin story about a teenager understanding responsibility and discovering his first crush in Mary Jane but it was also a complicated father-son tale about a boy losing his only father figure, his best friend’s dad (Norman Osborn) treating him as the son he really wanted, and his son (Harry Osborn) feeling neglected. While aspects of the film are easy to nitpick (i.e. organic web-shooters, Kristen Dunst’s performance, Green Goblin costume, etc.), most fans were not disappointed by the effort. A worldwide gross of over $800 million, Spider-Man made stars out of Maguire, Dunst, and James Franco while opening the doors for Marvel properties to finally take the big screen leap.
Spider-Man 2 would break new ground on the creative front. With Ordinary People screenwriter Alvin Sargent penning the final script, the new story was more important than introducing a new villain in the form of Dr. Octopus. It focused on Parker’s struggle to balance his superhero ways with his troubled college semester in which his grades are falling, apartment rent is overdue, jobs can’t be held down, and he can’t bring himself to admit his feelings for Mary Jane. Then there’s the complicated relationship with Harry: Still his best friend as Peter Parker but also his biggest enemy as Spider-Man. This coherent premise made for great drama added with some spectacular action sequences that made this sequel more popular than the original. But despite its success critically and commercially, one of its producers, Avi Arad, was starting to gain more power and influence in the franchise.
Avi Arad was the CEO of Toy Biz, the home of all Marvel action figures, in the 1990s. When Marvel fell into bankruptcy in 1996, Arad swooped in and took control. He got Marvel out of their financial woes and sought to expand through selling the film licenses to the major studios. He exerted his influence increasingly with each Marvel film, including Spider-Man 3. Initially, Raimi had a tremendous amount of creative control on the previous entries and had hoped to follow in the same direction in the third outing. Raimi crafted a simplistic story about Parker realizing that the world is not black and white when it comes to fighting crime through the film’s only two antagonists: The Sandman and Harry Osborn’s New Goblin. Once Raimi turned in his treatment, however, Arad forced him to include the Venom character due to his popularity. Though Raimi was not familiar with the character and felt he wasn’t interesting enough to be included in his story, Arad and the studio believed Raimi owed them for all the freedom they had allowed him to have previously. Bowing to their wishes proved to be a big mistake.
Spider-Man 3 was met with big box office but lackluster reception. Fans complained about the bloated script, wasted characters (Venom and Gwen Stacy), and the cheesy humor (i.e. Saturday Night Fever montage). Internally, there was a lot of finger pointing on who to blame. What was clear to Raimi was that if he made another film, he would not allow himself to work a rushed schedule and be forced to make a script he did not believe in. As he continued with plans for Spider-Man 4 featuring Lizard, Black Cat, and Vulture as the main villains, Arad and the studio again pushed for fan favorite villains, several unsatisfactory scripts, and short notice release date. Sick of the politics, Raimi and his team walked away.
Instead of continuing forward with the continuity of the Raimi films, Arad and producers Ziskin and Matt Tolmach decided that a reboot was the best direction going forward. Inspired by the success of Batman Begins and Marvel’s Ultimates series, the production team and Sony wanted to turn Spider-Man into a more grounded tale of a boy becoming a man and to tap into comic storylines left out of the Raimi films including the Gwen Stacy romance as well as the mystery surrounding Parker’s biological parents. While aiming to shoot a 3D movie using the same techniques as Avatar, Sony hired director Marc Webb of (500) Days of Summer to give the reboot a real world edge. Then came in Andrew Garfield from The Social Network to replace Maguire in the title role. Unlike Maguire’s quiet and somber take on Parker, Garfield went in the angst direction while raising the level of Spidey’s humor which was completely suppressed in the Raimi films.
The Amazing Spider-Man did very good business in a very competitive summer of 2012 and the critics praised the performances of Garfield and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. For the moment, it seemed as if dark and real was the way to go moving forward even if the fans didn’t ask for a reboot. Sadly before the film’s release, producer Ziskin passed away after a long fight with breast cancer. Some may say she was influential in maintaining a level of dignity in the films no matter how they turned out. Now without its producer who was there from the start and Arad in nearly full control, Spider-Man was about to fall into a whole new world of trouble.
In the same summer that the reboot hit screens, Marvel Studios dominated the box office with The Avengers. Now every studio was looking to build “universes” out of their popular tentpole franchises and Spider-Man would be no exception. Sony treated The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as the start of a universe building franchise that would include a Sinister Six spin-off, a Venom movie, and any other possible characters owned by Sony. The intent was to go bigger: More villains (Electro, Green Goblin, Rhino), more setups for popular characters (Felicia Hardy), more color, more subplots, more action, more comedy, more composers (Hans Zimmer with Pharrell WIlliams!), more product placement! More! More! More! Sony’s goal: Break over $1 billion worldwide. The end result: Mixed to negative reviews and grossing $700 million worldwide.
After The Amazing Spider-Man 2 disappointed, fans made loud outcries over Twitter for Sony to sell back the Spider-Man film rights to Marvel Studios now under the Disney banner. Until now, Sony has not budged on giving up its most lucrative property; however, they can’t seem to make any other clear decisions. The Sinister Six spin-off has been delayed, Amazing Spider-Man 3’s release date was moved up a year, Venom got canceled, and Sony out of nowhere announced “a female-centered spin-off film in 2017” only after Marvel Studios head, Kevin Feige, made a statement about no plans for female superhero movies (This was before their Phase 3 announcement which included a Captain Marvel movie for 2018). The rumors soon bordered from the bizarre (An all new Spider-Man reboot to be included in the Sinister Six movie) to the insane (A young Aunt May movie about how she shacked up with a young Uncle Ben). In many fans eyes, they read these rumors as desperation on Sony’s part to keep Spider-Man at all costs. Their incompetence would be underlined by a major scandal.
Recently, there was a huge security breach at Sony as several classified documents were leaked out on the internet. It’s been reported that the leak was an attack on the studio because of its Seth Rogen goes to North Korea comedy, The Interview. I won’t get deep into that speculation; however, the documents have uncovered Sony’s problems with the state of the Spider-Man franchise as well as ball dropping opportunities. Among those ideas was talk with Marvel Studios to include Spidey in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War movie as the character was a key role in the comic storyline. There would be no rebooting of the origin in this direction. Sadly, that plan fell through. They also talked with Marvel about a new trilogy under the Marvel Studios banner but with a catch: Sony retains creative control. Marvel shoots that down. Sony has gotten as desperate as planning an animated comedy movie under the direction of 21 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Just another way to devalue a popular character on the screen.
All of Spider-Man’s issues stem from a corporation with no creative geniuses looking to make a quick buck and too many idiotic cooks (with Arad as the head chef) on the production side who think they know what fans want. While everyone wants to see Marvel Studios get Spidey back and cast in the next Avengers movie, he would have to wait in line until the end of the decade once Phase 3 is finished. So it’s a catch-22 whether he’s at Sony or Marvel. For the time being, Sony will be conducting a “Spidey Summit” after New Years to decide his fate moving forward. Stay the course with the current reboot direction? Reboot again? Make unnecessary spin-offs? Go back to Raimi? We won’t know anything until an official announcement is made by Sony. For now, the classified document leaks have revealed new public enemies by name outside of Avi Arad and I personally don’t see this summit ending well.