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Standalone superhero movies have become a relic of the not-so-distant past. The incredible success of Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel films has effectively pushed rival studios to pursue interconnected film universes in order to avoid being left in the dust. Incredibly, the superhero movie boom has shown no signs of slowing down and looks to continue its strength for at least the next decade.

Disney has Marvel movies planned out through 2028, and Fox, Warner Bros., and Sony (NYSE:SNE) are all working to establish broader film universes that can generate reliable returns. For Sony, keeping up with its movie studio competitors is a matter of mining and effectively utilizing its "Spider-Man" license. Will The Amazing Spider-Man 2 provide the springboard that the company needs to create a broader film universe and rescue its embattled film division?

Sony needs a hero

Sony's film unit has taken some serious lumps in recent years. The company as a whole is suffering from major liquidity issues, and disasters like White House Down and After Earth prompted calls to spin off its film division. The somewhat disappointing box office returns from 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man led to speculation that Sony might sell the film rights to the character back to Marvel and Disney.

Prior to the release of the reboot, Sony and Disney completed a deal that saw The House of Mouse purchase merchandizing rights for Spider-Man films. While Spider-Man returning to the Marvel banner might have seemed like a legitimate possibility at one point, it's now clear that Sony plans to make even greater use of its license. If Sony sells the rights to the character and his associated universe to Disney, it would almost certainly correlate with an exiting of the film business.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 must justify the creation of a broader universe

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has already released in England to a mostly positive critical reception that portends good things for the future of Sony's expanding universe. While the film will likely garner more negative reviews in the lead up to its May 2 U.S. release, it appears that Sony does not have to worry about the Marc Webb-directed pic being a massive misfire. The movie still has a long way to go before meeting the studio's expectations, however.

The first film in the Amazing series remains the lowest grossing of all the Spider-Man movies, and Sony will be looking for a substantial improvement over the series reboot's approximately $752 million global box office take as an indication that an expanded Spider-universe will do good business.  

Will the latest 'Spider-Man' be Sony's 'Iron Man 2'?

According to reviews of Amazing Spider-Man 2, the film dedicates considerable screen time to setting up spin-offs currently in development at Sony. While some critics have cited this as a weakness of the film, similar complaints were levied against Disney's Iron Man 2 and they certainly had little effect on that film's box office draw or the broader viability of The Avengers universe. Sony has already announced plans to release films based on Venom and The Sinister Six, and Amazing Spider-Man 2 is meant to provide a basic introduction to some of the principal players in those upcoming films.

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The universe revolves around Spider-Man

While Venom and The Sinister Six represent smart investments for Sony amid the current box office climate, it remains unlikely that the studio will be able to approach the success of Disney's Avengers. Flashback to the early 2000s and Spider-Man was the biggest name in superheroes, but Sony's license remains limited when compared to the vast expanse of Marvel properties that Disney has access to.

Sony has secured some compelling talent for The Sinister Six in Jamie Foxx and Paul Giamatti, but the film will likely require a heavy Spider-Man presence in order to draw the audience the studio is looking for. Compare this to a film like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which hasn't needed the help of lead-Avenger Iron Man to achieve highly impressive box office numbers, and it's clear that the strength of Disney's Marvel universe is leaps and bounds above what Sony is working on.

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Venom might have a better shot of growing the Spider-universe and establishing its title character as a commercially viable protagonist, but even the eponymous anti-hero's appearance remains strikingly close to that of Spider-Man. Sony's attempts at building a broader film universe remain tightly tied to the famous webslinger, perhaps dangerously so.

Sony's film division desperately needs a big hit...

Not counting Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony currently has four additional Spider-films in development. Should Amazing Spider-Man 2 fail to substantially surpass the commercial performance of its predecessor, it would be a worrying indication that audiences are less than taken with the rebooted franchise and that the universe built by Marc Webb and company is less than ideal for further expansion. Whether Amazing Spider-Man 2 turns in a performance similar to that of the first Amazing film or goes on to approach the $1 billion mark, the future of Sony's film division revolves around the appeal of the webhead and his enemies.

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Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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