These days, the three companies controlling the Marvel Universe on the big screen -- Disney (NYSE:DIS), Fox (NASDAQ:FOX), and Sony (NYSE:SNE) -- all have grand plans for expanding their own cinematic universes. Disney has carefully assembled the Avengers film by film, and Fox has kept the X-Men franchise chugging along for 14 years.
But Sony, which holds the film rights to Spider-Man, has struggled with expanding its own corner of the Marvel Universe. While Spider-Man is one of the most well-known superheroes in the world, his supporting cast hasn't been ideal for building a full-fledged cinematic universe. In fact, the villains of Spider-Man -- such as Venom, Green Goblin, and Electro -- are generally more widely recognized than any of the supporting heroes of the Spider-Man series.
Therein lies the problem. To build up its own cinematic universe to rival Disney and Fox's, Sony plans to launch two villain-centered films starring Venom and the Sinister Six to expand its Amazing Spider-Man universe. Unfortunately, Sony's bold plan is doomed to fail for three big reasons.
1. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 clearly missed the mark
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 grossed $703 million worldwide on a production budget between $200 million to $225 million, making it the least profitable Spider-Man film of all time. The film only grossed $200 million domestically -- less than half of the domestic gross of Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man.
By comparison, the two highest grossing films of the series were Raimi's Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 3 (2007), which respectively grossed $822 million and $891 million worldwide.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was also the lowest rated of the five Spider-Man films among critics, with a score of 53% on Rotten Tomatoes. The most common complaints about the film were that it was too crowded, was too long at 142 minutes, and that it killed off Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy, arguably the most appealing member of the cast.
With setbacks like these, it's not surprising that The Amazing Spider-Man 3 is now rumored to be delayed a full year to 2017. Considering that The Amazing Spider-Man series is intended to be the crux of Sony's Marvel Universe, the delay could disrupt the production cycles of the Venom and Sinister Six films as well.
2. Films starring comic book villains are box office poison
It's admirable that Sony wants to take a different approach than Disney and Fox by making films about comic book villains, but this approach is a tough sell.
The Punisher is the closest that filmmakers have come to putting a solo Marvel "villain" on the big screen. The Punisher, who is more of an anti-hero than a villain, has been portrayed three times in film -- first by Dolph Lundgren (The Punisher, 1989), then by Thomas Jane (The Punisher, 2004), and a third time by Ray Stevenson (Punisher: War Zone, 2008).
The first film was made on a tiny budget of $9 million to $11 million and was quickly forgotten. The second and third films, which were higher profile films from Lions Gate (NYSE:LGF-A), were box office disasters -- the 2004 film grossed $55 million on a production budget of $33 million (likely a loss due to marketing costs), while the 2008 one grossed $10 million on a budget of $35 million. All three films were poorly received, with the 2004 film faring the "best" on Rotten Tomatoes with a score of 29%. Lions Gate eventually gave up on the Punisher, allowing the rights to revert to Marvel last year.
Matt Tolmach, one of the producers of Sinister Six, recently claimed that "there's no such thing as a villain" during an interview at IGN. He also stated that the film would be a tale of "redemption" in which a villain "finds his way back."
But redemption or not, a villain's story simply isn't effective without a hero acting as a foil -- it's like launching a superhero film without any villains. It might be fun to watch Venom and Sinister Six destroy things -- but what's the point if Spider-Man is left out?
3. Creative cobwebs everywhere
That leads us into the third big problem -- Sony's cloudy creative vision for the Spider-Man universe.
Marc Webb will no longer direct the series after The Amazing Spider-Man 3. Andrew Garfield has also strongly indicated that the third film will be his last. Garfield also stated that he wants Peter Parker to pass the torch to Miles Morales (the new Spider-Man in Marvel's Ultimate Universe), hinting that Peter could be killed off in the third film.
Meanwhile, the upcoming Venom film will be written and directed by Alex Kurtzman, best known as the co-writer of Star Trek, Transformers, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. However, Kurtzman isn't usually a solo writer or director. He mostly co-writes the films with his longtime collaborator Roberto Orci, and has only directed a single film to date -- the 2012 drama People Like Us. Sinister Six is being written and directed by Drew Goddard, who also only directed one film to date -- the surprise 2012 hit The Cabin in the Woods.
Putting two second-time directors on these two films is a huge risk, considering that the tone of both films has to be absolutely perfect to win over an audience unaccustomed to films starring villains.
The Foolish takeaway
Sony has a lot riding on the success of its plans for Spider-Man.
Out of Sony's eight business segments, Sony Pictures was one of just three (Mobile, Pictures, Financials) that posted a year-over-year gain in revenues in 2013. The segment also posted a 40% year-over-year gain in operating income last year.
Sony Pictures accounts for 11% of Sony's top line and 21% of its operating income. Therefore, the success or failure of huge film investments like Spider-Man, Venom, and Sinister Six could make a huge impact on Sony's financial performance over the next few years.
What do you think, fellow comic book film fans? Will Sony's efforts to expand its Spider-Man universe succeed, or will the series fall apart and result in yet another reboot for the entire franchise?