If you would’ve told ten-year-old me that she was going to be seeing all of her favorite superheroes together on the big screen in a decade, she would have probably laughed you out the room. Nowadays it’s common practice for Hollywood to have multi-billion-dollar cinematic universes, but is that such a good thing? For every Avengers: Endgame there’s a Mummy reboot. For every Spiderman: No Way Home there’s a Morbius.
See, I grew up in the 90s. For those who didn’t, this was a chaotic time filled with glorious cartoons such as X-Men, Spider-Man, anything Cartoon Network put out, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Back then, the only superhero (or beloved character) crossover event you could hope for was in these treasured nostalgia mines. The X-Men had a few dalliances with Spider-Man and vice versa. Villains from across the comic book universe would pop up here and there, referencing other shows. Of course, this wasn’t the first case of crossover. Universal’s original monster films like Dracula and Frankenstein often had crossover films. The Lou Ferrigno Hulk show from the late 70s featured Thor, and even in early superhero flicks like X-Men (2000) and Spiderman (2002) there were easter eggs aplenty, hinting at a larger world at play and elsewhere in this era, Tarantino was laying the groundwork for his loosely connected cinematic universe. None had the impact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had though.
In modern times, we all expect a superhero film to lead to more superheroes. Not only superheroes but any character really. I want to be specific though and focus mainly on the Sony Spider-Verse as it’s the best modern example of what I like to describe as ‘violent capitalism’.
The Sony Spider-Verse technically started in 2002 with the aforementioned Sony produced, Spider-Man, directed by Evil Dead creator, Sam Raimi. It was a Sam Raimi comic book film, through and through filled to the brim with Raimi-isms, over-the-top acting and design choices. The film was so grounded in reality though that the thought of seeing Tobey Maguire fight side by side with Captain America seemed ludicrous. Especially because we had seen nothing like it before. Now we have the Disney-produced MCU, with Tom Holland’s Spidey a regular fixture in Avengers films. Sony still has the rights to Spider-Man though, meaning a deal was struck where Spider-Man and his characters were essentially lent to Marvel so that they could do the character justice following the somewhat badly received Andrew Garfield ventures.
Sony, however, wasn’t content with letting Marvel take the reins completely. Riding high off the success of the MCU’s introduction of the webslinger, Sony immediately started developing their own Spider-Man-less spin-off “Villain universe”, opened by Tom Hardy’s Venom (2018). It was middlingly received but thanks to the reputation of the MCU, it made almost a billion dollars. A sequel was greenlit, and the Sony-verse suddenly knew they could rake in their own money off of the loose ties to the successes of the MCU – even if their films were terrible. So, we had Venom 2, which came out last year, again to middling reviews, making only half of what the first film had at the box office, and now we have Morbius… The Jared Leto vehicle, which has been widely panned for almost every aspect of it. Despite it underperforming, at the time of writing sitting on a 160 million return against a 70 million dollar budget, Sony are still adamant on making more. They’ve greenlit and started production on Kraven the Hunter starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the obscure Madame Webb will soon be committed to film and then there’s the Bad Bunny starring El Muerto. Which no one but Bad Bunny asked for; El Muerto has been in only a handful of comics and isn’t even a particularly notable Spider-Man villain.
This is where we get to the “violent capitalism” of it all. None of these films matter. As a girl who grew up reading the comics (all of the comics!) and watching the shows and films, I know a fair bit about how these characters play-off of each other. Venom for example starts out in the comics as a space alien who attaches itself to Spider-Man and then after they split, Venom gets his own Spider-Man-like powers. His design is even based on his old host’s, a large white spider over his black goo chest, and eyes that mirror Spider-Man’s mask. Kraven is, as his title suggests, a hunter. One who is obsessed with taking out big game. He sees Spider-Man as the prize trophy of his collection. A man who is a spider?! Wowee. That is his whole motivation. Morbius could exist on his own, but he is often there to just help out Spider-Man or Blade. He’s not interesting enough to warrant his own film, which is part of the reason why it bombed in the manner it did.
Do you see what I’m getting at? All of these characters exist because of Spider-Man, giving them solo films, without Spider-Man is frankly bizarre. It’s obvious cash-grabbing, instead of making quality, they are just churning out below-average, confusing content that no one really wants in order to hold on to the ownership rights of these characters while making a quick buck off of the MCU’s success in the process. Have you ever been scrolling on Netflix at 2am and seen a cheap-looking film called Guardians of Justice, or something? And its poster is designed to look as close as possible to a mix of Guardians of the Galaxy and Justice League, with similar title fonts, just to capitalize off of big-budget films, and lure you in? You look it up and it was made in Eastern Europe for pittance? That’s how I see the Sony Spider-Verse. It’s leeching, greedy and uses MCU advertising tactics to lure people in. Morbius was even advertised with the tag “A new Marvel legend arrives”. It didn’t arrive. It flopped out of their cesspool onto screens and died quickly. They have no passion for their products, it’s all just a quick grift to make a few bucks.
Universal infamously did the same with their hilariously misguided Monsters Cinematic Universe. Honestly, I’m sick of the phrase cinematic universe. It’s annoying at this point. They had a five-film plan greenlit before their Mummy reboot (2017) was even being filmed. It was too much, too soon. No patience, no care, and the final product was terrible. It was so terrible it killed the whole thing, even after they released a hilariously dated cast photo of their “phase one” lineup. They had Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella, all posed as if this was something we should be grateful for. Again, before the film had even been released… It was insane.
This is the problem with almost every other cinematic universe in development. The DC Cinematic Universe was facing similar problems. It was rudderless until they decided, we can’t ape the MCU. It doesn’t work, people don’t want this, let’s just make standalone things and see what happens, which is why we got the excellent The Batman this year. Not everything has to be a franchise. Not every big film has to have an ensuing fifty film plan laid out for it. Put effort into one film and the rest may follow. It’s like they’re playing catch-up to Marvel without actually understanding how Marvel did it. Iron Man (2008) was a surprise smash hit, it started the MCU we have today and had barely any connections to anything else, aside from easter eggs and a quick cameo at the end. It was a slow ten-year burn, Rome wasn’t built in a day. It all reeks of desperation and carelessness. Just let’s churn whatever we can out as quickly as possible and see what happens.
My point is, if you aren’t already wary of the “franchise” machines in Hollywood, get wary. They’ll take your money and deliver you the bare minimum in return. And if you’re an aspiring filmmaker with a big plan in your head for the future, focus on the building blocks; patience reaps many rewards.
Feature image by Thea Hdc from Unsplash.