11 Feb 2015

Thought Balloon: THE SONY AND MARVEL DEAL OVER SPIDER-MAN: A CAUTIONARY REACTION

Stewart R: There’s no missing it: the news that Spider-Man is going to be allowed to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies is certain to be one of the Hollywood stories of the year for 2015. Having been in Sony’s hands exclusively for two decades and change, having starred in five blockbuster films, across two iterations, steered by two directors and played by two different leading men, and having grossed over $4 billion worldwide as a franchise (when adjusted for inflation), our web-head’s live action playground just got even bigger.

Under the new agreement, Sony still retain the rights to the character and creative control of any solo outings for him, as well as spin-offs for his supporting cast, but Marvel Studios President, Kevin Feige, the face of Marvel’s successful track record through 8 years of film production and release, will co-produce Sony’s next Spider-Man film alongside the company’s former co-chairman (before the recent hacking nastiness), Amy Pascal. Marvel are also free to have Spider-Man appear in any of their upcoming movies through a very busy calendar filled with projects over the next 5 years and feasibly, beyond.

This news is certainly promising, bringing as it does Marvel’s most recognisable and bankable character back into their direct plans, albeit in co-star and cameo roles. It definitely helps to broaden Marvel’s available A-List cast for events considering that it remains somewhat depleted by the absence of the 20th Century Fox controlled X-Men and Fantastic Four properties, but could all of this excitement be a touch premature? Being the skeptic and mild pessimist that I am, I suspect this could prove to be a bumpier transition and agreement than the initial excitement alludes to.

Off the bat, there has been mention that Andrew Garfield - the Amazing Spider-Man and second Peter Parker - will likely not return to don the red and blue suit again. He has been vocal in his opinion and criticism of studio meddling during production of 2014’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, and it seems that some executives up the chain at Sony believe that a) at 31 he may be too old to carry the series through another two or three movies, and b) his angsty portrayal of Peter Parker has been something of a turn off for audiences which has added to,and resulted in, the continued decline in worldwide attendances for Spider-Man movies following the Amazing reboot/relaunch.

$709 million worldwide is no small achievement, especially in the blockbuster heavy and somewhat action-weary schedule that was 2014, but it’s probably around 30% off of the adjusted total take for 2007’s Spider-Man 3, and was significantly down at the US domestic box office compared to The Amazing Spider-Man. It just scraped over the $200 million mark by the time cinemas replaced it with other Summer blockbuster efforts. If certain sites and reports are to be believed, that means that ASM2 failed to recoup its $255 million production budget at home in its most faithful market and against several other comic book movies which performed marginally or significantly better that year. As has been stated, a $709 million global box office marks ASM2 as the eighth most successful Sony movie of all time, but that’s little consolation to a studio who believe that such a prominent property should be breaking records - either studio or regional (worldwide seems out of range) - upon each release.

And so it seems that they’ve now surrendered to something akin to common sense and brought the tried, tested and importantly, friendly mentor in to deal with the troubled and wayward child. But, as mentioned, the face of that ‘child’ won’t apparently be Garfield. It’s at this juncture that some crucial decisions need to be made, and rather quickly if everyone is to be happy with the deal and everything locked in by the time 2016 rolls around.

The very important thing to note in pretty much all of the announcements around this deal is that Peter Parker barely gets a mention. The Marvel announcement article itself only has Sony Pictures president, Doug Belgrad mention Peter. Marvel themselves seem rather quiet on the subject at this time. Hordes of fans, both comic book and film, will scream to the high heavens of Asgard that Peter Parker IS Spider-Man, yet we’ll have to sit by and wait to see if it is Peter claiming the Spider-Man mantle he created. Twitter and other social media were of course stirred by the thrilling (for some, not me) possibility that we might see a Miles Morales Spider-Man as seen in Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man series. With little mention of Peter, and the faint waft of franchise stagnancy in the air, surely Miles could be a consideration, especially if Sony, and particularly Marvel, wanted to increase the diversity of the heroes being unleashed upon the silver screen?

But here’s the rub: who owns the rights to Miles Morales? Sony bought the rights to a Peter Parker Spider-Man way back in the '90s, some ten years before Bendis even came up with Miles for Marvel’s Ultimate universe and so Marvel own the rights to Miles Morales, but couldn’t have him be Spider-Man without Sony’s say so via legal agreement. Neither could we expect Marvel to sign away any rights for any of their currently held characters like it found itself doing when close to bankruptcy many years ago, when the bidding process began for all of these wandering lambs, whose new shepherds now refuse to let them return to the flock.  If Sony wanted to bet on another rejuvenation of the series, so quickly after it restarted things with Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield, it might be a consideration, but it’s hard to see such a shake up and gamble being a desirable prospect for a studio looking for guaranteed improvement from this deal and with no guarantee that Marvel couldn’t turn around and remove the character should relations between the company sour.
Miles Morales has appeared in more Marvel series and media in recent years
With Garfield potentially gone (I'll hold out hope that he could return), this will lead to a new casting and at this stage I’d like to bring out a few instances which suggest the superhero genre is not the surefire win pool we’re led to believe, especially when recasting is involved.

Consider if you will, the green-skinned, gamma-enhanced powerhouse that is the Hulk, one of Marvel’s other highly recognizable characters. He was undeniably the stand out surprise for Joss Whedon’s Avengers, and Mark Ruffalo garnered plaudits as the latest Bruce Banner. Yet he’s the third actor to play the role in a 10 year period following Eric Bana’s understated performance in Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk and then Ed Norton’s plain, down the line depiction five years later in the Marvel controlled The Incredible Hulk. Neither of those films set the world alight and since Avengers, there have been rumblings about Hulk solo projects, but nothing has yet appeared in the Marvel slate. This could suggest that there’s some doubt on how the studio can get audiences engaged en masse to see Hulk action tied together with protracted Bruce Banner story in the near term, even with Ruffalo in the lead.

Glancing over to 20th Century Fox’s superhero barn it’s clear to see that they’ve struggled in the relaunch stakes and with the ability to maintain interest in returning characters. In similar fashion to the Spider-Man series, they gave X-Men a reboot/reinvigoration after a growing initial trilogy with X-Men: First Class which failed to hold the global ticket boon that came with the brand and only pulled things back when the previous cast bolstered the ranks of Fassbender, Lawrence and McAvoy in last year’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past. The amusing thing to be seen here is that DOFP grossed $748 million at the worldwide box office and is regarded as a true success for the studio, while ASM2 was just $39m behind, albeit with a 20% higher production budget.

Do changing faces make for changing and unstable audience numbers?

I’ll also add that Wolverine is easily a Top 5 bankable Marvel character - and Hugh Jackman a Top 10 bankable star - yet he’s been unable to break out and become a true money spinner for Fox on the big screen through two spin-off outings.

It seems crazy to throw Fantastic Four a nod in here seeing as how the previous films are not held in high regard and didn’t rake in the bucks, but with Fant4stic marking the reboot of that franchise this coming Summer, with a new rehashed origin and altered casting to comic book canon, Fox must be looking at the recent Spider-Man and the X-Men outings and be worrying slightly that audiences don’t necessarily flock to sweeping change.

And here’s where I get to the big, glaring problem with Spider-Man as a movie character as this latest deal settles in the mind. We regular readers of Spider-Man comics continue to pick up the adventures of this hero, month on month, year after year, because we enjoy the ongoing trials and tribulations that he faces in his everyday life and his crime fighting shenanigans. Escalation is fine, but for every grandstand event that is thrown our way, we do like to calm back down with quieter, grittier or even throwaway stories to reset the balance and most importantly of all, expand upon the growing, flourishing continuity. Change is present of course, but we always know where the centre is. And Marvel as a publisher seem to know that, even through writer and artist changes. As a Picture Company however, it could be said that Sony don’t quite seem to know what their audiences want in this regard (note: we do have to throw the notion of $709 million out the window to support that claim… yes, $709 million! I know, right?!).

Sony initially provided us with a trilogy that escalated and sped through Parker’s journey from high school to college and left us with an adult hero after five years and just 6-7 hours of screen time. Then, with their second attempt, they certainly gave us something better paced, slower, measured, possibly something that could be regarded as ‘quieter’ in places, but mired by the need/desire of the studio to actively start again and set itself apart from what had come before. The monthly comic book model of escalation and de-escalation doesn’t appear to work for movie series and audiences hungry for two hours of escapist experience. Certainly, movie plot pacing would render most comic titles as either done-in-8-issue miniseries, or ongoing books with heroes and villains becoming middle aged after just four years of publication.


My, they grow up so quickly, don't they...
To be honest, 21st Century cinema is walking knee-deep in territory that many studios haven't experienced to any great length before. Outside of James Bond, there haven't been many ongoing cinematic series in the past three decades that centre around the one returning character, or set of characters, in one shot, or small arc, episodic stories. Star Trek could be considered here, though its box office appeal was limited and the TV series pushed the character development forward with the films taking shape as bigger budget episodes. Even long running series like Harry Potter were built and produced with a definitive ending in sight thanks to the confines of their source material. Escalation was the key and the foot was never coming off the pedal until the curtain had closed. It could be said that Spider-Man at this stage would be better suited to the ongoing, open-ended serialisation that television offers, with a thousand great Spider-Man stories to utilise as source material as well as the continuing production of monthly comics, but it seems that budget restraints and difficulty to garner huge, blockbuster-worthy profit from a syndication model still make that an unsuitable prospect.

Sony and Marvel are therefore in a difficult position. Do they continue on with Sony’s plans for Amazing Spider-Man, rather than risk restarting the story yet again? Do they stick with their current leading man, a fine Peter Parker for sure, but who at 31 may find it harder and harder to portray a character 10-15 years his junior? Do they change the face of the series if they do stay on the same path, hoping that audiences engage and relate to him? Do they contemplate changing the character inside the mask - here’s Miles Morales talk again... or Ben Reilly? - and in doing so destabilise the franchise’s shaky centre further still? Looking back through the previous five Spider-Man films, even with critical blips and occasional plot holes their standard is pretty high overall and it's a harder prospect to improve upon mediocre or decent predecessors than disappointing ones (see Fantastic Four)! 


I suspect that what we’ll see will be an introduction of a new, younger actor as Peter Parker in the mix during Captain America: Civil War and then the continuation of the Sinister Six plans Sony set in motion through the two previous Amazing films. With a new actor onboard and Feige’s experience and intuition used to retool and tweak the idea, maintaining consistency in the process and building the escalation slowly, it could still work. Arguably, with the Peter/Gwen - Garfield/Stone chemistry now done with on ASM and Peter’s story left incredibly open-ended, it’s the perfect time for an actor swap and fresh creative input if Sony and Marvel do want to go that way and the Sinister Six storyline guarantees a blockbuster focus and broadening of cast.

For what it’s worth I’d actually LOVE to see Andrew Garfield play his Peter Parker in Civil War. He epitomised the wise-cracking element of a teenage Spider-Man perfectly, capturing the ill-advised swagger and youthful naivety that comes with great power perfectly. The prospect of him bantering with Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Nick Fury on screen would be truly unmissable.

If Garfield isn’t to return, any incoming actor has to instantly encapsulate everything about the webbed-wonder in a very short space of time and amongst a group of established personalities. If that weren’t enough he’ll then have to make a distinguished mark and carry a franchise where the parent studio believes it to be flagging and try and boost bums on seats numbers from 'respectable' to the level that brings in a billion dollar haul from around the world.

With a great role evidently, will come great, great, great responsibility...
more than we've ever seen before with Marvel related movies.

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