Part 1: Send In The B-Team
Looking at Marvel today, it would be easy to assume that they have always been as successful as they are. Though you’d be wrong because, before they were purchased by Disney, even before they launched their movie production arm, Marvel Studios, they were flirting with bankruptcy.
To stop the bleeding, they licensed the rights to their most successful characters to 21st Century Fox, Sony, Universal and New Line (Marvel received a percentage every time a film was produced with their heroes).
So 21st Century got the X-Men and related characters (and exclusive use of the term ‘mutants’) as well as the Fantastic Four. Sony got Spider-Man and related characters, while Universal had the Hulk and Namor the Submariner (Marvel’s Namor in terms of his abilities is similar to DC’s Aquaman, except stronger and more awesome).
But Marvel knew that no one could exploit their characters better than they could, so they threw the ultimate ‘Hail Mary’ pass. To get a loan to build their own studio they borrowed on the strength of their remaining characters.
In other words, it was time for the B-Team to take the field, and Iron Man was released in 2008. The movie was directed by John Favreau and starred Robert Downey Jr–an actor who at the time was known more of his drug use than his acting ability–and went on to earn almost $600 million (on a $140 million dollar production budget).
Marvel Studios was born, and they were eventually purchased by the Walt Disney Company for $4 billion dollars in 2009 (some analysts thought Disney had overpaid. They were wrong.).
Part 2: Raimi’s Spider-Man Films
As I said earlier Sony licensed Marvel’s Spider-Man and in 2002 released Spider-Man. Sam Raimi, known primarily for the Evil Dead series of movies, was chosen to direct. He cast Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson. The first film cost $139 million to produce, and earned almost $822 million dollars worldwide; a very tidy profit.
Spider-Man 2, introduced Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and was considered the best in the series. It was more expensive than the first film, clocking in at $200 million and eventually pulled in almost $784 million dollars worldwide.
Still profitable, though not quite as much as the first film.
Spider-Man 3, the last film in the series directed by Raimi, cost $258 million, and earned almost $891 million dollars. What set it apart from the earlier films was that it featured three villains, Sandman, Venom and the New Goblin (that’s actually what the character is called on IMDB). Raimi fully expected to direct Spider-Man 4–even after being forced by producer Avi Arad to use Venom, a character he didn’t want in the movie, or like for that matter. In retribution he cast Topher Grace as Eddie Brock/Venom because Arad thought he was a bad choice for the role.
Spider-Man 3 did very well, despite being the worse reviewed of the series. Sam Raimi was apparently prepping the fourth film in the series, before his deal fell through. As a result he was out and the entire franchise rebooted just five years later.
Part 3: Enter: The Amazing Spider-Man
Raimi was replaced Marc Webb, director of a relatively low budget ($7 million) movie, (500) Days of Summer. Despite being bigger than anything he had done before, Webb took the challenge, though the relaunch didn’t stop with a new director. Tobey Maguire was also out, replaced by Andrew Garfield. Kirsten Dunst was replaced with…no one because Mary Jane Watson hasn’t yet been introduced in Webb’s films as a love interest for Peter Parker. Instead they went with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), which is more in line with the comics (Webb planned to introduce Mary Jane in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but her scenes were cut).
But something went wrong with The Amazing Spider-Man. For reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on when I first saw it, it bugged me. It was technically proficient, but joyless. It also recall that it had a very disjointed quality and felt less like a complete feature than a bunch of scenes joined together and called a movie. It felt unwieldy and out of control. It was the biggest film Marc Webb directed at the time, and it showed.
Which brings me back to Marvel Studios and their introduction of the idea of a series of individual, yet interconnected movies culminating in a massive “event” film that brought all the major characters of the individual films together. It started with Iron Man, followed by The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and culminating in The Avengers. And it’s worth mentioning that Marvel Studios’ Cinematic Universe concept extended to television, and includes Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as Marvel’s Agent Carter and the upcoming shows based on Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Jessica Jones, from their deal with Netflix.
This idea of a series of interconnected films has been very successful for Marvel; and if success does nothing else, it breeds imitators.
Which has a lot to do with the way The Amazing Spider-Man is being differentiated from the movies directed by Sam Raimi. Some of the changes were relatively minor: in Raimi’s movies Spider-Man had organic web shooters, while Webb’s version it’s closer to the comics in that his web shooters are mechanical, an invention by Peter, along with his web fluid.
Though other differences aren’t so minor. In Webb’s reboot Oscorp is at the center of the web and apparently the source of all the super-powered characters in Sony’s Spiderverse, including Spider-Man.
This was a major change, and in my eyes an unwelcome one because it takes an origin that was relatively simple–guy gets bit by a radioactive spider, gains superpowers, let’s a thief go, who ends up shooting his Uncle Ben, teaching him that with great power comes great responsibility–and makes it messy and needlessly complex, with numerous conspiracies involving around Oscorp and Peter’s parents.
It’s not that it’s a terrible idea, in and of itself. It’s just that it makes things unnecessarily convoluted–especially when you’re dealing with a character who’s simplicity is part and parcel of who he is.
Then there’s the five year gap between Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 and Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man. That isn’t much time between reboots, and some people think that by doing so it’s leading to “Spider-Man fatigue.”
And while it’s too early to tell if that’s what’s happening, I think that The Amazing Spider-Man dominating the American box-office for only one week is a definite sign.
By way of comparison, Captain America: The Winter Soldier held that spot for three.
Part 4: It’s All About The Spin-Offs
Though there’s a method to Sony’s madness. Their idea is to generate new properties based on the Spiderverse. This is despite the fact that they have not introduced any other heroes (which is really strange when you think about it because there are many connected to Spider-Man that Sony probably has the license to use) which probably has a lot to do with their plans to do a Sinister Six feature.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 features three villains: Electro (Jamie Foxx), the Green Goblin (James DeHaan), and the Rhino (Paul Giamatti), which is at least two villains too many. How do I know? It’s an example of history repeating because the biggest problem with Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 was that there were TOO MANY VILLAINS. When you have that many it’s distracting because somebody isn’t going to get screen time.
And from what I hear, it’s the Rhino.
Which gets the heart of my argument. Spider-Man is a premiere character, along with the X-Men, that Marvel has yet Sony doesn’t seem to understand him, or how to use him most effectively (or what they do with him makes very little sense, which is pretty much the same thing).
That’s not to imply that Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t making gobs of money. So far it’s taken in $553 million (as of this writing) at the domestic and foreign box office, which is a lot of money.
The problem is that when you take into account that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 cost somewhere in the ballpark of $250 million to produce and at least $200 million more to promote, it means that it’s not going to see anything in the way of profit till it joins the Billion Dollar Club.
And it might get there, though considering that it was driven out of the No. 1 position by Neighbors, and with Godzilla and X-Men: Days Of Future Past coming in the next few weeks, The Amazing Spider-Man may be running out of gas.
Which does not bode well for the future of the character, though he may do better in the next reboot…