“We are going to access Marvel’s full world of Spider-Man characters, so be on the lookout for new heroes and villains.” Those were Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal's words of reassurance to investors during a media conference call last week.
It's no surprise to hear that Sony has big plans for its Spider-Man movie franchise. Amazing Spider-Man 2 hits theatres in May 2014 with Andrew Garfield reprising his role as Peter Parker, and further installments are planned for 2016 and 2018. But the success of Marvel's own "cinematic universe" makes the expansion of Sony's Spider-Man universe seem inevitable, which leads to the question: where might Sony take the franchise next?
Sony needs the Spider-Man franchise. It's one of the biggest properties the studio has. Branching that franchise off into multiple properties the way Marvel has done with its line, or the way Fox plans to do with its X-Men cinematic universe, is the smart play.
Except Fox's X-Men universe is expansive; Marvel's cinematic universe is broader still; they have multiple teams and solo stars between them they can use to launch pictures, from Deadpool to Ant-Man, from X-Force to Runaways. The Spider-Man franchise of comics is much more centered on just one character. So how can Sony make spin-offs? We have a few ideas.
Venom is sticky. I don't mean he's goo (but, yes, he's goo); I mean he's an easy idea to sell; an alien that bonds with a human and gives them extraordinary power but also threatens to turn them into a monster. It's an appealing superhorror concept and a rich treacly seam of drama.
Unfortunately for Sony he already appeared in the worst of its four Spider-Man movies, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3, and they'd need to re-tred that ground to reintroduce him in the new continuity. Maybe they'd do a better job of it this time? They could even conceivably launch the character without Spider-Man, as a completely isolated franchise. Weird, yes, but not inconceivable.
Venom would easily support a franchise, because he can wander from one host to another like a vile sooty liquefied Littlest Hobo of evil. He even has his own villains and variants for the sequels -- Carnage, Toxin, Scream, Anti-Venom. But those are mostly terrible.
Black Cat is easy to do because she's a sexy lady cat-themed thief in a skin-tight black costume, and who wouldn't want to see a movie about... oh, right. Warner Bros. tried this with a solo film based on DC's Catwoman, that lame Black Cat rip-off who mysteriously pre-dates Black Cat by almost forty years.
Despite Warner Bros' unerring ability to make everyone who isn't Batman seem s***ty and boring (and also maybe Batman as well), I think the adventures of Felicia Hardy, cat burglar, could make for a wonderfully entertaining movie. Her biggest obstacle is her resemblance to Catwoman, but it may be far too late for Warner Bros. to do anything about that, and if Sony plays up her luck powers, that would help set the character apart. Pit her against the Owl or the Scorpion or the Chameleon, and you've got yourself a movie.
Speaking of the bad guys... It's already rumored that the Amazing Spider-Man movie series is gearing up for some version of a Spider-Man versus the Sinister Six storyline, with Rhino and Electro both debuting in next year's movie, and Lizard already on the board. Purists will point out that only Electro was in the original Sinister Six, but all three have been members at some point, and who knows, they may throw in Norman Osborn or Harry Osborn as well.
I don't think a standalone movie about the Sinister Six or any of Spider-Man's villains is very likely, but a movie about a villain taking a redemptive journey towards heroism has got to be a possibility. Perhaps a Harry Osborn Green Goblin movie? Or the moving story of Paste Pot Pete's second chance at an honest life?
Here's a tricky one. Who owns the rights to a movie version of Spider-Woman? Ask the internet, and you'll hear some very sure opinions from people who definitely don't work at either Marvel or Sony.
The first Spider-Woman, Jessica Drew, has no real connection to Spider-Man, except that she was created to prevent any other publisher from trademarking the name. The same codename was later used by characters who were more closely tied to (and more obviously derivative of) Spider-Man. Julia Carpenter and Mattie Franklin wore versions of Spider-Man costumes, and Franklin actually debuted in a Spider-Man comic.
Our own inquiries suggest Spider-Woman exists in the space between legal worlds, which may in fact decrease the likelihood of her appearing anywhere. But we'd be surprised if either studio didn't kick up a stink if the other tried to use the Spider-Woman name, ending up in a situation like Fox and Marvel in their tussle over Quicksilver, where both studios adamantly assert their claim to the character and neither side wants to be first to blink.
If Sony does take steps to make a Spider-Woman movie, expect Jessica Drew to suddenly and inexplicably pop up at the nearest available soundstage for a Marvel production.
Anya Corazon's Spider-Girl might be the safer option.
There are other major solo heroes inextricably tied to the Spider-Man canon. Unfortunately, they're all also Spider-Man.
Hopefully no-one at Sony wants to touch the Clone Saga, and it wouldn't make much sense anyway. Andrew Garfield as Ben Reilly in one franchise and Peter Parker in the other? No. I don't think we'll see Ben Reilly's Scarlet Spider on the screen. Kaine, the deformed clone of the most recent Scarlet Spider comics series, is more viable. Better yet, Sony could ditch the clones and come up with some other origin for the Scarlet Spider. But it's still not a very good idea. It would still be two franchises with essentially the same character. Regretfully I'd rule out Miguel O'Hara, Spider-Man 2099, for the same reason.
But then there's Miles Morales. The younger, black-Latino Spider-Man could carry a franchise more deliberately aimed at kids, with clear appeal to an audience that wants to see non-white heroes on the screen.
I wrote before about the unique challenges of placing Miles Morales in the same universe as Peter Parker in the comics, and those challenges would also be present on the screen -- you can't have two Spider-Men at once, for example -- but if there's a way for Sony to put Miles Morales in a movie, I want to see it.
It sucks to be a non-spider-themed superhero in the Spider-Man books. But those guys are out there. Puma. Rocket Racer. Cardiac. Prowler. And they're mostly lame-os. But the movies could make any of these guys cool. It seems unlikely, because the comics certainly never managed it, but it could happen.
(Look, I know all these guys are someone's favourite. I was basically in love with Puma when I was thirteen. But let's be realistic.)
There are two characters in this menagerie with potential. First, Dr Michael Morbius, science vampire. He's a science vampire. If Sony can't do something with that, they deserve to have Spider-Man taken away from them.
Second, Slingers. Wait, wait, hear me out. I know no-one really cares about the Slingers, the four teenage heroes who were inspired to take up costumed identities that Spider-Man had briefly used and then discarded. But they were decent hero concepts, and they're basically a blank slate. Ample potential. One previous owner.
Cloak & Dagger should qualify as Spider-Man spin-offs, but the fact that Marvel has previously touted the characters for a possible Marvel Studios-produced live action TV show would seem to indicate that Sony doesn't have the rights. Silver Sable might be in contention, but as much as I love the character, I'm not confident of the franchise potential for a mercenary with no super-powers from a fictional Eastern European country.
The biggest and best-developed free-standing concept in Spider-Man's fictional universe is the newspaper where Peter Parker sometimes works -- and there's surely stories to be told about an anti-superhero newspaper in a superhero universe, especially with a character as compelling as J Jonah Jameson at the helm. (Also Robbie Robertson, Glory Grant, Betty Brant. Maybe not Ben Urich, who was previously tied up with the Daredevil rights that have now reverted to Marvel.)
The Daily Bugle may not be a movie concept, but Sony Pictures also makes television shows, including The Blacklist, Community, Hannibal, and Masters of Sex. A TV show set in the offices of the Daily Bugle could be Sony's answer to Agents of SHIELD or Fox's planned Gotham TV show. And Sony might actually get away with having Spider-Man appear in the show -- in photos, on TV, in the distance swinging through the streets - so long as they didn't ever show Peter Parker.
A Bugle show without Peter Parker might seem like a strange idea, but the truth is any Spider-Man spin-off is going to seem strange without Peter Parker. That's the challenge Sony has set for itself.