Sony has long dreamed of having a cinematic universe of Marvel characters.
In 2014, the studio planned to have “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” launch a series of spinoff films focused on super-villains such as the Green Goblin, Venom and other members of the Sinister Six. However, those plans were put on ice when the sequel disappointed at the box office.
With the success of “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” a reboot of the series that sends Tom Holland as the wall-crawler back to high school, Sony is revisiting its ambitions to create a Spidey-verse. The new film grossed nearly $260 million worldwide in its opening weekend. Sony has already announced a “Venom” stand-alone film, with Tom Hardy playing the super-villain, and is in preproduction on “Silver & Black,” which will pair Black Cat, a jewel thief, with Silver Sable, a mercenary.
As the studio looks beyond “Homecoming,” Columbia Pictures president Sanford Panitch has been immersing himself in the “Spider-Man” comic books and boning up on the backstories of Peter Parker’s various costumed adversaries. The studio has licensed the “Spider-Man” comics from Marvel since the early aughts — it’s a pact that includes rights to roughly 900 characters. “With the Sony universe of Marvel characters, our mission is only to do what’s the absolute best for each individual property,” says Panitch. “I just want to honor the original DNA.”
Ever since Marvel showed the potential of interconnected cinematic universes by having Iron Man, Hulk and other characters team up for Avengers missions before spinning off on individual adventures, other studios have scrambled to come up with their own in-house iterations. Results are mixed. DC Comics’ “Justice League” movies have racked up impressive grosses, but others, such as Universal’s Dark Universe franchise of monster stories, have gotten mashed.
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Marvel has empowered Kevin Feige to oversee its film output, while Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy calls the shots on the “Star Wars” movies. Sony is going in a different direction. The studio isn’t tasking any single exec or producer with building the web of “Spider-Man” characters. Instead, it wants each picture to have a distinct style. That means the characters might be featured in R-rated outings or in lower-budgeted offerings. Sony also isn’t interested in producing just conventional comic-book movies. It sees “Venom” as a spin on a horror film, for instance, while director Gina Prince-Bythewood likens “Silver & Black” to buddy films such as “Thelma & Louise” and “Midnight Run.”
“I wanted to tell the story of two damaged women who are at war with each other but need each other to survive,” says Prince-Bythewood. She’s been looking at the origins of each character in order to explain how Silver Sable became a killer for hire and why Black Cat is drawn to crime. In both cases, she found that the characters were haunted by the deaths of their parents. “Silver & Black” sounds darker than “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which played like a John Hughes comedy with more spandex. That’s precisely the point, says Panitch.
“Superhero movies have now transcended [the point] where they’re no longer superhero movies per se; they are essentially genre movies,” he says. “It’s not so much that characters have a cape and fly. In “Silver & Black,” these two women are modern and cool. … They may wear costumes, but [they’re] very real and very grounded.”
For “Venom,” Sony has tapped director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) to bring the menacing arachnoid to the masses. In the comic books and the film Venom is hatched after reporter Eddie Brock (Hardy) bonds with an alien symbiote — a union that gives him deadly powers. “I’ve always been drawn to the more antihero superheroes,” Fleischer says. “There’s a dark element to [Venom] and a wit that has always appealed to me.”
Fleischer says the film will deal with Venom’s origins and with the Jekyll and Hyde relationship Brock has with the alien symbiote. “They become almost a third being, which is what Venom is,” Fleischer says. “There’s a famous quote: ‘You’re Eddie Brock. I’m the symbiote. Together we are Venom.’”
Panitch says “Venom” will draw on the work of John Carpenter or David Cronenberg while promising “more pop and fun.”
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” marked an unprecedented collaboration between Sony and Marvel. For the first time, Marvel didn’t just collect a licensing fee; it produced the picture. The deal enabled Sony to have appearances by the likes of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. In return, Spider-Man was featured in “Captain America: Civil War” and the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War.” Marvel won’t be involved in “Venom” or “Silver & Black,” and Sony is circumspect about whether or not Spider-Man will make an appearance. “If we get lucky enough to make more than one [Venom film] and continue the franchise, there are lots of opportunities,” Panitch says.
Sony is plunging ahead with films featuring Silver Sable, Black Cat and Venom, and promises to make more announcements in the coming months. Fans would love to see Kraven the Hunter, the maniacal big-game hunter who treats Spidey as prey, make it to the big screen. Panitch shares their enthusiasm even as he deflects questions about a stand-alone Kraven adventure.
“He’s an awesome character,” Panitch says. “Let’s just leave it at that.”