“Venom,” the highly anticipated comic book adaptation that hits theaters in October, isn’t just an attempt to do justice to the legendary symbiote after a lackluster appearance in 2007’s “Spider-Man 3.” It’s also a big-budget bet by Sony Pictures that the world of Spider-Man can spawn an inter-connected series of superhero movies to rival what Disney has created with its Marvel characters and what Warner Bros. is attempting to pull of with its DC Comics heroes and villains.
With Disney’s acquisition of Fox’s film studio, Sony is now the only major studio outside of the Magic Kingdom with the licensing rights to Marvel characters. Fox has long had rights to “Fantastic Four” and “The X-Men,” pillars of the Marvel empire, that will now thanks to the magic of a multi-billion dollar corporate merger, be able to interact with Captain America, Iron Man, and other members of the Avengers. All told, Sony’s licensing pact with Marvel includes rights to roughly 900 characters.
If all goes according to plan, and long-lead box office tracking indicates that the film will at least open well, then Sony will quickly segue from “Venom” into a series of sequels and standalone films featuring heroes and villains who populate the Spider-Man universe. Sony has already announced plans to make “Morbius,” with Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House”) directing Jared Leto as the titular vampire and frequent Spidey nemesis, and has lined up Richard Wenk (“The Equalizer 2”) to write a screenplay focused on Kraven the Hunter. The studio is also in the process of developing movies based on Silk, Jackpot, and Nightwatch, and is actively looking for writers to pen scripts.
“We’re focused on being faithful to the comics,” said Sanford Panitch, president of Columbia Pictures, and the executive who has been overseeing what is being dubbed internally, Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters, or SUMC.
Some of Sony’s previously announced plans for Spider-Man and company are being reworked. Namely, the studio is scrapping “Silver & Black,” which was supposed to chronicle the team of Silver Sable, a mercenary who runs a company that hunts war criminals, and Black Cat, a burglar named Felicia Hardy. Instead, the characters will be in standalone films, the first of which will likely feature Black Cat.
“We believe Black Cat is enough of her own character with a great backstory and a canon of material to draw from to justify her own film,” said Panitch.
Although a final decision has yet to be made, Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Secret Life of Bees”), the writer and director who was originally attached to make “Silver & Black,” will likely depart the project. She will, however, remain on board as a producer of both the Black Cat and Silver Sable films. If Prince-Bythewood does leave, Sony is adamant that she will be replaced by another female director. Sony is also eager to work with Prince-Bythewood on other projects.
Black Cat likely won’t be the only woman to anchor one of Sony’s Marvel movies. The studio is leaning in to female stories at a time when there’s pressure on Hollywood to create more movies featuring women and minorities. Silk, for instance, is a Korean-American super-heroine, while Jackpot no twenty-something masked vigilante an older heroine, likely in her mid-forties, which is unique in a geek culture that prizes youth.
“Spider-Man connects to a lot of the characters,” said Panitch. “There are villains, heroes, and antiheroes, and a lot are female characters, many of whom are bona fide, fully dimensionalized, and utterly unique.”
“We feel there’s no reason the Marvel characters shouldn’t be able to embrace diversity,” he added.
Sony also plans to experiment with budget ranges on the films it makes, and has even publicly said it is open to making comic book movies in the vein of “Logan” or “Deadpool” that are for more adult audiences. This winter, the studio is releasing Lord & Miller’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” an animated adventure that features Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager who assumes Spider-Man’s mantle. The film is viewed as being its own entity and will not be part of Sony’s planned movie universe. However, the choice of title character reflects Sony’s diversity push — it’s a commitment that is also highlighted by the studio’s casting of Tessa Thompson in its “Men in Black” reboot” and the additions of Ella Balinska and Naomi Scott to its new “Charlie’s Angels” film.
It’s unlikely that “Venom” will be the first R-rated Sony Marvel movie. Trailers for the film, which recently underwent reshoots in Los Angeles after shooting in Georgia, emphasized the horror movie elements, showing the title character as he’s about to bite a person’s head off. But some members of Sony’s brain trust believe that the film should push the very limits of PG-13 without crossing over into a higher rating. The feeling is that will give the studio greater leeway for future installments that will feature Spider-Man, something “Venom” does not do. Any Spider-Man movie will carry a PG-13 rating because the wall-crawler is more family friendly, and if “Venom” is too dark and gory, it might preclude other film match-ups, not just with Peter Parker’s alter-ego, but also with other members of the extended Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Venom is one of the darker characters in the comics, but Hardy and director Ruben Fleischer are working to inject humor into the story of a journalist whose body and mind are taken over by an alien entity.
Sony is deviating from the Marvel and DC models in another important respect. Marvel’s movies are overseen by Kevin Feige, and Walter Hamada calls the shots on all of the DC movies. At Sony, there’s not one uber-boss. Panitch is tasked with getting the cinematic universe into shape, but the various projects are more producer-driven. Former Sony film chief Amy Pascal is producing the next Spider-Man film and Silk, Sony executive Palak Patel played a key role in “Venom” and is overseeing “Morbius,” and Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach are producing several of the Sony Marvel movies.
Marvel and Sony have strengthened their ties in recent years. Part of the reason is that the studios joined forces on “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” with Marvel coming on board as a producer. In exchange, Sony allowed Spider-Man to appear in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Captain America: Civil War.” Sony is open to having other characters from its Spider-Man films pop up in Marvel movies that are produced under the Disney aegis, and would presumably also like to see an Avenger or two cameo in its own movies.