Has “Spider-Man” become Hollywood’s most important film franchise?
One could rightfully say that, duh, Peter Parker is part of Marvel, the biggest entertainment brand, so…umm…yeah? But the web-slinging superhero has made a pretty good case for his omnipotence after “No Way Home,” the epic finale in the Tom Holland-led comic book trilogy, obliterated pandemic-era box office records over the weekend, debuting above initial estimates to $260 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Despite concerns over rapidly spreading COVID-19 variants, inaugural ticket sales for “No Way Home” were able to reach rarified heights, and not just by COVID standards. The Sony Pictures film landed the second-highest debut in Hollywood history behind only “Avengers: Endgame” ($357 million). Globally, it has netted $600 million, the third-biggest worldwide launch ever after “Avengers: Endgame” ($1.2 billion) and “Avengers: Infinity War” ($640 million). Pandemic or not, those are some head-spinning figures.
“Spider-Man joins Batman, Superman, and X-Men as the most prolific superhero series of all time. Only a dozen series of any kind have reached nine episodes,” says David A. Gross, who runs the film consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “Needless to say, this template — an awkward introvert leads a double life flying around, using superpowers to right wrongs — works.”
When it comes to comic book lore, Spider-Man strides high on the A-list. Five other superhero adaptations hit theaters this year: Disney’s “Black Widow” ($379 million globally to date), “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” ($432 million globally to date), and “Eternals” ($399 million globally to date), Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” ($498 million globally to date) and the Warner Bros. redo “The Suicide Squad” ($167 million globally to date). After three days in theaters, “No Way Home” has generated significantly more money at the global box office than any of those heroes were able to gross in their entire time on the big screen. (A caveat: “Black Widow” and “The Suicide Squad” debuted simultaneously on streaming services, but even without a hybrid release, they wouldn’t have come close to matching Spidey’s ticket sales — at least not in pandemic times.) If “No Way Home” sustains momentum, it could be the first COVID-era movie to cross $1 billion worldwide. That’s the kind of coinage movie theaters desperately need so they can justify keeping the lights on.
In that respect, “No Way Home” has confirmed at least one truth that has been evident since the onset of COVID-19: Multiplexes have been — and will continue to be — more reliant than ever on superhero spectacles. The latest “Spider-Man” movie collected a ton of money at a time when at least two Oscar-worthy films in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” have tanked at the box office. Audiences are willing to go to theaters — but certainly not for any ol’ movie.
That’s what makes Peter Parker so important.
His longevity is impressive considering the character — previously portrayed by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield — has appeared in eight standalone, live-action films in the past 19 years. (Holland’s take on the teen vigilante has made several appearances in Marvel Cinematic Universe crossover events, such as “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Endgame.”) In the right vehicle, moviegoers may never tire of watching Spider-Man in action on the big screen.
In its current iteration, “Spider-Man” shares important DNA with Disney’s sprawling and ultra-successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has certainly boosted the web-slinger’s profile among Spandex-wearing heroes. But Peter Parker (and foes) also exist at a distance from Doctor Strange, Thor and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. That’s because Sony, which distributes the movies associated with Spider-Man and adjacent characters, has smartly used the brand equity of the MCU to spawn its own separate and expanding film franchise, one that is anchored by baddies like Venom, Morbius and Kraven. Essentially, Sony is enjoying the benefits of its relationship with Marvel twice over: It has the Spider-Man movies that exist in the MCU, and then its separate Marvel movie series.
And that’s only the live-action space. With “Into the Spider-Verse,” which became a surprise box office success in 2018, and its upcoming sequel “Across the Spider-Verse,” Sony has been able to web out its Spider-Man footprint through animation.
Already, Sony has found repeated triumphs in its own Marvel offshoot with “Venom,” based on the antihero played by Tom Hardy. Despite terrible reviews, 2018’s “Venom” struck gold at the box office and collected $212 million domestically and $850 million globally. It was no fluke. The studio’s sequel, 2021’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” generated $90 million in its domestic debut — a pandemic-record until “No Way Home” came along. The PG-13 action adventure tapped out with $212 million in North America and $498 million worldwide, a great result for COVID times and one that likely would have been substantially higher had an extremely contagious virus not rattled the movie theater business. It’s notable that even during plague times, the character isn’t experiencing diminishing returns.
Peter Parker has been similarly resistant to franchise fatigue, at least since Holland has donned the red and blue suit. Though 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” notched a slightly smaller opening-weekend result ($92 million) compared to 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” ($117 million), the second installment in the Holland-led series ended its box office run as the first to cross $1 billion globally. “Homecoming” tapped out with a still-impressive $880 million at the worldwide box office.
“Most big series struggle to maintain their success this late in their run,” Gross adds. “In its 20th year and with its third lead actor, ‘Spider-Man’ is exploding.”
Spider-Man is one of the most well-known comic book characters in existence. Still, box office analysts believe there’s a specific reason why “No Way Home” blew its predecessors out of the water in terms of opening weekend ticket sales. Similar to “Infinity War” and “Endgame,” teased as the most ambitious crossover events in history, the latest Spidey adventure wasn’t your run-of-the-mill superhero origin story a la “Captain Marvel” or “Ant-Man.” In the Jon Watts-directed “No Way Home,” an erupting multiverse paves way for a tantalizingly rare, never-before-seen mashup of villains from Peter Parker’s past, including Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Alfred Molina’s Doctor Otto Octavius from Maguire’s era and Jamie Foxx’s Electro from Garfield’s reign. It’s a nostalgia hook that so effectively capitalizes on two decades of affection and goodwill toward past “Spider-Man” movies, no comic book enthusiast would dare to refuse to watch on the big screen. Moreover, certain actors were heavily teased but never confirmed to return, so people had to go opening weekend to find out who would pop up in the newest adventure.
“Any movie that’s ever claimed the biggest, or one of the biggest, openings has had a hook. That’s how entertainment sells,” says Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Box Office Pro. “Whether it’s the promise of revolutionary special effects, space battles, dinosaurs come to life, adaptations of popular literary material, character crossovers or everything in between, movies always have some hinging element to draw the masses.”
Though “Spider-Man: No Way Home” will almost certainly not be Holland’s last outing as Marvel’s friendly neighborhood web-slinger, it’s natural to question how will lesser-known figures in Spidey’s orbit will fare at the box office at a time when moviegoing has yet return to full strength. Disney’s cavalcade of MCU installments appear to be bulletproof, even though recent entries have been dinged by the pandemic-battered box office. And its 2022 slate returns the spotlight to Marvel’s top shelf vigilantes like Doctor Strange, Thor and Black Panther. They’ll have no trouble selling tickets, and lots of ’em.
For Sony’s Marvel movies, the truer test will be “Morbius,” the oft-delayed thriller starring Jared Leto, which it set to open on Jan. 20, 2022; and “Kraven the Hunter,” with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, currently scheduled for Jan. 13, 2023. Neither character are household names like Spider-Man, and to date, it does not seem as though the web-slinger will appear in either movie — at least, as played by Holland. If those films can connect with audiences, though, it will be a testament to the popularity of all things Marvel Comics.
“The splash effect for other Sony-Marvel adaptations could be significant, but time will tell. Each movie is its own entity from production to marketing to release and reception,” Robbins says. “As easy as Marvel Studios makes it look sometimes, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.”
That means “Morbius” and “Kraven the Hunter,” as well as other Sony-Marvel properties in development, won’t be able to ride the coattails of “Spider-Man” to be successful, even in an era where superheroes reign supreme at the box office. In other words, producers would be keen to heed the words of author Brodi Ashton: “Heroes are made by the paths they choose, not the powers they are graced with.”