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There’s a Reason Sony’s Spider-Man Universe Is, Frankly, Bizarre

‘Madame Web’ is the latest Sony Spider-Man Universe movie to emanate serious WTF vibes, which was kind of inevitable considering the studio’s strategy for the franchise

Sony/Marvel/Ringer illustration

When Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom arrived over the holidays with minimal marketing and even less fanfare, it felt like a sea change (sorry) for superhero movies. Just as The Lost Kingdom underwhelmingly closed the chapter on the DC Extended Universe, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was in the midst of its worst stretch to date, compounded by The Marvels’ bombing at the box office. Now, in 2024, Marvel and DC are in a bit of a retreat: All DC has on the calendar is Joker: Folie à Deux—a [sigh] musical sequel that’s adding Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn—while Marvel is rolling out Deadpool 3. Given the flood of superhero movies in the theatrical landscape, both studios’ scale-backs this year might prove to be beneficial; perhaps all audiences need is a breather from nonstop superhero programming. There’s just one problem: Sony didn’t get the memo.

In 2024, Sony has three superhero films lined up as part of its Spider-Man extended universe. The most exciting of the bunch is Venom 3, the deranged continuation of Tom Hardy’s dual performance as a perpetually sweaty investigative journalist possessed by an alien parasite. As with Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Hardy has a story credit on Venom 3; its writer-director, Kelly Marcel, previously penned the first Fifty Shades of Grey movie. All signs point to Venom 3 being another bizarro masterpiece with horny, sadomasochistic undertones, and Sony is wisely releasing the film in November—coinciding with the heart of awards season. (In a just universe, Hardy will go up onstage to accept the Oscar for Best Actor before Venom emerges from his body and recites his entire speech from the Let There Be Carnage rave.) But while the world of Venom has a genuinely endearing B-movie sensibility, it’s a quality that isn’t owed to Sony as much as to Hardy’s incredible commitment to the bit, which included spontaneously jumping into a lobster tank in the first film. (Not all heroes wear capes; some of them sow chaos at fine-dining establishments.)

Over the summer, Sony will also release Kraven the Hunter, an R-rated origin story for the eponymous Spider-Man villain, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Kraven the Hunter is far enough out that it’s hard to know what to make of the movie—all we have is a gory trailer to go off of. The same can’t be said for Madame Web, which premieres on Valentine’s Day and has been ridiculed by just about everyone in the lead-up to its release—even Madame Web herself. To understand why Madame Web has turned into a laughingstock, look no further than its notoriously tacky trailer, which features star Dakota Johnson delivering the immortal line “He was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders right before she died.” If memes actually translated to box office success, Madame Web is shaping up to be the new Avatar.

That “researching spiders” line—an algorithmic, preposition-stuffed chunk of exposition—is just one example of the cursed vibes emanating from Madame Web. What else? Well, Madame Web’s costume was initially revealed on an Ocean Spray bottle, Johnson is promoting the film with all the enthusiasm of a hostage video, and a Sony teaser was (poorly) edited to make it seem like the villain will literally explode. The mediocrity on display is so blatant that one journalist opened their third eye and speculated that Madame Web’s marketing is “deliberately terrible,” which is giving Sony a lot of credit.

It should come as little surprise that, of Madame Web’s four (!) credited screenwriters, two of them were also responsible for Morbius: a film so profoundly awful that the internet gleefully dunked on it for months. (Incredibly, Sony believed that the Morbius memes would lead to a renewed interest in the movie, so the studio rereleased it in theaters. Morbius proceeded to … bomb a second time.) It feels like these films were made out of a sense of obligation, rather than any sincere artistic intent—as if an advanced AI program were mandated to create something from a tired collection of superhero tropes. The scary thing is, that’s not too far from the truth.

Ever since Sony acquired the film rights to Spider-Man (and the many characters associated with him) from Marvel in 1999, the studio has been in the superhero business. (Marvel was so cash-strapped back then that Sony had the opportunity to buy most of its superhero roster for as little as $25 million, which is one hell of a Hollywood what-if.) To Sony’s credit, the studio got off to a terrific start: The first two entries of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, are still among the best comic book adaptations ever made. But after Spider-Man 3’s lukewarm reception, Sony did a hard reset, with Andrew Garfield taking over the title role. The Garfield-led Amazing Spider-Man movies didn’t turn out all that amazing, so Sony went back to the drawing board again, this time electing to partner with the ascendant Marvel Cinematic Universe. Through three stand-alone films and several appearances in MCU crossover events, the Tom Holland Spider-Man era has been a crowd-pleasing return to form.

But for all the goodwill Sony built from its MCU partnership—as well as two beloved Spider-Verse films with a game-changing animation style—the studio is caught in something of a devil’s bargain. As The Ringer’s Joanna Robinson explained in an appearance on NPR’s Planet Money, Sony’s deal requires the studio to commence production on a new Spider-Man project within three years and nine months of the preceding movie’s release. Basically, if Sony wants to hold on to arguably its most valuable piece of IP, it must continue green-lighting Spider-Man (or Spidey-adjacent) films in perpetuity. And since there are only so many ways to tell a story about a teenager getting bitten by a radioactive spider before learning that great power comes with great responsibility, the studio is scraping the bottom of the barrel. Former Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal lamented this strange state of affairs in the company’s infamous WikiLeaks email hack, writing, “I only have the spidey universe not the marvel universe. … And in it are only his villains and relatives and girlfriend.”

We are now firmly in the “villains and relatives” stage of Sony’s Spidey universe—Adam Scott is widely tipped to be playing a younger Uncle Ben in Madame Web—and it’s no great secret that these movies are part of a brazen attempt to hold on to the rights of a financial gold mine. What’s more, Peter Parker himself has barely factored into these offshoots: Holland’s character makes only a cameo in the mid-credits scene for Venom: Let There Be Carnage, while Michael Keaton’s Vulture does the same in Morbius to tease a potential Sinister Six team-up that may never happen. Holland, for his part, sounds iffy on returning for another Spider-Man film, unless it was “worth the while of the character.” Suffice it to say, I’m not sure any of these spinoffs will have Holland clamoring to don the Spidey suit again.

So what does that mean going forward? Well, it should only be a matter of time before Sony capitalizes on the universal acclaim for the Spider-Verse series with a live-action Miles Morales movie. (As a fellow Miles, I will always support such endeavors.) But on the whole, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the creative well has run dry for Sony: a studio trapped in a Sisyphean loop where every iteration of Spider-Man pushes back the termination of the characters’ film rights. A movie like Madame Web is the cinematic equivalent of hitting the snooze button; box office performance notwithstanding, its ultimate value to Sony is helping delay the inevitable.

It’s still possible for Sony’s Spider-Man universe to produce some entertaining gems within such a restrictive framework. (I’m honestly afraid to admit how many times I’ve watched Venom, a masterpiece of so-bad-it’s-good cinema.) Virtually every blockbuster has to contend with the inherent friction between art and commerce: how much a filmmaker can put their own unique stamp on a project, and what concessions must be made to satisfy a studio’s bottom line. The problem with Sony is that the scales are tipped toward a corporate strategy that requires more and more artists to play in the same Spidey sandbox that’s been used since the start of the century. The longer this goes on, the greater the risk that Sony follows in Marvel and DC’s footsteps, oversaturating the market with all-too-familiar superhero movies until audiences cut bait. It’s hard to imagine Madame Web changing the studio’s fortunes, or for the Spider-Man extended universe to sustain interest without the presence of its title character. As fate would have it, Sony is caught in a web of its own making.