We live in an odd age of movie news and movie reporting. With the budgets for blockbusters getting increasingly bigger and the stagnation of the mainstream low-to-mid tiered budget arena, big studios are relying on sequels and big cinematic universe plans to find success. As a result, it seems like every week we’re learning about a $200M+ sequel, spin-off or piece of franchise material. For crying out loud, we have Marvel and DC movies planned for 4 years time without any stars, writers or directors attached. With only so many dollars to go around and with a finite amount of audience tolerance, will all of these actually get made?
Ask yourself, do you think all 600 projects that Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson has attached himself to over the past two years will make it over the finish line?
Today is a reminder of what can happen when best laid plans can go horribly wrong. Where the need to plan ahead and the need for sequel-baiting can horribly bite a studio on the behind. Today is June 10th, 2016; the original release date of Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man 3.
This write-up won’t be a 2,000+ word bashing on The Amazing Spider-Man franchise, but Hollywood has a lot to learn from Sony and Marc Webb’s attempts to create a cinematic universe in the wake of Marvel Studios‘ global domination. This is a cautionary tale of what happens when a movie studio’s eyes are too big for their stomachs, of what happens when producers run amok and when the need to get a movie made is more important than getting a movie right. Because, make no mistake, while The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t without merit and has a few novel ideas, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an example where anything that could have gone wrong with a blockbuster went wrong and, if it wasn’t for the fact that the superhero sub-genre is more successful now than it’s ever been, could have sank the entire enterprise much like Batman & Robin did in 1996.
So… what did Sony do wrong?
Instead of a structure-less rant (because, the easier question is what did Sony do RIGHT?), let’s break down 5 reasons as to why this planned The Amazing Spider-Man Cinematic Universe failed so badly:
Rampant Over-Spending & Producer Interference
How can your movie be successful if the budgets are so out of control that it’s impossible to make a profit, and the people at the top have no idea what they’re doing?
Sam Raimi was booted from Spider-Man 4, because he wanted to take a year to work on the story and have the movie released for 2012, instead of the proposed 2011 release date… even though The Amazing Spider-Man was released in 2012 anyway. Sony then brought in director Marc Webb whose only movie at that time was the low-budget romance (500) Days of Summer. The plan was to drastically lower the budget and make a movie that focused more on Peter Parker’s time at high school and his romance with Gwen Stacy, hence why Sony hired a director with zero big-budget experience. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone were brought on board and all seemed to be going in an interesting direction.
However, producer interference caused the project to change course and its priorities. The movie’s budget ballooned to a whopping $230M which made it more expensive than The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. That budget also doesn’t include the marketing, and that money does not show up on screen, as you can see from the poor Lizard effects and swinging sequences — mostly because Marc Webb was not experienced or equipped to direct a VFX-heavy blockbuster meaning we have a movie that came almost a decade later than Spider-Man 2, but doesn’t look nearly as good.
Instead of learning their lessons for The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the budget got even bigger with reports ranging from $200M to as high as $293M (if it’s the latter, that would make it the third most expensive movie ever made behind the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films). Not only was the money, once again, not on the screen thanks to generally terrible VFX work, but the marketing budget was thought to be at least $200M, double the money that most movies put into their marketing.
Sony has always been generally bad at marketing their franchise movies, such as Ghostbusters; and they were so desperate to sell movie tickets that they over-saturated the market with trailers, posters, tv spots and clips. One eager fan actually combined all the footage from the trailers for The Amazing Spider-Man and discovered that at least 25 minutes of the movie had been released before it even hit theatres. Thanks to the Sony leaks at the end of 2014, producer Amy Pascal was quoted as saying that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 “needed” to make a billion dollars in order to break even. No Spider-Man film has ever grossed more than $820M, so hoping that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 would make a billion dollars and far beyond was a bit unreasonable.
But the studio needed these movies to make A LOT of money, mainly because they’d already invested a lot of time and energy into numerous spin-offs and sequels. Speaking of which…
One reason neither of the Amazing movies are satisfying viewing experiences is because neither of them seem to tell a complete story. Instead, a phenomenal amount of screen-time was given to set up sequels, mysteries, characters for future spin-offs (the only reason Felicity Jones is even in The Amazing Spider-Man 2). This is a case of the producers and the creative team putting the cart WAAAAY before the horse and creating movies that were so jumbled and dissatisfying on their own that people didn’t want to pay to see the next instalment.
The saying goes “those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.” Marvel Studios learned from the luke-warm reception of Iron Man 2 that sequel-baiting and placing too much emphasis on future instalments leaves audiences dissatisfied. Despite that movie setting an example in 2011, Sony was so in-need of a financial hit that they put all their Spider-Eggs in one basket and planned: The Amazing Spider-Man 3 for June 10, 2016; The Amazing Spider-Man 4 for May 4, 2018; a Venom movie (which is still happening, apparently); a Sinister Six film by Drew Goddard (who left Netflix’s Daredevil series to work on it); an Aunt May spin-off where she’s a secret agent (really) and a female-centric spin-off we never got specifics on.
Sony was so determined to set up their own universe based on their single comic-book character that they never stopped to see if their own foundations were solid enough. Most telling of all was the post-credits scene of The Amazing Spider-Man that had a man in shadows confront Dr. Connors, asking whether or not Peter knows about his father, before disappearing.
When Marc Webb was asked who this mysterious figure was in 2012, he revealed he had no idea. Because of course he didn’t. No one involved creatively in this franchise knew what they were doing.
Where’s the Continuity and Tone?
When you watch The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 back-to-back you’ll realise they feel like entirely different universes. Marvel has done a great job at making characters like Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Ant-Man and Black Widow feel like they inhabit the same world. But Sony couldn’t even make Spider-Man feel like he belongs in his OWN universe from movie to movie.
The Amazing Spider-Man is a strange amalgamation of Batman Begins (it has the exact same plot) and Twilight (it has the same love story, right down to the female love interest being the daughter of a police officer) with a dark, realistic aesthetic and a brooding protagonist, whilst also including a man-sized Lizard who wants to conquer the world. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, on the flip-side, has jokey-villains (“time to light my candles!”), a bright and colourful palette with a neon-sheen and an absolutely bonkers tone.
Seriously, it’s like going from Tim Burton’s Batman Returns to Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin in terms of tone, aesthetic and approach. Spider-Man, The Lizard, The Hobgoblin, The Rhino and Electro don’t feel like they could even inhabit the same reality, let alone the same New York City.
As for continuity, it feels like the writers considered it a dirty word. With the exception of the very broad specifics such as Uncle Ben’s death, Peter and Gwen’s romance and Dr. Connors’ Lizard and Captain Stacy’s death, it feels like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is almost a soft-reboot of the franchise… again. No one can decide whether or not Spider-Man is a threat or a menace, just what Oscorp does changes from movie-to-movie, everything about Peter and Harry Osborn’s relationship doesn’t make sense and more. It feels like Sony had no plans for this series and that it was rushed and not thought-out. Probably because it was rushed and not thought-out.
Worst of all, and the death-nail of every cinematic universe is not know what plot-threads to include and what to drop. Both movies in the Amazing series have an obscene amount of deleted material which is instrumental to its own story. The fate of Peter’s parents is what drives the narrative, but most of it was left on the cutting room floor. Heck, a lot of this material was lost relatively late in the game, as evident to entire sub-plots being advertised in the first movie’s trailers.
“The Untold Story” advertised in the trailers for The Amazing Spider-Man STILL remains untold after 4 years. That’s absolutely insane.
Deleted scenes involving Peter’s father still being alive, Mary-Jane Watson’s introduction (played by Shailene Woodley), Norman Osborn’s decapitated, still-alive head, Harry Osborn killing the board members… there are so many plot-threads that if we did get The Amazing Spider-Man 3, what would have been canon and what wouldn’t have been? Sony was clearly making this narrative up on the fly and the finished product suffered as a result. How can a continuity-based cinematic universe be compelling if the writers don’t even know where their story is going?
A fatal misunderstanding of the source material
As good an actor as Andrew Garfield is, and his commitment to the character was palpable, it’s clear with his casting that the filmmakers had little understanding of Peter Parker or Spider-Man. You can imagine Garfield playing a later-in-life Parker who was more confident and sure of himself. But playing the geeky, nerdy, lonely outcast? No way. In The Amazing Spider-Man, Parker is a mess of a character as he’s made up of massive contradictions that never comes together. And in the sequel, Spider-Man is essentially Deadpool as he quips obsessively and does terrible slapstick whilst having no regard for human life which goes against the Spider-Man of the comics (who would quip AND fight as opposed to doing one or the other).
Obviously, we’re not saying the movies need to be a 100% accurate representation of the comics, but it needs to reflect the ideals and the spirit of the source material. In the opening set-piece of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we see Peter joke and fool around with Paul Giamatti’s Aleksei Sytsevich and making no effort to stop his rampaging vehicle despite it ploughing through dozens of pedestrians and vehicles.
The movie had the surface-level trappings of the source material like a comic-accurate costume, complete with web-shooters but when it actually gets to something approaching substantive it bungles it spectacularly. Not the least of which is the adaptation of “The Death of Gwen Stacy” where the movie goes out. of. its. way to remove any blame from Peter by having him web Gwen to the back of the car and having Gwen say that she’s deciding to help and put herself in danger (apparently included through extensive re-shoots). Not only does this go against the source material where Gwen is a wholly innocent participant, but if you remove the blame from Peter then he has nothing to learn from this experience. You could argue that Peter learning his lesson would have played-out in the sequels, but that clearly never happened which, once again, shows why you should make a good story first instead of making a trailer for your next four movies.
The movie was so desperate to re-create the death of Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, that they put an old-fashioned clock-tower right next to a hyper-futuristic electrical power-grid. Because these writers didn’t know how to write well. Speaking of…
The Movies were just… terrible
The Amazing Spider-Man is a pretty bad movie, but with a handful of potential elements that make it watchable. However, while The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not the worst comic book movie ever made, we’re struggling to find a movie with such a big scale that failed so spectacularly. Of all the movies with budgets over $150M, it’s to find a movie as bad as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and that includes Spider-Man 3, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Waterworld, Green Lantern, Indiana Jones & The Temple of the Crystal Skull, Shrek The Third, Robin Hood, John Carter… it’s just on a whole other level of bad.
Not just because of the fact that both movies act as feature-length trailers, but because they lack basic story-telling ability, are filled with so much product-placement it’s insulting, there’s no connective tissue in regards to story-threads, the effects are blatantly unfinished, it has a script that has no respect for its audience’s intelligence, Hans Zimmer gives us one of his worst music scores, and the story-telling is so incompetent that the writers (who wrote the Transformers movies, by the way) can’t even effectively do a basic “ticking-clock” sequence involving two colliding planes that the main characters aren’t even aware of, so what’s the point?
The Amazing Spider-Man franchise isn’t just a bad set-up to a failed franchise. It’s an affront to basic human decency.
Despite being some of the highest grossing movies of 2012 and 2014, both under-performed by Sony’s expectations thanks to rampant over-spending, producer interference that hampered them creatively before they could get started, and their priorities on making trailers for future movies went against making a good movie. They had no sense of tone and no one checking the continuity of their cinematic universe. This team didn’t understand the source material and weren’t capable of making a good movie, let alone a good franchise.
The Amazing Spider-Man series is a cautionary tale to Hollywood. On the horizon we’ve got Marvel and DC continuing their cinematic universes, but companies like Universal wanting a Fast & Furious and Univeral Monsters cinematic universe, Activision Blizzard wanting a Call of Duty universe, Paramount wanting a Hasbro universe and more, let’s hope these companies learn from Sony. Sometimes you have to hit rock-bottom before you realise that something has gone wrong. Sony took the fall for Hollywood, let’s hope history does not repeat itself.
With great franchise-potential, comes great responsibility.
Images: Columbia Pictures & Walt Disney Entertainment