The Unintentional Gambit of Using Z-Listers to Create Sony’s Spider-Man Universe

As studios continue in the age of developing cinematic universes, one notable example that remains steeped in mediocrity is Sony’s Spider-Man Universe (SSU). The studio’s attempt to counter the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t had the most promising start between two commercially passable, yet critically mixed Venom films and the unmitigated flop that was Morbius. Not to be deterred, Sony is still persisting with various other films based on Spider-Man supporting characters. Their choices continue to bring up some major question marks with some of the obscure characters that will be adapted in El Muerto and Hypno-Hustler. It doesn’t immediately put the best foot forward for a logical cinematic universe plan, and it’s certainly very easy to lampoon. However, Sony Pictures may have stumbled upon what could be a genuinely unique and fruitful way to stand out in the world of major franchises.

Many questions can certainly be asked about the logic of creating a cinematic universe around Marvel characters connected to Spider-Man, while never actually using the titular character in any of the films in that universe. However, scraping the bottom of the barrel allows the chance to essentially create new characters and original intellectual property. It’s a concept that studios should be thrilled to have on their hands and what would actually help push it over the edge into cinematic success would be allowing the creative teams of these projects to get truly experimental with them by being visually and narratively distinct from most superheroic-fare. Letting Bad Bunny dive deep into the world of professional wrestling for the role of El Muerto has the potential to be an audience draw for Sony Pictures. And more importantly, letting Donald Glover star in a feature-length film about a deranged club musician could bring out the strong artistic quality found in the tracks and music videos of Childish Gambino. That could truly turn Hypno-Hustler into a household name and a critically successful film.

Some may scoff at the idea of Hypno-Hustler and El Muerto having any potential of being “household names” but for casual audiences, there’s no real difference in awareness of comic characters beyond the upper class of characters. The general knowledge for the characters mentioned above from the common film attendee is essentially equal to that of the Guardians of the Galaxy before 2014 and while of course the success of James Gunn’s film was built around his strong craftsmanship, the SSU could potentially find some level of benefits with unfettered work from good filmmakers. As an additional plus, the usage of Z-list comic characters will allow the filmmakers to take whatever creative liberties they’d need to as they’re not beholden to any sanctity of lore.

While there are potential positives from using these obscure villains, there are equally strong reasons to avoid the current strategy of using more recognizable Spider-Man villains in solo outings. If the SSU remains insistent on not using an interpretation of the Wall-Crawler in their films, then it’s a waste of resources to use characters intrinsically tied to him. Audiences don’t have any tangible reason to watch a film about a villain without their main rival present. The first two Venom films have barely been able to pass as successful films thanks to the individual cache the character has had from 1990s nostalgia. Meanwhile, a character like Morbius that holds none of that cache led Sony Pictures to one of the most major flops in the superhero genre in a good long while. 

With that in mind, Kraven the Hunter has all the earmarks to be a flop based on these metrics. Making the villain a seemingly pure protagonist has the potential to remove any of the interesting elements of the character (something that wouldn’t need to be worried about with obscure villains with no love lost). It’s obvious that Kraven would have been much better served being used as a villain for a Tom Holland-led, Marvel Studios co-produced Spider-Man film. These types of more recognizable villains would be much better served in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (aka Sony Pictures actual cash cow in terms of Spider-Man films).

If the SSU does go in the direction of building around these untapped characters, they cannot take half measures in creative decision-making. The studio must fully embrace these types of weird characters and provide the filmmakers with the trust for them to maximize their potential. This sounds strongly rudimentary for the process of filmmaking, but they need to actually have a strong story concept that can be built upon by your main creative team. The notion of simply matching a random celebrity to a Z-list character obviously does not make a successful film. There’s interesting potential in films such as El Muerto and Hypno-Hustler, but if the only idea there is the surface-level pitch, then Sony Pictures are in for a continued world of hurt.

Sony Pictures does have a dark horse chance to turn their odds and ends into something truly distinct in the superhero cinematic landscape. Of course, it seems likely that this was a plan created without much forethought going in and it will be an uphill battle for it to actually work. This strategy will have to involve Sony trusting its filmmakers to independently create unique projects, something that the studio has struggled to do in most of its live-action projects based around Spider-Man. Speaking of the titular character, an attempt to create this sort of universe could’ve been more successful if Sony chose to adapt essentially any of the pantheon of Spider-people that are set to appear in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Ultimately, this whole conversation could be a moot point in the potentially probable event that all these films are shuttered following another financial and critical flop from the studio.

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