Late last night, Sony announced that it has recruited a brain trust tasked with mapping out the Spider-Man universe for years to come: From now on, all future Spidey movies and their spinoffs — including a film about fan-favorite baddie Venom and another movie about the villainous Sinister Six — will be tied together with common story threads, a bald-faced attempt to mimic Marvel's successful business plan. The Spider-Man news was immediately heralded as ambitious (and certainly, it's kind of an unprecedented info-dump), yet it strikes me as one more example of a studio blindly chasing that Avengers cheddar to the detriment of what could be a perfectly fine and lucrative stand-alone franchise. Instead of packing these series with even more heroes and villains and setups for the sequel, can't they concentrate on making each film a satisfying stand-alone experience? Why is every superhero movie these days so determined to overdo it?
Consider the overstuffed evidence. Man of Steel ends with a scene that's just beginning to establish the usual Superman shtick — Clark Kent dons eyeglasses and walks into the Daily Planet for the first time — which serves as a pretty effective tease: Next time, we'll give you the sort of classic Superman story you know and love! Only not so much, since Warner Bros. will rush not just Ben Affleck's Batman into the Man of Steel sequel but Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and, if rumors are to be believed, a host of other superheroes that will start paving the way for a Justice League movie just a few years down the line. I remember that when Warner Bros. first announced the Affleck-as-Batman news, the press release included a near-the-bottom bit promising that Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, and Diane Lane would also return for the Man of Steel sequel, an assurance that seems more and more perfunctory with each new casting announcement. Now that they're adding in so many additional superheroes, will Amy Adams be reduced to a cameo in the franchise she signed on to co-lead?
Meanwhile, there's the X-Men series, which is inherently crammed with superheroes, yet will outdo even itself with next summer's Days of Future Past, a sequel that relies on a time-travel story line to employ not just all the actors from the original franchise (including Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Hugh Jackman) but most of their younger counterparts from the prequel X-Men: First Class (including James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence), effectively doubling its usual cast of characters. That seems like plenty of people already, but news broke this week that writer Simon Kinberg has been hired by Fox to map out an X future that will allow crossover with a planned Fantastic Four reboot, because if there's anything the X-Men series needs, it's four more heroes to serve. Said Kinberg to The Hollywood Reporter, "I have a lot of ideas on how to build those brands and do what everybody is thinking of these days: Be like Marvel." (That seems like only one idea, and not a particularly fresh one at that, but I digress.)
What these studios forget is that Marvel's path to The Avengers wasn't entirely smooth: Several of the films leading up to that superhero team-up were compromised in ways large and small in order to arrange all the pieces just so. A frustrated Jon Favreau was forced to stuff Iron Man 2 with so much S.H.I.E.L.D. world-building that he bailed on directing its sequel, while the surprisingly romantic coda of Thor (our two lovers are furiously working against time and space to return to each other) was kneecapped when Thor made an obligatory, unromantic return to Earth for The Avengers. Captain America, too, ditched its promising forties setting way too early in order to shuttle Cap to the present day alongside his future teammates; it's ironic that Marvel consigliere Joss Whedon recently dissed The Empire Strikes Back for committing "the cardinal sin of not actually ending," since much like that movie, Captain America freezes a character in the third act and ends on a downbeat, disorienting cliff-hanger that literally segues into a trailer for Whedon's The Avengers. "[Empire's ending is] a Come Back Next Week, or in three years," groused Whedon. "That upsets me." And Captain America's ending, a surreal act of movie-breaking to better position a character for The Avengers, wasn't a blatant case of Come Back Next Summer?
That's what worries me about the Spider-Man news. Already, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is so perilously overcrowded with new characters — including three villains in Electro, Rhino, and the Green Goblin — that another important Spider-Man figure, Mary Jane Watson, was completely excised from the final cut after Shailene Woodley had already shot her scenes. Sony seems determined to churn through villains and story lines as fast as possible to get to the good stuff, but doesn't that handicap the solo Spider-Man movies from the get-go? It's going to be awfully hard to invest in Spider-Man's upcoming battle with Electro (not to mention the additional villains he'll tussle with in The Amazing Spider-Man 3) when we know that the bad guy can't possibly be killed off, that in fact he'll be alive and thriving two movies down the line just so he can join a Sinister Six team-up. For Sony, assuaging its panicked investors with more blockbuster spinoffs trumps the notion of issuing a franchisewide spoiler alert.
Sony really ought to know better, since way back in 2007, Sam Raimi delivered the disappointing Spider-Man 3, which was packed with far too many villains (including Venom, over Raimi's own protestations) at the expense of plot coherence. And yet these studios press on, mistaking more for better. It's almost as though they've learned the wrong lesson: The Avengers didn't make a billion and a half dollars because it stuffed in so many superheroes; The Avengers made a billion and a half dollars because it was really, really good. Maybe studio executives could concentrate more on that for a change?