It feels like Sony has been on a mission to surprise us in recent weeks.
First, out of the blue, it announced a movie starring Spider-Man villain Venom – one that will apparently not feature the web-slinger himself.
Then followed the revelation that a film starring two other Spider-Man allies/antagonists – Black Cat and Silver Sable – was also in development.
But who are these characters? And how will the films fit into Sony's new, Tom Holland-starring, MCU-centric world?
What is going on?
The short answer seems to be: no one knows.
And by that, we don't just mean that we are in the dark. We're including Holland himself, as well as his Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts. Holland didn't even know that the Black Cat/Silver Sable film was in the works until he was told during an interview with MTV.
Early reports are clear on there being no relation to the newly rebooted Spider-Man whatsoever.
"It's not connected to the Marvel world, so that's really intriguing... what that will be," Watts told Fandango. "I don't know anything about it. It's not connected, so there's not that overlap." "Intriguing" is right, Jon.
At the same time, while multiple Spider-Man: Homecoming sequels are being considered, the series apparently has only a limited shelf life in the MCU, and will completely part ways with Marvel Studios' cinematic universe after Holland's second solo film.
Is Sony headed towards two separate and unrelated Spider-Man universes? It's early days with more clarification on the way, but there's no doubt it's confusing.
Who are Venom, Black Cat and Silver Sable?
Venom is essentially the anti-Spider-Man, possessing all his nemesis's regular powers (only better) plus some alien shapeshifting abilities and (in some versions) a hunger for human brains.
The character started out as Eddie Brock, a frustrated reporter who bonded with the black alien suit (called a "symbiote") that Spider-Man had rejected after he realised that it was affecting his behaviour, and not in a positive, making-him-friendlier-and-more-caring sort of way.
Those of us who have had the misfortune to watch the Tobey Maguire-starring Spider-Man 3 in 2007 will remember Topher Grace taking on the Venom/Brock role, which got the basic origin right if nothing else.
Established Spider-Man producers Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach are on board for Venom, which has no director or star as of yet – although Dredd director Adi Shankar (who created the excellent, unofficial short Venom: Truth in Journalism) has been rumoured to be in the running. October 5, 2018, has been earmarked as a release date, so Sony are going to have to get a move on.
Black Cat is Felicia Hardy, a kind of less-villainous version of Catwoman with "probability field manipulation" powers and a sometimes flirtatious, sometimes antagonistic relationship to Spider-Man. Felicity Jones briefly played her in Amazing Spider-Man 2, but her chances of returning don't look good.
Silver Sable is the lesser-known of the two. She is a mercenary and hunter of war criminals from the Eastern European country Symkaria (probably a neighbour of Sokovia) whose real name is – naturally – Silver Sablinova. Her relationship to Spider-Man is similar to Black Cat's, including the obligatory flirting.
Tomach and Amy Pascal are producing, with a script from comics and movie writer Chris Yost and Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy. A director, stars and release date are yet to be revealed.
Interestingly, Venom has technically been in development since before the Andrew Garfield-starring Amazing Spider-Man franchise imploded. A female-led film was also announced back in 2014, and the Black Cat/Silver Sable is presumably an offshoot of that.
What problems might Sony face?
The greatest problem facing Sony will be establishing a shared universe based on Spider-Man villains and supporting characters without Spider-Man himself at its centre. Venom especially has always existed as a sort of evil version of Peter Parker, and it isn't clear exactly what the character would be without that comparison to draw on.
Venom also has to overcome the bad press of Spider-Man 3, with which he is intrinsically associated. His solo film will have to knock it out of the park if it wants us to forget that previous mistake and embrace the new take on the character. The character is inherently neither funny nor down-to-earth gritty, so finding success is unlikely to be as easy as simply imitating the success of Fox's recent smashes Deadpool and Logan.
The prospect of having two separate and unrelated Spider-Man-related cinematic universes is also inherently confusing. Sony will have to work hard to separate these spin-off films from their wall-crawling source, but that does beg the question: what is the point of a Spider-Man spin-off universe that has nothing to do with Spider-Man?
How can they fix them?
Comedy and grit may not be the way to go, but there are still other avenues to explore. Venom may already be moving in the right direction, with rumours of an R-rated, horror-themed take on the property. The idea of being possessed and transformed by an evil alien presence is, after all, inherently horrific.
And Deadpool and Logan do represent the possibility for superhero movies to succeed with only minor connections to their parent franchise. Fox had the benefit of essentially developing these films for years in one way or another, so Sony will have their work cut out for them. But success is not impossible.
It is also interesting to note that, ahead of the first screenings of Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal-starring science fiction horror Life, there was a theory that it could turn out to be a surprise Venom prequel.
That didn't happen, but it did raise the idea of novel and interesting ways to explore the origin of Venom and the other characters. We've seen plenty of bog-standard superhero/supervillain origins in 21st century cinema. An unexpected approach would do much to make this Spider-Man-less Spider-Man universe a worthwhile venture.
What does the future hold?
The third Spider-Man spin-off that never official went away was the Sinister Six film, a supervillainous team which Sony was clearly preparing for with Amazing Spider-Man 2's multiple antagonists.
It's a fair bet to assume that the disconnect between Tom Holland's Spider-Man and the rest of these films was Marvel mandated after the agreement to make him part of the MCU. But if Spider-Man is destined to move away from the MCU after the Homecoming sequel (currently scheduled for 2019), then there might be a chance of bringing him back under the same umbrella after that. He might not be much use in establishing the world of Venom et al, but he would then be able to help bolster it further down the line.
The alternative would be to recast Spider-Man (again), which would make that Sony's third time to do so in the space of a decade. That's not an option that will win much confidence from fans.
There will be a lot of hard work in Sony's superhero-related future, but if they're up to the challenge, they could just pull it off.
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