In recent years, superheroes have become as much a part of the movie-going experience as uncomfortable seats, endless advertisements, and overpriced popcorn. If you're not going to the theater to see a superhero movie, you'll still be inundated with posters, previews, and plastic cups emblazoned with Robert Downey Jr.'s distinctive facial hair.
But there are only so many Supermans and Spider-Mans out there, and the market is getting crowded — so it's no great surprise that studios are turning to spin-offs in an effort to feed the demand. Last week, Sony Pictures announced plans to wrangle two new movies out of the Amazing Spider-Man franchise based on Venom and the Sinister Six.
Now, the fact that Sony plans to milk the franchise with a few side installments is hardly revolutionary. But the fact that it has chosen to do so by giving some of Spidey's villains their own films is an entirely different story.
The vast majority of superhero comic books are named after their heroes. For decades, we've had an endless string of square-jawed heroes who resolve to fight crime after an inadvertent brush with superpower-imbuing toxic waste/gamma rays/alien artifacts. Yes, some of these characters are far more compelling than others. But even the best of them are generally cut from the same cloth — and, let's be honest, a little bit boring.
We all expect superheroes to act in a certain way, which means that writers are often painted into a corner, forced to peddle banal stories about saving the day and getting the girl while simultaneously standing for truth, justice, and the American way. The best writers find ways to innovate, circumvent, or subvert these tropes, but they can never change the basic arc of a superhero story.
For villains, however, there are no such constraints. Indeed, a truly great superhero comic is defined by the quality of the villains. Batman has the Joker; Superman has Lex Luthor; Spider-Man has Doc Ock; Iron Man has the Mandarin. In each of those cases (and many more), the best villains have become just as legendary as their corresponding heroes, and are almost always more interesting.
Unfortunately, those strengths haven't always translated to the big screen, where villains are perennially underserved, serving as brief chapters in the hero's larger story than characters in their own right. Be honest: What do you really remember about Iron Man's Obidiah Stane, or The Incredible Hulk's Abomination, or The Amazing Spider-Man's Lizard? Of course, when actors playing big-screen villains have been given something to sink their teeth into, the results have been spectacular: Take Tom Hiddleston's eye-catching turn in The Avengers and the Thor movies, or Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight. When given the material a good villain always steals the show.
So why not give them their own show to begin with? At the very least, it would give Hollywood a welcome alternative to the recent bout of barrel-scraping that's seen studios offer up ever more obscure heroes in an attempt to capitalize on the craze before it's too late. While hardcore comics fans might be genuinely thrilled at the prospect of seeing Rocket Raccoon or Ant-Man getting the big screen treatment, the idea of giving a recognizable villain like Venom his own movie offers enormous appeal to hardcore comics readers and mainstream audience alike.
It's also a chance to change the very structure of the superhero movie. Even the strongest big-screen superheroes have grown a little stale in the face of a seemingly endless procession of origin stories. Screenwriters are often forced to introduce and explain a popular hero before they can tell a truly interesting story. But as many times as we've seen the hero's journey dominate the blockbuster landscape, a tragic villain's arc is rarely pushed front and center. When it does happen, it's liberating: There's no morality tale to impart, no villain to best, and no day to save. You need only look at Josh Trank's Chronicle or Joe Lynch's unofficial Venom short Truth In Journalism for proof of what can be achieved when comic book movies step away from their do-gooder stereotype.
And that's just the tip of iceberg. What's to stop Warner Bros. from developing a sort of Wall Street-meets-American Psycho movie tracing the story of Lex Luthor, or a noir-ish crime caper that puts the Joker front and center? Where does it say that Fox can't tell the Fantastic Four's familiar origin story from Victor Von Doom's perspective? And who doesn't want to live in a world where we finally get to watch a good Catwoman movie?
Sony's decision to give Spider-Man's biggest villains their own movies represents something of a risk — but it's one that's well worth taking if it opens up a whole new wing of comic-book stories on the big screen.