Earlier this month, the news broke that, after a decade of development, a Venom movie is going to happen very soon. This broke, oddly, the same week that Life was released. Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, Life is a hugely fun “something nasty on the ISS” movie that has staked an early claim for our favourite monster flick of 2017.
Briefly, there was also speculation it was a stealth Venom prequel. That was a rumour that Reese and Wernick – given they wrote one of the original Venom scripts – got a huge kick out of. That’s now been debunked, but the fact remains that a Venom movie is on the way and, word is, it may be both R-Rated and is definitely a step towards Sony’s own shared superhero universe.
And lo, eyes do roll across the land.
We understand that instinct. But we also feel there’s something a little more complex to this story that needs to be unpacked.
First off, that R rating. In the wake of Deadpool’s profanity-ridden, chimichanga-stained sprint to the top of the box office, that movie’s “R” certification seems to be viewed as the secret to its success. While it certainly didn’t hurt the movie, the fact that it took years for it to come to fruition and was shepherded along by immensely talented people is the real reason the thing worked. That and the “WHERE’S FRANCIS?!” sequence which will always be close to our heart.
So yes, the R-rating on Venom doesn’t exactly fill us with confidence. The shared universe thing?
Criticising the shared universe concept is pretty easy to do, and many do. As we’ll see, none of them are perfect. But, as we’ll also see, that’s less to do with the shared universe concept and more to do with the individual stylistic choices of each movie within them. Which is really odd as there’s still only two long-form examples and two short form example of the concept, and they all work just fine. Or at least, they all work just fine as shared universes. If there are problems with individual films that’s not down to their shared-universeness.
There’s Star Wars is, of course. The decision to alternate between “historical” and new movies has, so far, worked a treat. Rogue One plugs effortlessly into Star Wars while still telling a new story. The Force Awakens, massive trauma of one scene notwithstanding, is the most fun we’ve had at the movies in ages. We’re super excited for The Last Jedi, and the Han Solo and and and and… So, yeah, this one works.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe on the other hand has problems. If we never have to see, “White Successful Rich Guy Discovers He IS Awesome And The Universe DOES Revolve Around Him!” The Movie ever again it will still be too late. Likewise the unforgivable delays in getting characters like Black Panther and Captain Marvel to the screen. Also the just immensely annoying inability anyone has to give a straight answer to the question, “So are the movies and TV show connected or not?”
But all of those problems are either tonal or structural on a level that transcends the movie-to-movie continuity. The model, as it stands, works. Just look at the way the events from Avengers Assemble snowball into Iron Man 3 and Age Of Ultron and Civil War. Events in these movies have consequences. Those consequences generate other movies. It’s a shared universe and one that has increasingly impressive momentum to it.
Even the DCEU, God bless its blue, grey and BLACK-paletted soul, works as a structure. Yes, Man Of Steel, Suicide Squad and Batman Vs Superman all have varying levels of problems. Again, none of them stem from the external continuity. Man Of Steel sets up the seismic, culture-altering proof of life beyond Earth and superhumanity. It directly inspires Batman to go back to work albeit for blisteringly stupid reasons. It also directly inspires the creation of Task Force X whose ranks are at least partially filled by the people the newly-active Batman brings in.
Event. Consequence. Event. Story. It works. You may not like it. But as a fictional architecture, it’s sound.
The Godzilla universe is the newest, largest, stompiest kid on the block but even that’s off to a good start. Using the MONARCH organisation to tie together Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island works brilliantly and we’re really excited to see where that goes, first with Godzilla 2, then Godzilla vs King Kong.
Those are the only active shared universe movie franchises right now. They all work. So what’s the problem?
As near we can tell, it’s two-fold. Firstly, while these are the first out of the gate, soon they’ll be far from alone. Later this year we get The Mummy, which will attempt to relaunch the Universal Monsters movies as a shared universe. Russell Crowe as Doctor Jekyll? That has our attention. A Fraser and Weisz-free Mummy movie? Not so much. Nonetheless we know there’s been a huge amount of development work put in on these movies and we’re interested to see where they go with it.
Likewise the Transformers franchise and when was the last time anyone was interested in the narrative complexity of those things? EVER? After the just horrifyingly bad Age Of Extinction, Hasbro put together a writer’s room to not only craft a coherent Transformers movie continuity but a way for all the Hasbro properties to fit together.
Or to put it another way, hold on. The chances of Roadblock riding Optimus Prime into battle are not zero.
We’ll see the consequences of Hasbro’s emergency plot infusion later this year with The Last Knight. It has a lot to do, including functionally redeeming Optimus Prime, Murderbot and making us care about Marky Mark’s remarkably unsympathetic leading man. The most recent trailer, one line (“Little J Lo?” LITTLE J-LO?! SERIOUSLY?) aside, looks like they’ve at least managed some of it.
Then there’s the Robin Hood-verse which we have yet to see and, now, the Sony Spider-Man movies. Or rather, the Sony Spider-Man Villain movies and that might be the real problem.
Unlike certain compatriots, Spider-Man has a really good rogues’ gallery. Back during the Raimi era that was one of the things that made the endless riffs on the Goblin such a slog. Venom, Black Cat and Silver Sable who are also in line for a movie, are big parts of that. So the question is, given how these movies will apparently stand alone from the MCU, how’s that going to work?
Honestly, we don’t know. But we do have some suspicions.
For all the stated aim that these movies will be standalone, don’t discount the possibility they may not be. If Spider-Man: Homecoming does as well as it seems likely to, we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Peter, or the Avengers, showing up in these movies.
Secondly, one of the reasons Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery is so good is because of what they have in common. There’s a really interesting combination of science, crime and tragedy running through a lot of them that makes them really compelling. This is what was attempted – and biffed so very hard – in Spider-Man 3 and what the Andrew Garfield movies were heading towards. Taking that unified conceptual background and making it the basis of a shared universe has potential. It does still need heroes though.
Or, perhaps, heroines…
That Black Cat & Silver Sable movie has our attention. Both of them are great characters and cartwheel merrily along the line between hero and villain. They’ve also got great potential as a duo and the idea of them being the centre of the Sony Spider-verse movies makes us very happy.
Finally, there’s always the chance these movies will centre on Spider-Man. A Spider-Man. Just not Peter Parker.
Silk, Spider-Woman and Miles Morales’ Spider-Man are all more than ready for the spotlight. This is the perfect opportunity to put one of these characters front and centre and, in doing so, prove the versatility of the genre and the durability of these characters. We’d especially love to see Silk get a shot, and given Black Cat was an early antagonist in her adventures, we think it’s more than a little likely.
Regardless, right now there are more questions than answers with the Spider-verse movies and that won’t change until Venom is released. And yes, we rankle at the R-rating too but we’re going to give it a shot. Shared universes are still a new tool for most studios and they’re still learning how to use them. But, as we’ve seen, they’re off to a good start. Or at least, good enough.