How The Amazing Spider-Man 2 fails at shared-universe storytelling

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a flawed film for many reasons, but its biggest misstep might be what it does for the future of Sony's Spider-Man universe.

SPOILERS AHEAD for The Amazing Spider-Man 2!

Producers Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach, and Sony Pictures in general, built up a lot of buzz in the months before this film's release, not just for the film itself but for the bridges the film would build to their planned spinoffs for things like Venom and The Sinister Six. If you count the planned third and fourth installments in the Amazing Spider-Man saga, there are now at least four films on the way that will take place in a shared universe that really only runs from the borough of Queens to the borough of Manhattan. 

It's natural for other studios to want to follow in the billion-dollar footsteps of Marvel Studios, of course, and even though Sony's stable of characters is small, more than a few comic-book creators over the years have managed to make Peter Parker's little corner of the Marvel universe feel extremely nuanced and vast. I looked at Sony's plans and believed they could work.

And then I saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Honestly, there were quite a few things about the film that I liked. I was genuinely moved by the last five minutes as Spider-Man returned to the streets; the chemistry between Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield was palpable; Peter's tearful declaration to his Aunt May (Sally Field) that she's "more than enough" really got me; and, perhaps most importantly, when the film stepped back and simply let Andrew Garfield be Spider-Man, swinging and quipping and shrugging off danger for the action that is his reward, I was wonderfully entertained.

The film has plenty of problems, too, but I'm not here to unpack them all. I'm here to focus on just one, and it's this: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 set out to tell a good Spider-Man story, yes, but it also set out to create a spinoff-friendly, sequel-ready environment for a new Spider-Man universe, and for my money it failed spectacularly. 

Let's do a quick and dirty rundown of all the spinoff and sequel primers thrown at us in this movie. Felicia Hardy (Felicity Jones), the presumed future Black Cat, is introduced as Harry Osborn's (Dane DeHaan) Oscorp assistant. Russian mobster Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) closes out the film by getting his Rhino armor, courtesy of Oscorp. Harry injects pure Oscorp spider venom in an attempt to cure himself of a very vague illness, only to transform into the Green Goblin, and just happens to be standing next to all of the gear he needs to be the Goblin when he does it. Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) becomes Electro during an accident that happens at his workplace, Oscorp. And, to cap it all off, Harry Osborn and his mysterious ally, Mr. Fiers, create Rhino as part of some kind of initiative to assemble a team of crazy people, give them crazy Oscorp tech and turn them loose. Oscorp, it turns out, has the makings for Vulture, Dr. Octopus and other classic Spider-Man villains just knocking around in the basement. Why, we don't know, but it sure is handy.

Oh, and by the way, Peter's father -- while working for Oscorp -- designed the spider venom that transformed him, and specifically engineered it so it would only work on a Parker. Peter's the only person on Earth who can be Spider-Man. Sorry, kids. 

So, if this pattern continues, we're basically being set up to watch Spider-Man vs. Oscorp, a story in which all of Peter Parker's problems, all of his bad luck, all of the threats against the people he cares about, stem from a single skyscraper on the New York skyline. The most obvious implication here for comic-book fans is that almost all of the villains to come will have their backstories radically altered. Doc Ock didn't build his tentacles, Vulture didn't build his wings, and perhaps Kraven didn't come to New York to hunt Spider-Man out of some sense of honor-bound determination. What The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems to be telling us is that, from here on out, Peter Parker's great adversary will be a multilimbed marionette with a single entity (Oscorp/Harry Osborn) pulling the strings.

I don't believe there's anything inherently wrong with altering a supervillain's origin for the big screen, if it's done right, but what we're heading for here doesn't feel like worldbuilding or universe-constructing. It feels like someone said "We need to set up as many villains as possible as fast as possible," and someone else said "I know, let's say Oscorp was working on this stuff the whole time!" One of the joys of Spider-Man and his rogues gallery is how diverse and weird they are, and if you lump them all into one corporate basket, some of that fun goes away.

For me, though, there's more to it than that. Spider-Man's iconic mantra is "With great power comes great responsibility." We all know that, but I happen to think it applies just as much to the villains as it does to the hero. Many of Spidey's most iconic foes are people who, like him, happened upon great power and then ignored the great responsibility, through either madness, indifference or plain old greed. Now several of those villains will be reduced to science projects, or pawns on Harry Osborn's chessboard. If that happens, many of them lose their emotional punch and thematic oomph, and instead of a New York-sized universe of villains with diverse backgrounds and motivations that could have been explored, you're left with one villain and his henchmen. 

A Spider-Man universe has existed in the comics for decades, and we know this because his stories have been published continuously, often across multiple titles, some of them running two or even three times a month, for more than 50 years. Peter Parker's world has long been a weird, wild, unpredictable one where the Sinister Six could be menacing someone on one end of the city while Vermin could be up to no good on the other end and Venom could be somewhere in between. Now, in the movie universe, all of that feels compressed and cold, a series of cogs in a soulless "Kill Peter Parker" machine. I hope I'm proven wrong in the coming years, but so far this universe just feels too small. 

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