Is it time to put Sony’s Spider-Man Universe out of its misery?

<span>Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Imagine if Lord of the Rings were like Marvel. Frodo, Bilbo and the elves would be able to frolic together happily through the Shire, and take on big bad Sauron. But due to complicated legal machinations by lawyers in the late 90s, the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm and the Lonely Mountain would need to exist in their very own, entirely separate film and TV universe, while Gollum might find himself being written out altogether. Only if various suits met up to thrash out deals that allowed all of the above to appear together would they be able to do so – otherwise never the twain shall meet, and all that.

This is the problem faced, to all intents and purposes, by Sony and its Spider-Man Universe, which this week announced that the proposed movies Kraven the Hunter and Madame Web will be pushed back to October 2023 and February 2024, respectively.

You might not know what Sony’s Spider-Man Universe is, unless you’re involved in the film industry or keep a close eye on these sorts of things. In short, it’s all the Marvel characters that Sony has the screen rights to because they are connected to Spider-Man in the comics. Sony retains the option on these because it bought the rights to the masked wallcrawler in 1999, long before Marvel Studios (which makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe films) was more than a fledgling concern. Sony did strike a deal to allow Marvel to use Spider-Man in the MCU, and the two studios co-produced the excellent recent trilogy of Spider-Man films starring Tom Holland in the title role, the latter of which, Spider-Man: No Way Home, featured older villains from Sony’s own Spidey flicks. So yeah, it’s complicated.

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Mixing with older villains … Tom Holland in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Photograph: Matt Kennedy/AP

To be honest though, you don’t really need to know any of this stuff. Because if you’ve ever watched a “Marvel” movie that doesn’t seem to include any familiar characters, and has a strange air of the ersatz about it, it’s probably one of the Sony ones (with the honourable exception of the first two Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man films in the early 00s). Venom (2018), despite featuring Tom Hardy in the title role, was a financially successful but tonally weird misfire, while last year’s sequel Venom: Let There Be Carnage only marginally improved matters. This year’s Morbius, starring Jared Leto as the little-known Marvel “living vampire”, features a by-the-numbers plot, listless dialogue and some of the worst superhero CGI in living memory. When Leto morphs into the terrifying antihero, it’s as if a three-year-old child has just taken over the movie’s direction and added a dodgy TikTok filter.

The whole thing would make more sense if Spider-Man himself turned up in these films. But so far we’ve only seen a brief cameo appearance from Holland in Venom 2’s post-credits scene, followed by Michael Keaton’s Vulture in Morbius. If there isn’t some sort of plan for Spidey to get a little more involved, surely Sony would be better off either a) selling its screen rights back to Marvel, or b) agreeing a deal to allow Marvel to oversee the Spider-Man Universe films, so that they can be produced to the same standards as the rest of Marvel’s movies, and we can all sit down to watch Thor kick Venom’s butt, or The Hulk bash the bejesus out of Morbius. It should also be pointed out that Sony produced the utterly splendid Oscar-winning animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse film in 2018, and has a sequel coming in 2023, starring an entirely different wallcrawler (Miles Morales). Everybody loved that movie, so why not build an entire comic book mega-saga around it instead?

Forgive me, but the alternative, a succession of increasingly pointless Sony Spider-Man Universe spin-offs featuring lesser-known comic book characters who really need a great deal of love and creative genius to convince the public to invest time in them, really doesn’t bear thinking about. Watching Morbius, it was never quite clear if the good old stake through the heart would finish off this non-supernatural, much-less-fun type of vampire. But it was entirely clear that the movie mini-saga he’s a part of needs desperately putting out of its misery.