Tangled Webs: Spider-Man Films and Multiple Villains

Poster with the bad guys in Amazing Spider-Man 2

At some point soon Sony’s probably going to announce the villain(s) for SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING. The decision on whether to use Vulture, Mysterio, someone we’ve seen before, or some combination of the above, has probably already been made. If it’s going to be a pairing that comes from a few issues of SPIDER-MAN: CHAPTER ONE storyline—and we’ll get into a rumor about how this may be the case—it’s too late for anyone at Sony or Marvel to change their minds.

In the absence of more news, it’s worth looking at what happened with the bad guys in previous Spider-Man films, especially the most recent.

There used to be the argument that the best superhero films (excluding team series like X-Men) were those with one villain. SUPERMAN, BATMAN, SPIDER-MAN, IRON MAN, and SPIDER-MAN 2 were pretty good. SPIDER-MAN 3, DAREDEVIL, the Burton produced Batman sequels, SUPERMAN 4 and others, not so much.

I didn’t quite buy that line of reasoning. The Nolan batfilms were excellent, and packed with 2-4 villains, depending on whether you count the likes of Carmine Falcone and Mr Zsasz. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER continued the Marvel Cinematic Universe tradition of sequels with multiple antagonists, as Cap had to fight the head of Hydra, the Winter Soldier, Batroc, Crossbones and Arnim Zola. It was excellent.

That said, after seeing AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, I started wondering if the one villain rule—while not essential for other superheroes—should apply to the wallcrawler’s films. This would have boded poorly for any sequels, given the focus on the Sinister Six, although that ended up being a moot point as the franchise got rebooted a second time.

I liked ASM 2, but that was due to how well Andrew Garfield inhabited Spider-Man, and his chemistry with Emma Stone, rather than anything to do with the villains. The film was just too busy. Storylines include the death of Norman Osborn, the origin of Electro, a dying Harry Osborn trying dangerous experiments, a power struggle at Oscorp, Peter trying to keep away from Gwen Stacy because it was her father’s dying wish, the first time Spider-Man beats Electro, shady experiments performed on Electro, a rematch between Spider-Man and Electro, a fight between Spider-Man and the unnamed Harry Goblin, Peter learning his parent’s secrets, the aftermath of the bad thing that Harry did and the origin of the Rhino.

906429 - The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Something that makes the Spider-Man comics and films different than other series is the focus on Peter Parker’s private life. That leaves less time for building up the bad guys. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 was a two hour plus film in which we didn’t get much of a sense of many elements of Peter’s private life. What was he up to after graduating high school? What’s it like at the Bugle? Does he hang out with anyone else? The most egregious omission may be the way J Jonah Jameson—the best character in the Raimi trilogy—is kept as an off-screen presence.

It also didn’t help that Jamie Foxx’s Electro was easily the least interesting villain from any of the Spider-Man movies. The power set makes for interesting spectacles, and it was a smart narrative move to have Peter and Gwen had to come up with strategies against him. But he was pathetic in a way that didn’t really fit the tone of the movie, and made his transformation into a major player less believable.

Structurally, I could understand why they went with several bad guys. After setting up the mystery of the Osborns in the first film, Webb and company had to follow through on that. Harry fits well into the subplot about Peter’s parents, without repeating Norman Osborn’s story from the first SPIDER-MAN. However, it would be problematic to make Harry Osborn a solo villain less than a decade after he shared the screen with Venom and Sandman in SPIDER-MAN 3. He gains superpowers later in the arc, so the film still needs someone for Spider-Man to fight before that happens. Of course, there are similar problems with Electro, as the film introduces Max Dillon before he gets his powers. That necessitates new action sequences even earlier in the film.

Andrew Garfield;Paul Giamatti

Sony had a few alternatives. One option would have been to split the events into two films. So AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2  could have Electro as the bad guy, while the next one could have Harry Osborn. An advantage is that Harry’s transition from Peter’s friend to his archenemy could be more convincing over the course of multiple films. One problem with that is that if Marc Webb spent an entire movie setting up Harry Osborn as the main villain in a sequel, it would essentially require repeating the major beats from his story in SPIDER-MAN 2.

There are other villains who might have been better fits for this particular Osborn narrative. In the comics, the Vulture was an elderly scientist who sought revenge against the employers who cheated him. So he could match a story in which someone attempts to usurp control of Oscorp after Norman Osborn’s death. This would be a supervillain origin could build on things that have already been established in the film, so the story wouldn’t require anyone gaining superpowers in a mishap involving electric eels. A guy who has been at Oscorp for decades might also have connections to Peter’s parents, allowing the main villain of the film to be tied to a major subplot.

I can understand why they opted to go for Electro. He made for visually interesting set-pieces, and he made sense with Gwen Stacy’s story. For the film’s ending, Webb needed Gwen to decide to risk her life to save others, and that works better when the bad guy is a super-powered maniac trying to shut down the power grid—an effort that may kill hundreds—rather than an elderly man with wings.

In interviews, writer Jeff Pinkler described the film as a story about growing up. The Vulture would have been more appropriate for that story than Electro, whose motives don’t fit Peter Parker’s story. My impression from the interviews with the cast and crew is that they didn’t give a lot of thought to what Electro represents, since it doesn’t fit what the rest of the film is about. Walter Chaw of Film Freak Central praised the allusions to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and thought that the character allowed the film to address topics of racial and class politics. Even so, this all makes for a very busy film, something that can be alleviated if there are less villains, or if the villains are dealt with in a different way.

SPIDER-MAN (89 percent rotten tomatoes), SPIDER-MAN 2 (92 percent rotten tomatoes) and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (73 percent rotten tomatoes) were well-regarded, and both featured one primary villain. This left room for the focus on Peter Parker’s story, as he tested his powers, struggled with loss, and fell in love. SPIDER-MAN 3 (63 percent rotten tomatoes) had a lot of bad guys, and several of the bad guys had complex origin stories. Before Spider-Man could fight Venom, he had to lose the alien costume, and be responsible for Eddie Brock being disgraced. That meant he needed someone to fight while he wore the Alien Costume (which he gained in a major coincidence when an alien entity just happened to fall near him in Central Park.) The Sandman ended up being that bad guy, and he also gained his powers during the course of the story (in another major coincidence, he turned out to be Uncle Ben’s real killer, and not only did he escape jail, but he hid on a beach during a weapons test that would end up granting him superpowers.) And Spider-Man also fought Harry Osborn a few times. Looking back at it now, it seems there are a few fixes to make the film less cluttered, like cutting out Sandman, or ending the film with Eddie Brock becoming Venom, although that would have saved Venom for a film that didn’t end up happening.

There are cases where multiple antagonists can work, as when a bad guy can be connected to another’s story, or when a villain doesn’t require much of an origin.

The next parts are based on some rumors about the film, so you might not want to read on.

Spider-Man Chapter One

One of the rumors about SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is that it’s going to feature Vulture and Tinkerer working together, which is oddly remniscent of SPIDER-MAN: CHAPTER ONE. In this case, it could work. The Tinkerer doesn’t require a complex origin story, and can fit the Vulture’s story by helping him with his equipment.
Another rumor is that the Kingpin may be the bad guy. Vincent D’Onofrio says he’d like it to be true, but that it doesn’t seem likely. He would be a bad guy who would presumably have super-powered henchmen, but those guys don’t necessarily need complex origin stories, nor would they result in a more convoluted narrative. 

There’s another rumor that the opening set piece might pit Spider-Man against the Shocker. I’m posting this one because it’s something that plenty of readers have suggested they’d like to see. I don’t know if it’s the best use of a villain who has been in some good comics, but it would be a way to show off Spider-Man’s powers prior to the main conflict of the film.




Thomas Mets moderates the Spider-Man forum at Comic Book Resources. He is cautiously optimstic about SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING
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(6) Comments

  1. thomasmets

    @#1- That could be one way to make things interesting. Plus, anyone hired as a C-lister for a five minute set piece has the potential to reprise their role in Agents of SHIELD or one of the Netflix shows.. @#2- I'd go for a moratorium on the Osborns for at least the next two Spider-Man films. There are so many other things to focus on. @#5- In hindsight, it might have been better for Sony to save material in Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spider-Man 2 for subsequent films, but it's not clear that change would have been enough to get those subsequent films. If Marvel went with a young Justin Hammer (and an elderly Hank Pym) the ages of the characters can vary in the translation from comic to film. Maybe the Grand Budapest Hotel guy is the Tinkerer.

  2. hornacek

    "The most egregious omission may be the way J Jonah Jameson—the best character in the Raimi trilogy—is kept as an off-screen presence." That was one of the points I mentioned when the podcast did their ASM2 movie review episode - not only do we never see Jonah or the Bugle in the movie, but in this movie universe Peter met Jonah and got hired off screen, between ASM1 and ASM2, and we never get to see it. "it would essentially require repeating the major beats from his story in SPIDER-MAN 2." The words "SPIDER-MAN 2" seem to be written in black font and don't appear unless you highlight them with the mouse. "or ending the film with Eddie Brock becoming Venom, although that would have saved Venom for a film that didn’t end up happening." Actually, if they had done this we might have gotten a Spider-Man 4 movie, since I think SM3 would have been better received and maybe Raimi/Maguire would have had a better time making SM3 and been more eager to make SM4, especially since it would be the conclusion of a movie they already made. "One of the rumors about SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is that it’s going to feature Vulture and Tinkerer working together ..." There goes Marvel again, targeting the septagenarian market. Of course, Sony will probably want them to change the Tinkerer to a twenty-something hacker.

  3. xonathan

    Simple. Sony didn't know how to balance the villains. Honestly, they didn't need convoluted personal stories in the comic, they didn't need them in the movies. Usually all Spider-man villains are jerks that gained powers and continued to be jerks, but now with super powers. One of the things that Sony ruined is trying to make Spidey villains sympathetic and adding an unnecessary backstory to them distracting from the main plot that should be Peter Parker. Also, not all villains need to have their origins done within the movie. I accept flashbacks. It gets the story up and running quicker. In his treatment, James Cameron did a lot thing wrong but also a lot of things right. And one of them was the Sandman. He already was a villain and his origin (a mishap installing the electrical wiring of a secret government teleporter) was a flashback, not a story plot. Only the main villains should have their origin be a part of the narrative.

  4. ryan3178

    I'm good with multiple villains if you do it right. The Nolan Batman films find a nice way to balance it with having still having a main villain. Much like Winter Soldier. I would be fine if the Vulture and the Tinker with Oscorp thrown in as long as the story flows correctly. However, you know how many years I have waited for Mysterio to grace the silver screen?

  5. Crime Master

    I'm quite mixed on Osborn being used again, on one hand he's a natural fit for Big Bad, and he's a requirement for any adaptation, but on the other the Spidey films have become really over-reliant on Goblins, and there are so many other great villains. I think haveing him as a sympathetic supporting character for a few movies would be perfect, since it'd allow him to have a presence without being the center of attention, as well as act as a mentor figure to Peter throughout the films (maybe be a rival to Stark) which would make it all the more dramatic when he became the Goblin at some point down the line.

  6. Crime Master

    I'm hoping for one main villain with a few C-villains thrown in to be treated as minor set-pieces in the same way the previous movies would use regular criminals, this would mean we could get minor fan-favourites like the Shocker who aren't big enough to have a major role. God, I hope Chapter One isn't a major influence.....

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