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With Madame Web bombing, it’s time to ask: Who wants a Spider-Verse without Spider-Man?

Ezekiel stands in front of a billboard in Madame Web.

You didn’t need powers of clairvoyance to see this weekend’s bad box office news coming. No, eyes and ears alone could have told you that the forecast was not bright for Madame Web, the new superhero anti-spectacle starring Dakota Johnson as a paramedic beset by visions of catastrophe (and pressed, rather begrudgingly, into protecting some future Spider-Women). The movie amassed a measly $26.2 million over the extended Valentine’s Day holiday. Is anyone surprised? The writing was on the wall(crawler) from the minute we saw the trailer, which was cursed with line deliveries that provoked more mocking memes than genuine excitement.

There are simple explanations for why Madame Web flopped. The reviews are terrible. The title character is obscure. General interest in superheroes is on the wane. And yes, the early look provided by the trailers seemed to promise only unintentional laughs. But maybe there’s a more fundamental issue with this latest attempt to turn Marvel back issues into big-screen business. Maybe, just maybe, audiences aren’t that interested in a Spider-Man movie without Spider-Man.

Madame Web confronts Ezekiel in Madame Web.

We’ve seen a few of those already. Madame Web is the latest installment in what no normal person refers to as the SSU — aka Sony’s Spider-Man Universe, a live-action franchise that, name aside, has failed to offer a single appearance by Spider-Man. It was the success of Venom, starring Tom Hardy as the alien-hosting antihero, that convinced execs that there was money to be made in plumbing the rolodex and rogues’ gallery of the friendly neighborhood web-slinger. Since 2018, the studio has offered more Venom and a failed starring vehicle for Morbius, the living vampire — classic Spider-Man villains, suddenly divorced of any relationship to Spider-Man. Later this year, another Spidey heavy, Kraven the Hunter, will star in his own movie. One thing we know now: It will definitely not include any scenes of Kraven fighting Spider-Man.

Andrew Garfield as Peter-Parker with his mask off in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2."
Image via Sony Pictures Releasing / Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

This alternate Marvel Cinematic Universe, populated mainly by B-listers and bad guys, grew out of the increasingly complicated matter of who gets to make Spider-Man movies. Sony has held the big-screen rights to the character since the 1990s, and has kept them by continuously making films — first with Tobey Maguire in the spandex, then with Andrew Garfield. The idea for an MCU-style extended Spider universe dates back to those not-so-Amazing Spider-Man movies. And it survived beyond Sony giving up on the rebooted series and agreeing to share Spider-Man — and the resulting profits — with Disney, a deal that’s allowed the character to appear alongside the Avengers while keeping the door open for non-MCU adventures.

Thing is, Tom Holland — who plays Peter Parker in the Marvel Studios movies — has only signed on for official MCU projects so far. And though he showed up to shoot a post-credits scene for Venom, Disney honcho Kevin Feige successfully nixed it, probably to avoid any impression that a janky, unofficial Marvel movie was part of his official Marvel franchise. In other words, Sony has failed to actually secure Spider-Man for the series of films the company has loosely adapted from Spider-Man comics. And as a result, the so-called SSU plays like a particularly unappealing issue of What If…? — as in, what if Spider-Man was somehow magically erased from his own story, leaving behind only the variably popular heavies and weird, forgotten sidekicks he encountered over the years?

Venom 2 - Post Credits Scene [4K]

The Parker-shaped void at the center of this franchise would be less noticeable if the studio hadn’t made such sweaty attempts to convince audiences that, in some offhand way, they’re still watching Spider-Man movies. Mostly, that’s played out across post-credits scenes. Venom: Let There Be Carnage zipped Hardy’s Eddie Brock into the MCU, allowing him to gawk at an image of Holland on a TV screen … before the same year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home quickly sent him back to his own corner of the Multiverse. Meanwhile, Morbius featured a closing appearance from Michael Keaton’s Vulture, similarly volleyed from one movie reality to another. That this cameo was heavily promoted in the trailers, as opposed to preserved as a surprise, demonstrates how desperate Sony was to draw in Spider-Man fans under the false pretense that Morbius would connect to the superhero’s story in any meaningful way.

Morbius Post Credit Scenes 4K HD

In Madame Web, the Spidey connection is somehow more overt and more tenuous. Setting the film in the early 2000s feels like a particularly shameless way to imply that it functions as a prequel to the Holland movies. Adam Scott plays a character named Ben Parker, on the cusp of becoming an, ahem, uncle to his sister’s unborn child, who “keeps leaping around in there.” No one utters the kid’s name  — a choice that’s played like a coy wink, when it might actually be a noncommittal compromise. He could be Peter Parker. Or not. That Madame Web doesn’t say — and maybe can’t say — reinforces the sense that you’re watching the superhero origin-story equivalent of an unauthorized biopic — the Jackie Jormp-Jomp version of a Spider-Man movie.

Adam Scott as Ben Parker in Madame Web.
Sony Pictures

More than sops to the fan base or false promises of a crossover that may never happen, the Easter eggs and MCU teases betray a buried self-awareness at the center of Sony’s cinematic universe: They imply that, on some level, all involved know how little sense it makes to insert these characters into their own movies as opposed to, well, Spider-Man movies. Morbius, Kraven, the widely forgotten and unloved Madame Web — these are undercard acts largely defined by their relationship to the headliner. They are foils or foes. They are not ready for their close-up. It’s possible to imagine a good Spider-Man movie featuring them, and even a better version of Morbius or Madame Web. (We’ll give Kraven the benefit of the doubt, as no one has seen it yet.) But it’s impossible to shake the feeling that Sony is counting on brand loyalty to elevate action movies and thrillers no one would care about without some faint link to coveted IP.

Even Venom, the one A-list character in Sony’s bargain bin of Marvel leftovers, should have been saved for an actual Spider-Man movie, no matter how that went the last time he was in one. The slobbering monster always made more sense as a villain than the reluctant “lethal enforcer” Marvel made him into when his popularity skyrocketed in the early 1990s. (For a reminder of how scary he can be, queue up this past year’s PS5 smash Spider-Man 2.) If Sony ever actually does work Spidey into the misleadingly titled SSU, there will be no real bite in pitting him against Venom, because Hardy’s symbiote-bonded Brock has already been firmly established as a good guy.

Eddie converses with Venom in Venom: Let There Be Carnage.
Sony Pictures

The unspoken promise of the SSU is that, eventually, Spider-Man will show up. Sony is almost certainly hoping to make that dream a reality. The introduction of the Multiverse makes it theoretically possible, in the same way it was possible for the Vulture and Venom to jump dimensions, like professional athletes traded into new leagues. But every shoddy misfire, every Morbius or Madame Web, makes that possibility seem more distant, because why would Holland (or any other actor who’s put on the mask) want to hitch their wagon to such a falling star? This crummy comic-book franchise doesn’t deserve the enduringly popular superhero who looms over it, lending it a brand even in near-total absence.

But boy, does Sony need him! The consecutive failures of Morbius and Madame Web suggest that it’s getting harder to sell audiences on a Spider-Man universe without Spider-Man. Call that a symptom of comic book cinema’s diminishing returns — the rude awakening for executives discovering that people won’t shell out for everything Marvel-related. Or maybe Sony is specifically pushing the limits of audience investment by trying to turn second-stringers into starters. Either way, this oddball web of antiheroes and vaguely arachnid-themed psychics is going to dissolve without an iconic web-slinger at its center. And if Peter Parker isn’t available, maybe it’s time to roll out the live-action red carpet for a different Spider-Man. Thankfully, Sony knows a guy.

Madame Web is now playing in theaters everywhere, but for how long? For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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