What Sony's Spider-Man Universe Can Learn From Joker's Success

It's easy to learn some of the wrong lessons from the success of Warner Bros.' Joker, and since Sony Pictures Entertainment has proven extremely adept at taking the wrong lessons from superhero success stories, it seemed like it was worth taking a look at Joker, from the Sony Universe of Marvel Characters perspective, and see if there's something that can be learned. With Venom getting a sequel and a Morbius movie on the way, Sony's Spider-Man universe seems poised to be drawing from a very similar well: dark movies with big-name actors riffing on audience expectations about supervillains -- that Joker did.

Joker, like Deadpool and Logan before it, got people asking whether R-rated superhero movies were ready to roar to life. That fundamentally misses the appeal of Joker, which was built around a brilliant actor who was portraying a character popular enough, and complicated enough, that it already earned Heath Ledger an Academy Award in the recent past.

It also had a distinct identity, an interesting filmmaker, and a hook that was easy to understand: here's how a person goes from being an ordinary (if unstable) guy to a dangerous sociopath. It's Taxi Driver or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, except with Joaquin Phoenix in clown makeup.

With a multiverse being introduced in Spider-Man 3, and rumors swirling that basically anybody ever tangentially related to a Spider-Man movie might show up, what they could plausibly do is use that to make an interesting film -- either a Spider-Man film (think Tales from the Spider-Verse) or a film that doesn't star Spider-Man but explicitly takes place in an alternate universe inhabited by one of the other Spideys.

The message that should be taken away from films like Logan and Joker isn't that "F-bombs are cool" or that R-rated superhero movies are the future -- we had Blade years ago, and it isn't like that made every comics adaptation turn to the dark side.

Instead, what Sony ought to take away from the success of projects like these (and, for that matter, movies like Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) is that Marvel has a stranglehold on "typical" superhero movies that's hard to break. The biggest surprises out of the superhero movie space tend to be films that have a very strong "voice" and do cool, creative things that would be cool and creative even if it wasn't a superhero movie, but feel higher-stakes when you're doing it from a place where fans know it costs hundreds of millions of dollars.

It's also worth saying that if they're going to exploit the multiverse for fun and profit, it's probably better for them to wait until after at least Spider-Man 3, and possibly Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and/or The Flash, have come out to see how much tolerance mainstream movie audiences have for the concept. When The Amazing Spider-Man was a financial success, they assumed they would have the next Avengers on their hands and started to formulate a whole shared universe that included a Sinister Six stand-alone film after only one villain had even been revealed.

So...don't do that. Let The Amazing Spider-Man 2 be a lesson to you, even as you express willingness to reach back into those archives and give us another look at Jamie Foxx's Electro.

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The splintering of shared universes and the rise of alternate-continuity stories like Joker and The Batman is potentially great for Sony. They have Spider-Man, one of the most sure-fire superhero franchises in the world, and the Marvel brand with the longest history of success. Reaching back to the Maguire or Garfield years feels like a gimme if they are willing to shell out the money to make those happen, and you can do it without having to be tied to Marvel's shared universe -- something of a potential millstone around the neck of a competing studio.

You just have to actually think about how you do it, and take the right lessons away from others' successes.