Thursday, January 14, 2010

Culture Shock 01.14.10: 'Spider-Man 4' gets boot in favor of reboot

If anyone ever wanted to deliberately sabotage a successful movie franchise, they probably could do worse than take notes on Sony Pictures' handling of the Spider-Man films.

On Monday, Sony announced it is shelving "Spider-Man 4," ending a series that has grossed more than $1 billion in the U.S. and Canada alone. In its place, Sony will start over with a new Spider-Man movie that takes the web-headed, wall-crawling superhero back to high school.

Sony is going forward without "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi and star Tobey Maguire, which is no surprise. Raimi spent most of the past year apologizing for "Spider-Man 3," which critics and fans alike had greeted with widespread disappointment.

Raimi had promised "Spider-Man 4" would have a better script that would emphasize the characters and not try to shoehorn too many supervillains into the mix. Unfortunately, the script Sony had in hand didn't meet Raimi's expectations. The word from Deadline Hollywood's Nikki Finke and Mike Fleming was that Raimi "hated it."

So, he walked away for that most Hollywood of reasons — "creative differences" — and Sony is rebooting with a new director and a new cast.

All of that must have come as a surprise to John Malkovich, who, as recently as earlier in the day Monday, was reportedly set to play The Vulture in "Spider-Man 4."

Meanwhile, early rumors about Sony's revised plan aren't encouraging. I've already seen the words "dark" and "gritty" floating around, and Spider-Man doesn't really do dark and gritty. He's not Batman.

Still, while it looks like Sony has made a huge blunder, I can see why the studio's executives are looking to start again. Every successful superhero franchise since the 1980s has started to fall apart with its third installment. Remember "Superman 3," the sequel that tried to make us believe Richard Pryor could fly? 'Nuff said.

Other third-movie clunkers include "Batman Forever" and "X-Men: The Last Stand."

Given that track record, it's probably just as well that Christopher Nolan isn't in any hurry to follow up "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight."

Maybe the suits at Sony thought they were pressing their luck by going forward with a fourth Raimi-helmed Spider-Man movie, especially since "Spider-Man 3" had followed the trend of starting the franchise on a downward spiral.

But reboots are risky business, too. Nolan's Batman revival was a huge success, effectively fumigating the stench left behind by "Batman Forever" and "Batman and Robin." But Marvel Entertainment's 2008 revamp of the Hulk didn't fare much better at the box office than Ang Lee's 2003 film. Adjusted for inflation, it was pretty much a wash.

And after two modestly successful Fantastic Four movies, the most recent of which came out in 2007, Fox is already looking to reboot the series and bypass the third-movie letdown entirely. That's just fine for those of us who thought the Fantastic Four movies were lousy, anyway.

As for Spider-Man, it just gets worse. On Tuesday, news broke that the troubled Spider-Man musical is back on track for a Broadway run, thanks to backing by Marvel's new owner, Disney. Directed by Julie Taymor, for whom nothing is too over-the-top, and with music by the most pretentious duo on the planet, Bono and The Edge, it's sure to make "Spider-Man 3" look good.

I certainly know my disaster sense is tingling.

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