When we last glimpsed Spider-Man on the big screen, in the closing moments of 2007's Spider-Man 3, Tobey Maguire's wiry web-slinger was at the top of his game, basking in the embrace of the city he'd once again saved from certain catastrophe.
For the franchise that bears his name, however, the situation was not so rosy. Spider-Man 3's robust box office numbers couldn't hide the fact that it was an utter mess of a film, bearing all the hallmarks of a saga that had lost its way. Its bloated narrative, featuring a trio of villains who together conspired to rob the story of all coherence, reeked of studio meddling. And its major players, burned out from the rigors of producing and promoting a trio of mega-blockbusters, all seemed intent on going their separate ways.
A "Fresh" New Trilogy
Despite all this, Sony didn't hesitate to green-light three more Spider-Man flicks, with Raimi agreeing to stay on as a producer. He displayed little interest in the directing job, however, opting instead to pack his schedule with a diverse slate of new projects, including a horror flick (2009's Drag Me to Hell), a reboot of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan franchise, and a new Evil Dead movie.
Seeking a "fresh take" on the character, Raimi solicited story pitches for Spider-Man 4 from a variety of writers, eventually commissioning James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) to pen a script based on his ideas for chapters four and five of the saga. When Vanderbilt delivered his draft, the buzz it generated not only convinced Raimi to return to the Spider-Man director's chair, it persuaded Maguire, who had all but disavowed the franchise after the third film, to once again don the signature red-and-blue tights.
Production isn't slated to begin until the fall of next year, giving us plenty of time to speculate about the course they'll take for Spider-Man 4 and 5.
Different, But Not That Different
Bringing back the same director and star indicates that while Sony may be interested in a "fresh take" on the Spider-Man character, they're by no means planning a Batman Begins-style reboot. And Deadline Hollywood Daily's Nikki Finke, who broke the story of the Raimi/Maguire signing, reported that they have no interest in going "dark" a la The Dark Knight.
The best indication of the new films' intended direction will be the choice of villain. Regarding that decision, Finke's story can only tease us with the line, "Once you find out who the villain is, you'll know who's playing it." Using that cryptic quote as a guide, here's a rundown of the possibilities:
The Lizard (Dr. Curt Connors) -- Played by Dylan Baker in Spider-Man 2 and 3, Connors is the one-armed physics professor who's aided Peter Parker at various points throughout the saga. As fans of the comic well know, he eventually transforms into the reptilian beast Lizard during a disastrous attempt to regrow his missing limb. While casting the Lizard as the next villain makes the most sense from a continuity point of view, it's a rather orthodox choice for a franchise in need of a jump start -- and frankly a bit of a yawner in the post-Ledger era.
Man-Wolf (John Jameson) -- The only other future villain to appear in previous Spider-Man flicks, John Jameson (played by Daniel Gillies in Spider-Man 2) is the astronaut son of Peter Parker's muckraking boss J. Jonah Jameson. According to Marvel lore, he eventually becomes the ravenous lycan Man-Wolf after being exposed to a mystical gem found while exploring the moon. Which is quite possibly the worst comic book origin story ever.
Kingpin -- While 2003's Daredevil was excoriated by critics, Michael Clarke Duncan's performance as the ruthless mobster Wilson Fisk, aka the Kingpin, received generally positive reviews from the fanboy community. It's a longshot, to be sure, but should producers opt to mimic the "real world" approach akin to that favored by Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, then Kingpin, who possesses no inherent super powers of his own, would be a logical choice. Assuming he can get out of his Quizno's contract.
Doctor Doom -- Doom, portrayed by Julian McMahon in the two Fantastic Four flicks, is the only other familiar face from the Marvel movie universe who might make sense as a Spider-Man villain. But given the dissimilar tone of the Fantastic Four movies (and the horrendous reviews they received from critics and fanboys alike) this option remains is extremely unlikely.
Deadpool -- Ryan Reynolds, who enjoys a cameo as the assassin Deadpool in the upcoming X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is currently developing a feature-length spin-off based on the Marvel anti-hero. Though technically a good guy, Deadpool often flirts with the wrong side of the law and has tangled with Spider-Man in the comics before.
Other Marvel Heroes -- An intriguing (but nigh-impossible) scenario would pit Spider-Man against either the Punisher or Daredevil -- both of whom he's battled in the comics. Unfortunately, the movie rights to those characters belong to other studios (Daredevil is owned by Fox, Punisher by Lionsgate). Ditto for occasional Spidey adversaries Wolverine and the Hulk.
What if Raimi decides to go with a completely new villain? Vanderbilt is said to still be in the process of finishing his Spider-Man 4 script, and innumerable changes can occur between now and the start of shooting. Some possibilities:
Vulture -- One of the few elderly villains of the Marvel universe, the Vulture is an electronics guru who terrorizes the innocent with the aid of a high-tech harness that endows him with super strength and flight capabilities. Legend has it the character was included in early drafts of Sam and Ivan Raimi's Spider-Man 3 script before Marvel exec Avi Arad mandated that Venom be used instead.
Scorpion -- Scorpion is an old-school Spider-Man villain who first appeared in the comic way back in 1964 as the product of a J. Jonah Jameson scheme gone awry. In addition to the standard super strength and agility, he sports a suit equipped with a "tail" that functions much in the same way as one of Dr. Octopus' mechanical arms. In the comics, he recently dropped the Scorpion moniker and became the latest Venom.
Rhino -- Another of the classic Spider-Man foes, the Rhino is a nearly indestructible human battering ram, much like the X-Men baddie Juggernaut. His low IQ and one-dimensional nature render him ill-suited for the role of the main adversary, but he'd work well in a secondary role in service of a more intelligent villain.
Electro -- In interviews he gave while promoting Spider-Man 3, Raimi often cited Electro, a frequent Spidey adversary who can manipulate electricity and emit bolts of lightning, as one of the villains he'd like to see in future sequels. But can a guy whose weakness is water really be a credible bad guy?
Carnage -- Created when the spawn of Venom merged with a deranged serial killer, Carnage was the centerpiece of the excellent 1994 crossover series Maximum Carnage and has returned to harass Spidey at various times since. His close resemblance to his alien symbiote "father" probably disqualifies him from serious consideration for Spider-Man 4 or 5.
Kraven -- A big-game hunter with superhuman strength and speed, Kraven faced Spidey often in the comic's early days. His Village People wardrobe and un-P.C. hobby make him an unlikely choice for the new films -- that, and the fact that he's been dead for two decades.
Other Potential Developments
Mary Jane -- Though the Mary Jane Watson character is said to be returning for Spider-Man 4, Kirsten Dunst has not yet re-signed to play the saga's resident damsel in distress. It's unclear how large her role would be if she did, considering the speculation that Vanderbilt's script includes a new female character (the Black Cat, perhaps?).
3-D, IMAX, or Both -- Given the success of The Dark Knight's IMAX run and Hollywood's growing penchant for shooting in 3-D, don't be surprised if the next chapters of Spider-Man employ either -- or both -- of these emerging technologies.