Cinematic universes are hard to pull off, with only two full blown successes in the form of the original Universal Monsters and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That hasn’t stopped many from trying to get in on the action in multiple ways, setting up sequels and planned crossovers that don’t ultimately lead anywhere. Few have tried as hard as Sony with Spider-Man and the characters in his orbit.
Since Sony has to share Tom Holland’s Peter Parker with Marvel Studios for the foreseeable future, the studio is trying its hardest to ensure it can have its own strong live action cinematic standing without Holland’s wallcrawler in the picture. After striking big with Venom, the mild, $US84 ($117) million success of Morbius’ opening weekend and next year’s Kraven the Hunter are helping Sony build toward an endgame it’s had its eyes on for some time: the Sinister Six.
First appearing in January 1964’s The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the team is exactly what it says on the tin. Six enemies of Spider-Man — Kraven, Doctor Octopus, Electro, Vulture, Mysterio, and Sandman for the original roster — got tired of being beaten up by him solo and decided to team up… at which point, he beat them again. The Six are a fairly recurring threat for Spider-Man that regularly changes members with each new incarnation (at one point, the team doubled to become the Sinister 12). More recently in the comics, 36 villains split into six teams of Sinister Six during the “Sinister War” arc and held a contest to see who could defeat Spider-Man first. Over the years, the Sinister Six have managed to become popular in their own right, and at one point were able to headline their own comic in the form of 2013’s beloved Superior Foes of Spider-Man by Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber.
You can see, then, why Sony would want to bring six of Spider-Man’s well known foes together for a movie, which they’ve been trying to make happen for nearly a decade now. In 2014, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 infamously teed up the Sinister Six in its end credits by revealing their technology-based abilities and the roster ahead of a planned movie that never came. Twice now, the MCU has flirted with the notion of bringing the Six into the fold; first in Spider-Man: Homecoming via Vulture (Michael Keaton) and other criminals in his crew, then again in last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, which brought in five baddies from Spidey’s cinematic past (and also Tom Hardy’s Venom, for a quick gag and Spider-Man 4 tease). Thus far, Morbius is the most naked (and astoundingly stupid) attempt yet, as thanks to Doctor Strange’s spell at the end of No Way Home, Keaton’s Vulture winds up in the universe that houses Venom and Jared Leto’s dhampir. And since he’s a free man in this world who doesn’t owe its Peter Parker a solid, he asks Morbius if he wants to join in on kicking the arse of this world’s currently unknown Spider-Man.
It’s a deliciously petty reason to start a supervillain group, but for whatever reason, it feels hard to get excited at the prospect of the Six in live action. While MCU villains have been on an upswing in recent years, it feels like the more of them you have, the easier it is for there to be at least one loser among them. Look at No Way Home as an example: Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman and Rhys Ifans’ Lizard aren’t key to that film’s plot the way Willem Dafoe’s Goblin, Alfred Molina’s Ock, and Jamie Foxx’s Electro certainly are. They’re there because of the film’s flimsy tether of the villains all fated to die against Spider-Man (which those two don’t in their respective films), so you could axe the pair from the film entirely and not much would actually change.
Also not helping is that animation and video games have managed to do the Six much better. Spider-Man cartoons over the decades have generally made the team one of the hero’s earliest threats he has to contend with in his rise to greatness. In the first season of The Spectacular Spider-Man, many of the team’s villains were given room to exist as regular people first before they were brought into the supervillain fold, after which they got a solo episode to themselves. When they finally came together toward the end of the season, it felt earned because by that point, they were given solid characterization and their respective actors had brought them to life so well.
The same holds true for Insomniac’s 2018 Spider-Man game: most of the villains who make up the Six have already been beaten by the web-slinger offscreen earlier in his career, something that’s established in its opening moments. Because the game isn’t making their alliance be the point of the story, it feels like a genuine escalation when they’re all standing together. But when the villains are wreaking havoc through New York, Insomniac doesn’t lose focus on its two key villains, Mr. Negative and Doc Ock — Electro, Vulture, Scorpion, and Rhino comfortably exist as their lieutenants, and don’t risk overwhelming the story. When it comes time to fight the Six, the smartest move the game makes is by pairing up the less plot-critical baddies for a mission apiece (Electro and Vulture, then Scorpion and Rhino), while Negative and Octopus remain on their own to make up the game’s final missions. All things considered, it’s maybe the best way to handle the Sinister Six in any Spider-Man medium, as each villain feels like a credible threat in their own right while being around just long enough that you don’t get sick of them.
More than anything, what’ll continue to doom Sony’s repeated attempts at bringing the Sinister Six to the silver screen is that the studio is too high off its own, very limited supply. With most of the world fully aware that Sony has to play nice with Marvel and make do with the Spider-Man characters it does own, it’s easy to smell the desperation coming off them, trying to will movies into existence for characters like Madame Web. But in trying to build its own cinematic universe, Sony is ignoring the lessons of crowd-pleasers like Spider-Verse and Venom: people will see whatever superhero movie you make, if you give them characters and actors who are compelling to watch for two hours. Building that takes time and patience, something Sony very much isn’t interested in. Sooner or later, it’ll learn the hard way that the more post-credits scenes it tries to cram in, the more it ruins the chances of its villainous cabal being a reality.