As Cinematic Universes Stumble, Sony Leans Into Standalone Superhero Stories With ‘Madame Web’ and ‘Kraven the Hunter’

It’s not the best time in Hollywood to be a cinematic universe. DC just finished flattening its own franchise so studio chief James Gunn can begin a new timeline with “Superman: Legacy.” Marvel Studios is licking its wounds after a series of streaming duds and box office disappointments. It’s a fallow, somewhat existential period for both banners: Between Marvel and DC, only two theatrical features — Disney’s “Deadpool 3” and Warner Bros.’ “Joker: Folie à Deux,” both with only tenuous connections to franchise canon — are slated for 2024.

Sony Pictures, however, has three lined up, emerging as this year’s leader in the superhero space after some post-strike release date shuffling. But unlike Disney and Warner Bros., the studio isn’t presenting its films as installments in a years-spanning narrative architecture.

More from Variety

“There may be some hesitation to emphasize the interconnectedness of these movies,” says Jeff Gomez, an executive transmedia producer at Starlight Runner. Gomez worked with Sony as a story consultant when the studio rebooted “Spider-Man” in 2017, casting Tom Holland and reaching an agreement to co-produce with Disney to place the hero in the rival studio’s cinematic universe. “They’ve talked about it before, and it didn’t work out.” So far, post-credits teasers bridging Sony’s spin-offs to Disney’s own continuity via interdimensional travel have been seen as half-hearted and, ultimately, unsuccessful.

Those appendages aside, Sony has largely minimized the interconnected nature of its superhero films, even as the studio taps more heavily from the well of Spidey-based characters that it licenses. The run began with 2018’s “Venom,” a gross-out comedy-slant origin story about the alien symbiote. The Tom Hardy vehicle was a commercial smash, grossing more than $850 million.

A hit sequel followed, along with the ongoing “Spider-Verse” series of animated films. The 2018 original, “Into the Spider-Verse,” bagged the animated feature Oscar; its sequel was the sixth-highest-grossing global release of 2023. But there was also 2022’s “Morbius,” the Jared Leto vampire actioner that was as critically reviled as the “Spider-Verse” movies were adored. More “Morbius” seems unlikely.

This year, Sony’s calendar has aligned for its busiest superhero slate yet, offering two origin stories followed by “Venom 3” in November. Each production is being sold as a self-contained endeavor, with its own aesthetic touch and no franchise catch-up needed.

Up first is “Madame Web” on Valentine’s Day. Set in 2003, the film stars Dakota Johnson as Cassandra, a clairvoyant who must lead three teenage girls discovering their own supernatural abilities. The cast also boasts rising stars like Sydney Sweeney. But Johnson’s conspicuous jump from WME to CAA in November — just days after a baffling first trailer debuted — raised industry eyebrows, along with a razz in her recent “SNL” monologue describing the film as “like if AI generated your boyfriend’s perfect movie.” Plus, Cassandra Webb’s interdimensional powers suggest the film could plant seeds for future adaptations.

“Madame Web, in the comics, tied together the multiverse for ‘Spider-Man’ characters,” Gomez says. “The purpose of doing that movie — I would think — would be to essentially set up a superhighway between universes.”

“Kraven the Hunter” follows in August. The gangster film is directed by J.C. Chandor, who has earned auteur cred for crime films like the buttoned-up potboiler “A Most Violent Year” and the gung-ho “Triple Frontier.” At last year’s CinemaCon, “Kraven” star Aaron Taylor-Johnson took the stage to bellow, “Fuck yeah, it will be rated R!” The trailer promises a bloody, macho romp — potential cause for fan celebration after some grumbling about the “Venom” franchise sticking to PG-13. But comic buffs might also expect a few “Spider-Man” Easter eggs in a movie about one of the hero’s most notorious foes.

“If ‘Kraven’ is about a dude with the powers of a lion and doesn’t allude to the greater ‘Spider-Man’ universe or help to set up what’s going to happen, then it had better be a rocking good movie,” Gomez says.

“Rocking good” would mark a welcome change of pace. Beyond the “Spider-Verse” series, Sony’s spin-offs haven’t exactly been critical darlings. Yet they have largely proved commercial victories — due in part to comparatively modest price tags. While budgets at Warner Bros. and Disney regularly balloon above $200 million, Sony has turned around superhero features for a fraction of the figure.

That’s what gave even a franchise nonstarter like “Morbius” — which earned a reception so devastating that it attained mocking-meme status — a viable path out of the red. Like that film, “Madame Web” cost less than $100 million to produce. “Kraven” comes in a bit north of that figure, though still below a previously reported number of $130 million. And “Venom 3” is seeing only a slight uptick from the $110 million spent on its 2021 predecessor.

Measured financial risks allow Sony to introduce new characters without facing the potential repercussions of a daunting investment in a cinematic universe. At CinemaCon 2022, the studio brought Bad Bunny onstage to announce “El Muerto,” which would follow a superhuman luchador to be played by the singer. But his conflicting tour and script revisions now have the project back in development — without a star on the books.

Whether or not “El Muerto” comes to fruition, its stand-alone nature is the model that Sony is applying to comic book films. Amid unease that cinematic universes may have grown too expansive, Sony looks to woo viewers via contained narratives — you know, the way blockbusters used to do.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.