The Promise of Sony's Budding Spider-Man Universe

Venom - The Enemy Within - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy Marvel Entertainment/Bob McLeod
After casting A-list stars like Jared Leto and Tom Hardy as B-list characters, the studio is free to explore territory not tapped by Marvel or DC.

Without Spider-Man in Sony’s spotlight, it seems the studio has no choice for its cinematic universe except to turn to the dark. News broke Wednesday afternoon that Jared Leto would star as Marvel Comics character Morbius, the Living Vampire in a film to be directed by Daniel Espinosa. If Morbius doesn’t ring a bell, that’s OK. The character, despite debuting in 1971, has never been one of Marvel’s A-listers, though attempts to bring the character to the big screen began in 2000, with David Goyer originally intending him to be the antagonist in Blade II (2002) — the origins of which can be seen in an alternate ending of Blade (1998).

Though Morbius missed out on the vampire craze of a decade ago, Sony is hoping the character, whose vampirism stems from science rather than the supernatural, will find favor with audiences looking to diversify their superhero films with antiheroes. First revealed as part of Sony’s impending Spider-man universe in November 2017, Morbius joins the development of Silver & Black, Nightwatch and the rumored Silk. These films, theoretically, are to be set in the same universe as Ruben Fleisher’s Venom, which is slated for release on Oct. 5.

Out of all of Sony’s Marvel films in development, Morbius is the farthest along, with a star, director and script all attached. Although Leto seems keen on double-dipping in the comic book world, perhaps his attachment to Morbius, and the production of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker movie set to begin in the fall, means we won’t be getting that second Joker movie starring Leto. While it's likely that the actor will show up as the Joker again in the future, it seems clear that he desires a meatier role in comic books films, and one that isn’t being delayed by a competing portrayal.

Many critics and fans have argued that Leto didn’t get to make his mark as the Joker in his meager role in Suicide Squad (2016), but Morbius seems like something the Oscar-winning actor can sink his teeth into, and will likely be a more rewarding experience — one divorced of the responsibilities that come with a character as iconic as the Joker. As the film that will likely follow Venom, Morbius sets up some interesting expectations for a cinematic universe hoping to distinguish itself from Marvel Studios well-established and well-regarded universe, and an actor whose eccentric performance methods could use a corner of his own in which to explore them.

Ironically, as Sony plots its Spider-Man universe, it also has somewhat ceded control to Marvel Studios on the hero, at least for the time being. Sony has long held the film rights to Spider-Man and his assorted characters, but a landmark deal with Marvel Studios allowed Peter Parker to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe for Captain America: Civil War (2016) and this year's Avengers: Infinity War. While Sony distributed, co-produced and reaped some of the financial benefits of Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, in terms of narrative purposes, seems to be exclusively an MCU character now. While Sony is still able to use Peter Parker in animation, like its upcoming Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where he will be portrayed by Jake Johnson, Peter Parker will not show up in a Venom movie as far as we know.

Fans have complained that a universe based on Spider-Man characters without Spider-Man makes no sense. But rather than see the lack of Spider-Man in Sony’s planned cinematic universe as a loss, take it as a blessing — one that frees the studio up to take some creative liberties and explore tones that may have been previously off-limits with the family-friendly neighborhood hero at the center. Spider-Man and his world can certainly support more than one universe. In fact, it was a similar thought process that led to Spider-Man receiving an additional book alongside The Amazing Spider-Man in 1976: The Spectacular Spider-Man. It was in these pages that a number of Peter Parker’s lesser-known supporting characters were fleshed out and some of Spider-Man’s darker battles were waged — ones that ultimately helped set the stage for the emergence and acceptance of a certain black-clad monstrosity to darken Peter Parker’s doorway.

Venom, despite having a comic book origin story defined by his relationship with Spider-Man, makes sense as the central character through which Sony will build their universe. His popularity has made him a cult comic book villain/antihero, and his design has enticed fans of both superheroes and horror alike. It’s the horror angle that seems to be exactly what Sony is going for. The first full trailer for Venom highlighted Eddie Brock’s (Tom Hardy) schizophrenic relationship with the monstrous alien symbiote that he finds himself bonded to. With influences of David Cronenberg and John Carpenter cited, Venom looks like its aiming for a more horrific depiction of the character who was last portrayed, disappointingly so, by Topher Grace in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (2007).

While an R-rating has been rumored but unconfirmed, Venom, even if it ends up with a PG-13 rating, gives Sony a chance to distinguish itself from the competition. With horror movies like It (2017) enjoying the same box-office success as superhero pics, who is to say that there isn’t a demand for a property that can combine both aspects? With Morbius now in tow, Sony may perhaps have the answer to the monster universe that Universal dropped the ball on with their classic stable of characters.

While Morbius most often found himself allied with the Midnight Sons, a team of horror-based Marvel characters from the 1990s which included former Sony character Ghost Rider, the rights of those characters lay in the hands of Marvel Studios. Despite that, the potential for a Venom and Morbius team-up movie is too great to pass up, especially with method actors like Hardy and Leto on board. Perhaps it’s madness destined to end poorly, but there’s something quite exciting about the prospect of seeing actors like Hardy and Leto putting their all into B and C-list characters.

Morbius has clashed and teamed with Venom on occasion over the years, notably in the miniseries Venom: The Enemy Within (1994), which saw the two characters pair up to take on the demonically possessed Hobgoblin, Demogoblin. With Spider-Man seemingly avoiding goblins for the time being, Demogoblin seems like a logical adversary that won’t infringe on introducing Norman Osborn into the MCU eventually. Additionally, Black Cat, who, along with Silver Sable is set to debut in a film from Gina Prince-Bythewood, has a storied history with Morbius. A member of the Midnight Sons and love interest of Michael Morbius in Spider-Man: The Animated Series, the Black Cat’s powers of probability manipulation could lend itself to a more supernatural focus.

Through Spider-Man supporting players, Sony has enough characters to create a massive universe, and if it can control the budgets and avoid rushing films into production, it may end up rivaling the quality, if not the box-office revenue, of anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Warner Bros.' DC movies are putting out. The lack of previous exposure for many of these characters means that Sony can distance itself from the comic books somewhat and reinvent core concepts in a way that feels distinct. Perhaps the world is calling for a bit more antiheroism from their costumed crusaders.

When first announced, it seemed that Sony’s Spider-man universe was just an attempt to force its way into superhero films, but with the lineup of projects in development, it appears that the studio is taking a careful approach. Silver & Black, initially set for release on Feb. 8, 2019, has since been delayed while the script undergoes rewrites. While this may cause alarm, perhaps the reason behind the delay is to better shape the pic’s tone into something different from a traditional superhero movie and more akin to the horror-thrillers in which Sony seems to be investing its interests.

Nightwatch, who currently has Spike Lee interested in directing, isn’t an inherently horror-based character, but his powers of invisibility and shapeshifting lend themselves well to that world. And Silk, a recent comics creation whose alter ego Cindy Moon (Tiffany Espensen) does appear briefly but isn’t named in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Avengers: Infinity War, has powers similar to Peter Parker, but ones that lend themselves more so to body horror. While Sony is ultimately placing a lot of faith in Venom, and history has shown us that box-office results and critical reception aren’t always kind to films that have a cinematic universe weighing on them, it may just pull all of this off. With the right blend of horror, high-energy actors and heroes only loved by a few in the general moviegoing audience, Sony may tap into a new vein of Marvel movies, the results of which could be bloody spectacular.