With the release of the first trailer for Morbius, Sony continues to grow its own shard of the Marvel universe, one centred on characters associated with Spider-Man.
The film itself sees lead actor Jared Leto switching loyalties from Warner Bros and DC, where he played Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad, to take up the role of Michael Morbius: an anti-hero also known as “The Living Vampire” who – in the comics, at least – frequently crosses paths with Spider-Man. Like 2018’s Venom, the upcoming movie seems to be introducing the character independently of the web-slinger, but there are already a few hints that Sony’s cinematic properties are drawing closer together – and that they may not be as far removed from the ‘main’ Marvel Cinematic Universe as once thought.
First though, for the uninitiated, who is Morbius? The character first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #101 in 1971, created by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, shortly after the Comics Code Authority dropped its ban on monsters. The CCA was an industry self-regulation board originally set up in 1954 in response to public fears over gory, horrific, or sexual content in comic books. For decades, the Code – which Marvel and most other American publishers were signed up to – had banned the likes of zombies, werewolves and vampires from comics, gutting horror publishers such as EC Comics, but also robbing more mainstream publishers of familiar villains.
With the relaxing of the CCA’s strict rules, publishers were free to explore the macabre again, and Thomas and Kane envisioned Morbius as a tragic, literary figure. Once Dr Michael Morbius, a brilliant biochemist with a rare blood disorder, he tests a potential cure derived from vampire bat DNA on himself, saving his life at the cost of turning him into a “pseudo-vampire” – phenomenally strong and fast, capable of flight, hypnosis, and accelerated healing, but also afflicted with a deep aversion to sunlight, bleached skin, a bat-like appearance with a flattened nose, and a need to consume blood to survive. Being born of science rather than mysticism, Morbius’ origin allowed Marvel to skirt any lingering aversions to monsters appearing in comics, while also having a character that better fit into the Marvel Universe.
While he would flit in and out of Spider-Man comics over the decades, sometimes as a foe, sometimes an ally, Morbius’ popularity with readers would secure him several solo comic series. Yet despite appearances on animated series and in video games, the character never seemed to quite have the appeal to reach a mainstream audience – too much a horror figure for superhero fans, too much a superhero for horror fans. This made Morbius one of the stranger candidates for a standalone film when Sony announced plans for its own “Universe of Marvel Characters” populated by heroes and villains it had acquired as part of its Spider-Man license.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Morbius trailer though is that it hints at deeper connections to not only the Sony “Spiderverse” but also the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe that, to date, only Tom Holland’s Peter Parker has visited. While much of the teaser paints the film as a fairly accurate translation of Morbius’ comic book origin, along with flashes of former Doctor Who Matt Smith as villain Loxias Crown, we also get a glimpse of Leto walking past a poster of Spider-Man that has been graffitied with “murderer” – reflecting the public’s perception of the character after the events of Spider-Man: Far From Home. This is not only the first definitive connection between Sony’s Marvel movies and those produced by Disney, but it also gives us a time frame for the events of Morbius itself.
Then there’s the real twist – the trailer equivalent of a post-credits scene, introducing Michael Keaton. While his role is still officially unrevealed, fans will know he played Adrian Toomes, A.K.A The Vulture in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming – last seen in prison, holding onto the knowledge of Spider-Man’s secret identity. Although that nugget of information isn’t quite as potent since the events of Far From Home, the character is another clear link to the core MCU. Of course, it could be a bluff on Sony’s part – even Marvel itself hasn’t shied away from double-casting actors, with Gemma Chan portraying both Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel and Sersi in the upcoming The Eternals – but Keaton’s appearance and his known links to the MCU is deliberately intended to hook viewers into a film they might otherwise pass by.
That in itself may prove to be the biggest surprise over Morbius’ existence. Mere months ago, Sony and Disney were in open warfare over Spider-Man, with the former accusing the latter of unfair demands to continue sharing the screen rights to the webslinger. While that rift has been patched up, and Tom Holland’s well-received take on the character once again set for further future appearances in the MCU alongside his own standalone films, it now appears the relationship is even stronger, with even the fringe characters owned by Sony being able to tap into the goldmine of the most successful shared continuity in cinematic history.
If that is the case, Sony’s corner of the Marvel Universe may prove to be wider and more important going forwards than fans have given it credit for. With movies currently in production or development including Venom 2, Black Cat, and villainous team The Sinister Six, plus more obscure figures such as Silk, Madame Web and Nightwatch, deeper connections to the Avengers side of cinema may mean no character is too niche to break into the mainstream.
Even if the links between domains aren’t as deep as the Morbius trailer hints they are, viewers perhaps shouldn’t write Morbius off anyway. Venom did substantially better for Sony than many onlookers expected, earning a warm reception from cinema goers thanks to its blend of fun action and darkly comedic moments, proving there’s an audience for a different tone of comic book movie than just Marvel’s own all-conquering formula.
We’ll be able to see how well Morbius stands on its own merits when the Daniel Espinosa-directed film lands in cinemas on July 31. Can’t wait for Morbius? See our guide to the new films coming out in 2020.
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