'Morbius' And Marvel And Sony's Weird History Of Sharing Spider-Man Characters
We’re just days away from the release of Morbius, starring Jared Leto as the titular character who, we’re guessing, speaks in an outrageously offensive Italian accent and only finds out about his vampirism following a two-week spiritual retreat.
Morbius is Sony’s latest attempt to mine its bench of Spider-Man characters for movies that in no way include the presence of Spider-Man, who is still entangled in their lucrative joint custody-like deal with Marvel Studios. So now seems like as good a time as any to take a step back and examine how exactly everyone’s favorite webslinger became the centerpiece of Hollywood’s most confusing cinematic universe, which – now that it’s about to include literal vampires – isn’t about to get any less confusing …
Sony first landed the rights to make Spider-Man movies back in 1998, following a series of false starts from studios like ‘80s schlockmasters Cannon, for just $7 million. Which, post-No Way Home, feels a little like scoring a slot machine jackpot with a quarter-shaped hunk of pocket lint. And Marvel didn’t just sell Sony the rights to Spidey; the deal also included “his expansive library of characters” – hence why Sony’s first Spider-Man movie didn’t find the superhero facing off against Stuart Little and the cast of Girl, Interrupted. We’re not just talking about Aunt May and a handful of goblin-based villains, either, Sony’s “licensing pact with Marvel” included “rights to roughly 900 characters.” Which is … a lot.
Even at the time, these characters already held some value independent of Spider-Man; there had been plans to make a Venom movie back in 1997, with a script from David S. Goyer in which the alien symbiote originated on a planet populated by giant spiders. Oh, and it was going to star Dolph Lundgren, whose only other comic book-related outing at that point was the 1989 Punisher movie – which, um, sure lived up to its title.
There were even early attempts to bring Morbius the Living Vampire to the big screen. An alternate ending to Blade featured a quick shot of Morbius (played by the director in a trenchcoat for some reason) tee-ing up a role in the sequel, not unlike how Marvel’s current post-credit scenes tease future films. But since this was 1998, and the general public was more familiar with the members of the Goo Goo Dolls than Marvel villains, Morbius was cut from the finished film and abandoned altogether in the Blade sequels.
Two years later, Morbius was one of a handful of characters linked to a potential deal between Marvel and Artisan Entertainment, which also would have included Black Panther, Ant-Man, and Thor, who Marvel was practically giving away back then. Even in 2000, Artisan saw that there was a potential “complete franchise universe here” before the deal fell apart when the company was bought up by Lionsgate for “less than the budget of Spider-Man 2.”
Even with 900 folks to choose from, for a while, it seemed like Sony was content to use their Spider-Man-related roster of characters purely for Spider-Man movies – that is until Marvel Studios’ success showed off the potential of a cinematic universe. Following their Amazing Spider-Man reboot, Sony planned to produce a Sinister Six movie, and even an Aunt May spin-off – and in retrospect, they really could have just taken any old Sally Field movie and re-released it as say: Smokey and the Bandit II: The Adventures of Young Aunt May. At one point there was also Silver & Black, which sounds like the name of a law firm that advertises on cable TV at two in the morning, but was actually going to be a movie about Silver Sable teaming up with Black Cat.
But when the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man franchise went belly up, most of these projects fell apart too. But not Venom, which was originally going to be spun off of The Amazing Spider-Man-verse, and at one point, was pitched as a “hard-R” riff on The Mask from Josh Trank, later of Fantastic Four infamy. But we eventually got the 2018 Venom movie that we all know and … mildly tolerate?
Just a year after Sony and Marvel teamed up for Spider-Man: Homecoming, Venom became Sony’s attempt to chart their own comic book cinematic universe, legally distinct from the Marvel Cinematic Universe which their marquee character was already committed to. But it was still implicitly connected, since Venom is, first and foremost, a Spider-Man villain. And this caused a lot of confusion at the time; Sony head Amy Pascal first claimed that Venom and other Sony-produced Spider-Man spin-offs would “all take place in the world that we are now creating for Peter Parker” adding that they’ll “be adjuncts to it … but it will still all be in the same world.” Pascal’s view, incidentally, was made known while sitting next to nonplussed Marvel producer Kevin Feige, in an interview that soon got the meme treatment on social media.
Following Pascal’s statement, Marvel brass, including Avengers: Infinity War co-director Joe Russo offered the, seemingly contradictory, assertion that Venom was not part of the MCU. Pascal later offered a statement clarifying that while “all these characters are a part of the Marvel comic book universe” Sony’s characters would exist in a “separate” universe, presumably along with other Sony properties like the Men in Black and the Discman you threw out in 2004.
But then, complicating things even further, the post-credit scene in Venom: Let There Be Carnage, found Eddie Brock hopping dimensions into the MCU, setting up the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home – and by “events” we mean yet another brief post-credit scene in which Eddie gets hammered at a tiki bar with the dude from Ted Lasso.
So finally everything seemed fairly clear; the Venom films, not unlike the previous non-MCU Spider-Man movies, exist in an alternate dimension, separate from the MCU. But then came Morbius, and things, impressively, got even more stupefying. In the trailer, an FBI agent mentions “that thing in San Francisco” seemingly a reference to the events of Venom. And The Daily Bugle is an actual newspaper, not an InfoWars-esque talk show like in No Way Home. But then there’s also a poster depicting Spider-Man (who seemingly doesn’t exist in the world of Venom) and Michael Keaton shows up at one point, likely as Adrian Toomes, AKA The Vulture, last seen in Spider-Man: Homecoming – which seems like a pretty clear indication that Morbius takes place in the MCU, right?
Well … no. According to director Daniel Espinosa, “Morbius lives in the same universe as Venom.” What about The Vulture? Apparently the events of No Way Home “had the effect of transferring Venom and Vulture (and maybe others ) back and forth between the MCU and the Venom Universe.” And, really what could be more clear than that? Two mega-corporations have devised a sci-fi gimmick that will basically serve as a conduit for intellectual properties to hop from studio to studio while adhering to a decades-old legal agreement at the expense of narrative consistency and logic.
All of this seems ultimately self-defeating for Sony; the studio only began developing these live-action Spider-Man-less Marvel movies in order to build their own fictional universe. Which they could have just done with Morbius and Venom (and later Kraven the Hunter and Madame Web). But instead, thanks to the universe-shattering conceit of No Way Home, Sony is conspicuously trying to position Morbius as something that it plainly isn’t. Instead of wholly carving out their own identity (the way their animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did so well) Sony's tangential franchise is awkwardly trying to keep its hooks dug into the continuity of the MCU, and in doing so, is becoming the RC Cola of superhero universes.
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Top Image: Sony