With its new 'Spidey-verse', can Sony triumph as the anti-Marvel?

Ben Child
Fangs for everything … Jared Leto, recently cast as Morbius the Living Vampire. Photograph: Bill McCay/Getty Images

Sony’s new superhero universe is such a fledgling creature that it does not even have a name yet. It’s been referred to unofficially as Sony’s Marvel universe (as opposed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and lately as Sony’s Spider-verse, referencing the links between forthcoming movies and the masked wallcrawler currently being played by Tom Holland over in the MCU.

There is an obvious issue here – one that reared its hideous, mangle-toothed head with the announcement of Tom Hardy’s upcoming Venom movie and has been compounded this week with the news that Jared Leto will play Morbius the Living Vampire in a future episode. Where is Spider-Man in these stories set in a world that informally bears his name?

Both Venom and Morbius’s origins stories are intrinsically linked to the webslinger – and Sony is only able to use these characters because it owns the big-screen rights to Spidey himself. Yet it increasingly looks as though the studio’s deal to share Spider-Man with Marvel – widely hailed for permitting Peter Parker to successfully join the MCU – does not extend to an invitation to roll out Holland for Sony’s own films. The Japanese-owned studio therefore finds itself with a Marvel cinematic universe on its hands that really has very little to do with Marvel itself, and a series of spin-offs – movies based on Silver and Black and Nightwatch are also reportedly in the works are missing the actual Spider-Man.

This, you might think, is a bit like watching a 1970s Brazil sans Pele. And yet, to zero in entirely on Spidey’s absence from the story, at least in the case of Morbius, would be to ignore the rich and fascinating history behind the birth of the vampire-like antihero.

Dr Michael Morbius PhD was introduced in 1971 in The Amazing Spider-Man #101 as a result of changes to the industry’s Comics Code Authority which meant that certain supernatural creatures were no longer banned from Marvel strips. His creators deliberately gave Morbius vampire-like powers based on pseudo-science rather than supernatural phenomena, as they chose to test the water ahead of a series of Dracula comics in 1972.

It is these unusual origins that have made the character a viable candidate for his own adventures in both comics and multiplexes, because rather than a merciless beast of the undead, Morbius is a tragic figure who wound up transforming himself into a vampire-like creature as he searched desperately for a cure to a rare blood condition. In the comics, he has at times been reconfigured as a heroic vigilante, not unlike Batman with distinctly pastier colouring, a thirst for bad-guy blood, and actual chiropteran superpowers.

Much like Venom (the Ruben Fleischer-directed episode whose recent trailers have looked so promising), Morbius is from a place far darker than anything we’ve yet seen in the MCU. If Tom Hardy’s Symbiote-assisted antihero seems to be borrowing heavily from David Cronenberg-esque body horror, the living vampire has the potential to tap into audiences’ enduring lust for gothic chillers. Universal’s “dark universe” may have stumbled at the first hurdle, hamstrung by its determination to reconfigure The Mummy as a straight-up Tom Cruise action vehicle (with side order of overacting Russell Crowe), but Sony might just have its own readymade replacement.

Perhaps this is as it should be. Attempts to mimic the success of the MCU, by Warner Brothers’ DC Expanded Universe and others, have so far been doomed to miserable failure. It might just be time to accept that the only way studios are going to attract both large audiences and critical acclaim with comics fare is to avoid the Marvel formula altogether.

There is, after all, some history to draw on. In the wake of Star Wars’s success in 1977, rival studios scurried to launch their own sci-fi franchises. But the film-makers who flew too close to the original, the brains behind such far-out offerings as Disney’s The Black Hole and numerous others, swiftly found themselves burned up in the reflected glow of George Lucas’s space opera.

It was the directors who switched up the zeitgeist in the late 1970s and early 80s – Ridley Scott with Alien and Blade Runner; John Carpenter with The Thing remake and Escape from New York – who made enduring careers for themselves.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for those coveting Marvel’s success. If so, the freakish corner of the comic-book universe where Sony seems increasingly to be pitching itself does not seem such a bad place after all. Even if it would still be nice to see Spider-Man himself slumming it with the lowlifes.