Sony's Spider-Man Universe Has A Big Problem After Morbius

Superheroes are by far the most reliable thing at the box office and have been, for going on at least 15 years now; though DC is locked up at Warner Bros. and the majority of Marvel's characters are safely in the hands of Marvel Studios at Disney, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe ranking as the most bankable brand in all of entertainment. Everyone else? They're left to look to other heroes from lesser-known publications and what have you. For the most part, it really is a two-party system here. That is, unless you're Sony, as the studio still controls the rights to the "Spider-Man" franchise, which extends to hundreds of characters, including a great many villains, connected to the hero.

While Sony did cut a deal with Disney that allows for Spidey to appear in the MCU, with Tom Holland playing the role of Peter Parker currently, that left the studio with a gigantic portfolio of characters, arguably the greatest rogues gallery in all of comics rivaled only by that of Batman. So, Sony opted to create solo spin-off films for various villains in a universe divorced from the MCU in what is now dubbed Sony's Spider-Man Universe. It now consists of "Venom," "Venom: Let There Be Carnage," and "Morbius," with others on the way. But following the release of "Morbius," this burgeoning little cinematic universe may be facing a gigantic problem — one that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

The Venom problem

In the pages of Marvel Comics, Spider-Man has a great many villains, but few (if any) are quite as well known as Venom, who was created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie in the pages of 1988's "The Amazing Spider-Man" #300, building on various pieces of a puzzle that had been laid out dating back to 1984 when the black "alien" suit first appeared in "The Amazing Spider-Man" #252. Not only did he quickly become one of Spidey's most popular foes, but the black, deadly symbiote-covered version of Eddie Brock quickly become popular enough to warrant his own spin-off titles at the publisher. Venom is arguably one of Marvel's more well-known characters overall outside of the big hitters. So it made every bit of sense for Sony to make a "Venom" movie. And getting an actor as beloved as Tom Hardy to play the part of Eddie Brock was a big get.

We all know the story by now. Despite being lambasted by critics, 2018's "Venom" became a gigantic hit, taking in $856 million worldwide, paving the way for last year's "Let There Be Carnage" to make $501 million (without a release in China). In the middle of all of this, Sony was figuring out what characters to spin off next, as that sort of success warrants a continuation. The problem is, perhaps with the exception of Doc Ock, no other villain from any "Spider-Man" comics has that kind of clout. Especially not to overcome such poor reviews. And, to that end, not every one of these movies is going to get a guy like Hardy in the lead role.

Many ideas were floated, and characters such as Black Cat, Silver Sable, Nightwatch, and others were considered or developed. But it was Morbius the Living Vampire, who debuted in "The Amazing Spider-Man" #101 in 1971 who was chosen to be the next villain to take the spotlight, with Oscar winner Jared Leto taking on the lead role. And here's the thing, even as a guy who has read comics my whole life, I was only vaguely familiar with Morbius, and yet here we were living in a world where a "Morbius" movie was happening. How were people who never really read comics going to respond?

Morbius amplified Venom's mistakes

The pandemic upended Sony's original plans for "Morbius" as the movie was supposed to arrive in the summer of 2020 long before the "Venom" sequel. It was ultimately delayed by two years and, as evidenced by all of the footage from the trailers not seen in the movie, it was changed a great deal in the editing room between then and now. In any event, director Daniel Espinosa's "Morbius" fared even worse with critics than "Venom" did, and audiences didn't seem to differ enough with critics on the matter to make enough of a difference. While the film (which is said to carry a relatively modest $75 million budget) did win its first weekend, it tanked in its second weekend and is looking to fade extremely fast. This is not what any studio wants when it comes to any blockbuster, let alone a superhero movie that is going to help establish a shared universe.

It's hard to know what the thinking from Sony was here, but the biggest problem is that "Morbius" was not a good movie. In the case of "Venom," the character was recognizable enough and Hardy was a big enough star that even against terrible reviews, the movie stood a chance at breaking through. And it did exactly that. Plus, Hardy delivered a more unhinged performance that, for better or worse, was more memorable. "Morbius," on the other hand, is dealing with a character few people have ever heard of and largely served as a very uninspired origin tale without a wackadoo performance at its core to make it memorable enough to give it staying power. Curiosity bought Sony one weekend, but that isn't enough to build a cinematic universe.

We've seen time and time again that superhero movies with A-list characters can suffer bad reviews and still make good money. "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," "Suicide Squad," "Eternals," the aforementioned "Venom," and "X-Men: Apocalypse" serve as several examples. But that same math doesn't work out for an obscure character such as Dr. Michael Morbius. Audiences will not simply turn up because this is loosely connected to Spider-Man in some way, shape, or form. And, given that Sony doesn't have any other characters nearly as recognizable in the public eye as Venom, this is potentially a huge issue, assuming they stick to what they're doing currently.

There is a way, but this ain't it

Here's the thing, the MCU was built on the idea that if you make good movies, people will show up. It is very much worth remembering that before "Iron Man," the character was not an A-lister and not nearly that present in the public consciousness. Yet, a great movie changed all of that. A superhero can hook an audience in, but there still needs to be more to it — that's how the MCU has managed to make franchises out of the likes of "Guardians of the Galaxy." The strategy that Sony is currently employing with these "Spider-Man" spin-offs does not in any way mirror the model of success that has been laid out before.

It more closely mirrors a model of failure, which is trying to cobble together a cinematic universe and dooming the idea by putting the cart before the horse. Again, we can look at "Batman v Superman" or Universal's Dark Universe. Instead, Sony can take a hard look at the characters it has, and let filmmakers with compelling ideas come in and try to make something good that can stand alone, with a unified universe maybe existing as a nugget after the fact. That cannot be the primary concern if they hope to overcome the problem of not having instantly recognizable A-list characters to work with.

Heck, even in the comics tons of villains end up with great solo stories. Characters like Loki, Thanos, Magneto, and many others have starred in acclaimed solo books. Even the recent "Juggernaut" miniseries all serve as examples of this type of storytelling working in the source material. There is absolutely a path forward here for Sony but they need to work fast, as "Kraven the Hunter" is already in production and "Madame Web" doesn't seem far behind. The failure of "Morbius" should make them take a hard look at what they have planned and pivot if needed. Do not double down on ideas that don't work. Madness that way lies.