It was an unusually eventful Monday for jokers of all shapes and sizes.
As John Cho and Issa Rae announced the nominees for this year’s Academy Awards, Joker emerged as the Oscars’ most surprising heavyweight, racking up a whopping 11 nominations, with particularly buzzy nods for Joaquin Phoenix’s harrowing portrayal of the DC supervillain and director Todd Phillips (The Hangover), as well as bids for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Meanwhile, Morbius—Sony’s gritty reimagining of the “living vampire” who menaced Spider-Man in many a comic-book panel—got its first trailer, revealing an emaciated Jared Leto as the fanged antihero. After Leto’s dangerously ill protagonist attempts an experimental blood treatment involving a great many bats, he’s transformed into a vampiric creature who menaces the fine folks of New York—including Michael Keaton’s Vulture, a direct link tying the film to Spider-Man: Homecoming and, more uncertainly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole.
The timing couldn’t have been more entertaining for those who’ve kept abreast of Leto’s abject fury surrounding Phoenix’s casting in Joker. Leto, a musician-turned-actor, played Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad and was notoriously committed to the part, despite appearing in only 10 minutes of director David Ayer’s final cut. Leto reportedly expected Warner Bros. to set him up with a standalone Joker films, as well as with appearances in future DC films. When Suicide Squad earned awful reviews at the box office, leading execs to can Ayer’s planned sequel and instead tap James Gunn to reboot the property, those plans seemed at least temporarily put on hold.
Enter Joker. Originally greenlit as a smaller one-off experiment by WB executives, Phillips’ film has emerged as a critical and commercial smash, having grossed $1.067 billion against a budget in the range of $55 to $70 million despite polarized reviews. Without a doubt, it’s the most attention-getting of WB’s forays into the DC Comics sphere yet, and it’s likely to set the tone for future entries in the DC Extended Universe. With Phoenix racking up particular accolades for his performance as the Clown Prince of Crime, it seems more unlikely than ever that Leto will reprise the role of Joker.
So instead, he’ll have to contend with playing another dangerous supervillain for Sony, a studio surely more interested in launching a franchise with Leto at its head these days than WB and DC. And based on the first trailer, Leto honestly might be a more apt fit for the character of an emaciated vampire. To wit, in 2006 he was once named Prince of Darkness at Fangoria’s annual Chainsaw Awards, back when he was touring with 30 Seconds to Mars and appearing in all kinds of Shining-influenced music videos. This was always his role to win.
Morbius follows Sony’s success with 2018’s Venom, a darker supervillain saga led by Tom Hardy as another Spider-Man antagonist. Like Venom, Morbius hails entirely from Sony, and it shares that film’s shadow-soaked, gritty aesthetic. But intriguingly, the Morbius trailer suggests Sony is interested in eventually bringing Leto’s vampire into conflict with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s current iteration of Spider-Man, requiring a little explanation as to which studios currently own the rights to which of the comic-book characters in play here.
Marvel has licensed Spider-Man and his related antagonists (including Venom and Morbius) to Sony for going on two decades, under the terms of a pact forged prior to Disney’s $4 billion acquisition of Marvel in 2009, which laid the groundwork for the current Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy was an exclusively Sony affair, as were Marc Webb’s two Amazing Spider-Man films featuring Andrew Garfield. In more recent years, Sony has worked with Marvel and its head architect Kevin Feige to launch the current iteration of Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland. Under the terms of their unusual deal, Marvel and Feige help to guide the creative direction of Spider-Man movies for Sony, with the latter studio distributing and reaping the financial benefits for standalone titles like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home (the latter of which became the first Spidey film to pass $1 billion globally).
In exchange, Sony gives Marvel permission to use Spider-Man in other Marvel films, allowing for his sizable role in Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as to a lesser degree Avengers: Endgame.
But the Morbius trailer, even more than the entirety of Venom (which made relatively few allusions to the MCU despite using familiar Spider-Man characters like Daily Bugle reporter Eddie Brock), suggests that Sony is thoroughly committed to working within the shadows of Marvel’s existing franchise, rather than pushing forward with a universe all its own.
In addition to featuring Michael Keaton’s Vulture—incarcerated after the events of Homecoming – in a seemingly significant role, the trailer features a shot of Leto’s antihero storming past graffiti over a poster of Spider-Man, which reads “murderer.” Without spoilers, that little easter egg would seem to place Morbius after the post-credits scene for Spider-Man: Far From Home, in which the public’s perception of Spider-Man was warped by a video message from Jake Gyllenhaal’s tech-savvy villain Mysterio. That same post-credits scene, intriguingly, confirmed that J.K. Simmons, who played Daily Bugle boss J. Jonah Jameson way back in Sony’s Raimi-directed Spider-Man trilogy, is surprisingly still playing Jameson in the MCU.
In other words, just how closely tied Sony’s darker superhero films will be to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has never been a more pertinent question. Sony and Marvel’s deal hasn’t been without its issues, and the studios briefly called it quits before reaching a new agreement to continue their previous alliance.
But Morbius appears to be sowing seeds for an on-screen collision between Holland’s Spider-Man and Leto’s Morbius—and more curiously, for a clashing of tones between Sony-Marvel’s lighthearted, globe-trotting Spider-Man films and Sony’s darker, almost Gothic supervillain stories. Could the studio still be interested in architecting a Sinister Six film—featuring Leto’s Morbius, Hardy’s Venom, and Keaton’s Vulture? Those plans date back to Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films, though there’ve been no new developments on it since 2013, when Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) was attached to write and direct.
With Joker as massive a hit as it is, now with Oscar voters as well as mainstream audiences, Sony is also perhaps invested in plotting its own series of gritty thrillers involving comic-book characters. Though Venom, as directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), fell along more standard comic-book-movie lines, Leto’s unpredictability as a leading man—and the horror-tinged aspects of Morbius as a character—could actually work in Sony’s favor on that count.
Whether Morbius finally gives Leto a superhero franchise that won’t be usurped by the next movie out of the gate remains to be seen. The film, directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), opens July 31, where it will be blessedly free from any super-powered competition, given that Fox (with The New Mutants on April 3), Marvel (with Black Widow on May 1) and WB/DC (with Wonder Woman 1984 on June 5) will all have already had their time atop the summer box office.
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