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A collage image with Morbius, Ghost Rider, Darkman and Blade. Graphic: Pete Volk/Polygon

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There’s so much untapped horror potential in super-monster movies

Morbius, Blade, and other horror heroes deserve their own corner of the universe

At the end of the 1998 superhero movie Blade, Wesley Snipes’ daywalker turns down a chance to be cured of his vampirism, opting instead to keep his powers for his fight against the fully undead. In an alternate version of this scene that periodically resurfaces in online bootlegs, the movie unveils Blade’s next target. On a distant rooftop stands a figure clearly intended to be Morbius, the Living Vampire. (He has no lines and no closeups, so he’s played by Blade director Stephen Norrington.) The studio ultimately flinched on plans to include Morbius in Blade II, due to the rights issues around the character.

Twenty-four years after Morbius was unceremoniously cut from the first-ever hit movie based on a Marvel superhero, he’s re-emerged in a vastly altered cinematic landscape. 2022 isn’t like 1998: Today, one of the only remaining sure bets at the box office is a movie starring a Marvel Comics hero. Morbiusbox-office take has been solid, but it’s also been overshadowed by some of the most scathing Marvel-related superhero movie reviews since 2015’s Fantastic Four, and by the general ignominy of being part of Sony’s fire sale of Spider-Man-adjacent characters, rather than the ultra-popular MCU.

Morbius’ switch from villain to leading-role antihero feels like a demotion. Without Spider-Man, he’s just another misfit monster without enough teeth. This is both fair, in that Morbius is pretty middling, and a shame, in that having some stray Marvel characters set up at another, non-Disney studio is an opportunity to diversify what superhero movies can do.

Morbius, along with the more popular but still vaguely off-brand Venom movies, is one of the last vestiges of a time when the rights to Marvel properties were scattered among various studios, highly unlikely to be reunited under a single corporate umbrella. Now that so many of those figures have been re-assembled in the MCU, the usual fan response to a movie as run-of-the-mill as Morbius is that Marvel characters are better off in movies under Kevin Feige’s supervision — and the filmmakers often seem to tacitly agree. That’s the only discernible reason for the utterly nonsensical pair of Morbius mid-credits scenes, which forge a ridiculous connection to another, better-liked Spider-verse.

That desire to force a few wayward characters back into the MCU is wrongheaded, especially when it comes to Marvel’s super-monsters. Enjoyably disreputable horror-influenced material deserves its own space in superhero cinema, preferably outside of the MCU’s well-established comfort zone. At its infrequent best, Morbius is more reminiscent of darker side stories like Ghost Rider or Blade than hero movies like Captain America: Civil War, which often feel more concerned with in-universe maintenance than with establishing fascinating little side worlds. The otherworldliness of horror-influenced superheroes doesn’t benefit from a previously established universe full of fantastical events–and though they’re not often paired in the MCU, the synthesis of horror and superheroes was the backbone of Marvel Comics early successes, with character-monsters like the Hulk and the Thing, and monster-monsters like Groot and Fin Fang Foom.

morbius the vampire doctor has red eyes flaring up and fangs, baby Image: Sony Pictures

A movie like Blade may appear out of fashion now, especially as Marvel promises an MCU-integrated version starring Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali. But that 1998 film — the same one that denied Morbius his intended debut — helped make inroads for Marvel Comics on the big screen by becoming the company’s first real hit, and inspiring two sequels (even if most viewers weren’t familiar with Blade’s comic-book roots). Revisited today, the Blade trilogy looks like an obvious product of former horror/action haven New Line Cinema (now a label-only subsidiary of Warner Bros.) and credit-sequence design-studio hotshots Imaginary Forces, which has a rare production credit on all three films. This means lots of fire, techno collaborations on the soundtrack, and cool fonts. In other words, they have more in common with the Image Comics one-off Spawn, from 1997, than the first X-Men movie (which was released halfway between Blade and Blade II).

This presents some obvious limitations, but there is stylistic freedom on display across the Blade trilogy. Norrington gives the first movie a sleek Eurotrashiness, but when Guillermo del Toro stepped in to direct the sequel, Blade II, he swerved in a more ornate monster-horror direction. David S. Goyer, writer of all three and director of the third, has a little more trouble putting a stamp on the material, but at the very least, Blade: Trinity has some cool ideas and doesn’t look identical to its predecessors.

All three movies tap into the pulpy, lurid side of comics — an extension of the Tim Burton approach to Batman, rather than the much-loved Richard Donner approach to Superman. Most MCU movies look staid compared to the Blade movies, which borrow equally from comics, monster movies, music videos, and youth-culture trend-chasing blatantly rooted in a particular time period. (For instance, Jessica Biel listening to Fluke on her iPod in Blade: Trinity.) It’s not that the R-rated Blade movies are really more adult for having some splattery blood effects, pop songs, and gutter-mouthed banter. They’re just closer to the distasteful, corrupting image that comic books developed from the heyday of EC Comics and the influence of Universal Monsters.

Those Universal Monsters proved famously difficult to modernize — particularly when the studio attempted to take a cue from Marvel and develop its own interconnected Dark Universe movie series. Both the Dark Universe flop The Mummy and the Dark Universe idea in general had their charms, but the venture was a perfect illustration of the clunkiness that results when studios force unruly horror ideas into a corporate blueprint. (Universal relented and moved on to a more filmmaker-driven approach with the Invisible Man remake.)

Sony, meanwhile, has dabbled in bootlegging the Universal Monsters since the 1990s, when the company made an unofficial Dracula/Frankenstein/Wolf Man trilogy. The half-assed Morbius/Venom Sony-verse harkens back to this gambit, as well as to the studio’s abbreviated Ghost Rider franchise, which sputtered to a halt with 2011’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Like Venom and Morbius, the Ghost Rider movies are about an eccentric movie star (Nicolas Cage, still capable of out-weirding Tom Hardy) externalizing a CG-augmented monster within, albeit for a studio unwilling to let that beast snarl its way into an R rating.

Even with the limitations of films designed for teenager-friendly ratings, there’s a crazed zeal to Ghost Rider that’s best left to his own weird world. That’s more apparent in Spirit of Vengeance, from directing duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, than in Mark Steven Johnson’s original 2007 Ghost Rider. Shot in Eastern Europe on a lower budget than its predecessor, Spirit of Vengeance is a movie in constant motion, and though it wasn’t made with top-drawer special effects, there’s something oddly convincing about the way its characters fly through the air or turn trucks into flaming hellmobiles.

Nic Cage transforming into Ghost Rider in Spirit of Vengeance Image: Sony Pictures

Like Cage in general, it aims for a more expressive form of performance than tedious respectability. A scene where the camera locks on to Cage’s face as it contorts into the Ghost Rider skull head, alternately grimacing and cackling — previewed by Cage screaming about how the Rider is “scraping at the door,” eager to be set free — ignores the two dominant modes of modern superhero portrayals: heroic grandeur, and comedic undercutting of that grandeur. Cage’s transformation into Ghost Rider is physically herky-jerky, out of control, and mordantly funny; it truly feels like something from another world. These moments from Spirit of Vengeance have the gleeful, sincere mania of vintage Sam Raimi.

Raimi’s self-generated, pre-Spider-Man superhero movie Darkman also understands the kinship between superheroes and grotesquerie, which is a crucial way to distinguish monster superheroes from the charming-sitcom mode of so many current heroes. Though Raimi’s Spider-Man movies are comparatively squeaky-clean, his affinity for both approaches to superheroes makes sense: So many of Spider-Man’s nemeses are spawned by more sinister versions of the accidents that created Spidey or the Hulk. It’s only natural that some superheroes would have traces of Doctors Frankenstein and Jekyll in their DNA, and use those connections to explore humanity’s hubris, monstrousness, and frailty.

There are traces of both Frankenstein and Dracula in the Morbius movie, if not nearly enough. Sony’s Spider-Man offshoots Morbius and Venom have been disappointing because they feel so beholden to superheroics, with potential villains rehabbed into anti-heroes in 20 or 30 minutes of screen time. (Unless, of course, post-credit teasers for possibly-upcoming films demand a complete reversal of that arc). The style of these films has yet to live up to their formidable CG monster designs; in other words, Venom the character is visually arresting, but Venom the movie just looks like a superhero movie from 2005. Morbius has a stronger nocturnal texture than a lot of MCU movies, but it lacks the elasticity of Spirit of Vengeance or the gnarliness of Blade II. Even with some neat flourishes, it’s too cautious by half. Even the supposedly delirious Venom: Let There Be Carnage feels more slapdash than truly wild.

The thinking seems to be that if these new movies act normal enough, and limit their eccentricities to their well-known stars, they could earn an invitation into the respectable-superhero fold, allowing Sony to continue leasing valuable Marvel real estate while convincing a legion of MCU fans that movies like Morbius are required viewing. Instead, the desire to create their own corner of the MCU only makes them look second-rate by comparison. It’s better for superhero movies if some characters stay away from the MCU’s grasp; it forces Marvel Studios to keep digging into their archives and finding characters to revitalize, rather than Spider-Men to reboot. And it allows other studios to make superhero movies that don’t have to keep a vast interconnected empire in mind with so many creative decisions. Morbius could have joined an elite Marvel Horror club, where its inability to fit into the MCU might have been a springboard into something weirder, creepier, or more cinematic. Instead, these Sony Marvels keep scraping at the wrong door.

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