Who’s that muscular, ripped, pasty-looking fellow wrenching the dregs of his comic-book movie career from the deathly places of despair? Why it’s Oscar-winner Jared Leto, who played Joker in 2016’s misfiring Suicide Squad turned Marvel’s latest big-screen antihero. The first trailer for Morbius has arrived online, apparently designed to confuse the bejesus out of any viewer not intricately acquainted with the corporate politics that lies behind Hollywood superhero flicks.

Morbius (full name: Morbius the Living Vampire, also known as Dr Michael Morbius), is not part of the established Disney-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But he is a graduate of the Marvel comic books, having debuted in 1971 as a villain in The Amazing Spider-Man #101 before morphing into a more sympathetic figure who ended up with his own series. Yet it’s not so simple, because through a maze of corporate shenanigans, the character does exist in the same world as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the rest.

The key figure here is Spider-Man, whose film rights are owned by Sony, which agreed to lend them back to Marvel for 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. And fans enjoyed that new MCU iteration of Peter Parker, gamely played by British actor Tom Holland, to the extent that last year’s Spider-Man: Far from Home (a Sony-Marvel co-production) made more than $1bn at the worldwide box office – Sony’s highest-grossing movie ever.

So what did Sony do? The studio promptly threatened to pull Spidey from the MCU in a battle over share of profits. The spat was resolved, and Holland is now due to appear in at least one more Marvel film, as well as a further Spider-flick from Marvel-Sony.

All of this becomes relevant when we watch the trailer for Morbius, because it is clear what a coup Sony has pulled off by aligning itself with the MCU. At first the film appears to be standard comic-book origin story stuff: a skinny and desperately ill Morbius injects himself with something freaky in an attempt to cure a rare bloody disease. All of a sudden he’s hugely muscular and has developed superhuman speed and strength. It all looks a bit like a passable knock-off of DC’s Batman movies, especially with all those shots of bats flying from dark crevices and talk of Morbius developing natty echo-location skills.

But then we spot a mural of Spider-Man that’s been sprayed with “murderer” – a reference to Peter Parker being framed in the end-credit scenes of the MCU’s Spider-Man: Far From Home. And then the Vulture himself – Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, the villain last seen in Spider-Man: Homecoming – turns up to virtually high-five our hero.

There are presumably limitations here to crossover potential – don’t expect Thor to drop in – but this remains a remarkable development. With presumably little control over Sony’s Marvel movies (and Sony hasn’t produced a truly decent comic book film by itself since 2004’s Spider-Man 2), Disney is allowing its rival studio to suggest to fans that these films are all part of the same tapestry of superhero flicks. In Hollywood terms, this is like Quentin Tarantino allowing Uwe Boll to use characters from Pulp Fiction in his latest venture. This appears to be the price of keeping Spider-Man in the MCU.

Whether Sony’s corner of Marvel turns out to be worth its salt – 2018’s Venom was pretty “meh” – or even makes sense as a sort of darker, gothicly furnished annex to the main Disney mansion, remains to be seen. Sony certainly seems to have got an incredible deal. But given that it seemed committed to withdrawing Spider-Man from the MCU altogether, just as we were all starting to enjoy Holland’s version of the character, we should perhaps be thankful for small mercies.

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