February 23, 2016 9:19 am

For the better part of a decade, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was marked by predictable plots and a repetitive tone. That’s not to say the movies weren’t enjoyable, but it’s tough to deny that they were formulaic. Each moved along a familiar arc and found a comfortable balance between action, suspense, and humor. It’s what worked for the studio, and the result has been billions upon billions in revenue.

In some of Marvel’s more recent work, however, there’s been a marked shift in tone. To some extent, this is evident in the trailers for this spring’s “Captain America: Civil War,” which will pit Captain America and Iron Man against one another in what looks to be a grittier and more serious narrative. But the real shift has taken place on Netflix, where Marvel is producing original series for a new line of superheroes.

It began with “Daredevil,” which was released in early 2015 to rave reviews. Tackling the origin story of Marvel’s blind Hell’s Kitchen hero, this series was decidedly darker than any other cinematic Marvel content up to that point: bloodier, more brutal, and quite literally without much in the way of light. It was almost scary, at times.

And then along came “Jessica Jones,” the second of several planned Marvel/Netflix collaborations. Dealing with a young woman imbued with super strength and a leaping ability near flight, but who’d rather live an ordinary life, it was the first instance in which a superhero has essentially been hunted from the get-go. Rather than working out her own path toward superheroism, Jessica Jones is forced into heroics by the demonic acts of a sociopathic villain who can manipulate people with his mind.

The show flipped viewers’ perception of Marvel upside down. At one point, a girl is forced to kill her own parents; at another, a man is trying to get rid of a human arm by grinding it into a dish disposal. A review in The New Yorker put it best: this series was “distinctly adult” and “unafraid of ugliness.”

The simple truth is despite its reputation for strictly PG-13 material and a tame approach to violence and spookiness, Marvel has recently strayed dangerously close to horror territory. But will they ever dive fully into the genre? Don’t be so sure they won’t. These three characters in particular could take them there.

The Punisher

Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher, is known as one of Marvel’s most brutal and uncompromising antiheroes. He’s been the subject of a few films already, though none directly distributed by Marvel or featured in the Cinematic Universe that’s been constructed since 2008. And now we know that he’ll be appearing in the second season of “Daredevil.”

The Punisher will be played by Jon Bernthal, and there are some interesting theories out there about what the character will be like. A take on Moviepilot even put forth a strangely meta observation that this character might be based on real life soldiers who put Punisher logos on their helmets and gear—meaning a comic character inspired real soldiers who in turn are inspiring a fresh take on the same comic character. Regardless of how the character is presented, we know that he’s got a different outlook on morality than other Marvel characters. More specifically, he kills—a lot. Given how dark and creepy “Daredevil” already was in its first season, a character like this could take things fully into the horror genre.

Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider is another vigilante Marvel character who’s already appeared in modern film, but not in the Cinematic Universe distributed by Marvel. The character was played by Nic Cage in what was a little bit more like a cross between “Underworld” and “Fast & Furious” films than a superhero effort.

The Ghost Rider movies weren’t very well received, but the character remains a source of intrigue for a lot of Marvel fans. Interestingly enough, the character serves as the main theme for one of the games within a section of Gala Bingo, where the majority of superhero games concern characters who are actively part of the MCU (such as Hulk, Iron Man, etc.). The game invites players to “get on the Highway to Hell” through a 3-reel slot machine, and that description alone teases a dark, almost satanic side to this superhero. Indeed, this is a flaming, vengeance-crazed crime fighter who’s literally made a deal with the devil. And as it turns out, his place alongside games of MCU characters isn’t the only indication the studio may not be done with him. Marvel also recently regained the cinematic rights to the character, meaning this natural fit for the studio’s emerging darker side could well be in play.


And then there’s Blade, who’s probably the most popular of these three characters, at least among film fans. Marvel’s sword-swinging, half-vampire martial artist was played memorably by Wesley Snipes in a trilogy that fizzled out to some extent, but still has a cult following. And while those three films can’t quite be classified in the horror genre, they could easily have done so.

But as with Ghost Rider, there are some indications that Marvel isn’t done with Blade. Incidentally the character actually appears among the same collection of casino games as Ghost Rider. Furthermore, the cinematic rights to Blade have also recently returned to Marvel. While that’s where the indications end concerning Ghost Rider, things have moved forward more clearly in the case of Blade. Just last fall, Hollywood Reporter revealed that Snipes himself has been in talks with Marvel about reviving the series. And once again, this would represent a terrific opportunity for Marvel to fully embrace a horror story.

Right now, the studio still isn’t quite there. But “Jessica Jones” was very close, and creepier heroes appear to be on the way. Don’t be surprised if there’s a genuine horror branch to Marvel’s content in the next few years.

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This post was written by Nadia Vella