A biochemist tries to cure himself of a rare blood disease, but inadvertently infects himself with a form of vampirism instead.
The subject of ridicule since announced, Morbius face-plants into cinemas after a marketing campaign extended into years by the coronavirus pandemic. Effectively Sony’s attempt to develop their own quasi-cinematic universe after the surprising success of Venom (2018), by focusing on Spider-Man supervillains they have the rights to, it’s been an unconvincing venture from the outset. Venom at least had some cultural cachet as a comic-book character, if only mild familiarity to general audiences thanks to Spider-Man 3 (2007), but “Morbius, the living vampire” is a deeper cut. And while Marvel are likewise rolling the dice on unfamiliar heroes like Shang-Chi and the Eternals, plugging those characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has inherent appeal for fans. Morbius perhaps referencing Eddie Brock, less so…
Dr Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) is a brilliant scientist trying to cure himself of a rare blood disease, who gets more than he bargained for when his unorthodox experiments result in his transformation into a form of vampire. Now blessed with super-human strength, speed, agility, and bat-like echolocation, Michael comes to realise his incredible new abilities come at the cost of having to consume human blood every six hours. And while artificial blood is a useful alternative, its efficacy is gradually decreasing over time, putting those he loves at risk of becoming Michael’s next meal.
Morbius is an uninspired and generic superhero movie, which admittedly works better if you think of it as a silly vampire film, more than something associated to Marvel because of those higher expectations. But even then, the screenplay by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless goes through the motions with a storyline, characters, and interpersonal relationships we’ve seen a hundred times before. I can’t fathom why Sony would hire the men who wrote box office disasters like The Last Witch Hunter (2015) and Gods of Egypt (2016), unless their original scripts started off well, but perhaps they simply saw Dracula Untold (2014) on their resume and felt it was a perfect fit. Whatever the studio’s thinking, their dreary script gives nothing for anyone to do that’s different or interesting. Justin Haythe (A Cure for Wellness) reported punched things up during production, but to no great success, and Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (Life) isn’t able to inject much life into proceedings. Everything looks and feels like a third-rate superhero movie from the early-2000s, which is a problem the Venom films also suffer from and only overcome thanks to Tom Hardy’s quirky dual performance. In contrast, Jared Leto almost sleepwalks through Morbius.
Leto’s involvement was another red flag for many people, as the divisive actor’s output hasn’t been great lately. After being chosen to play The Joker in Suicide Squad (2016) after mainly focusing on independent films, method actor Leto’s garish performance and tabloid reports about him sending rats to co-star Margot Robbie didn’t endear him to anyone. His villainous role in Blade Runner 2049 (2017) was at least forgettable enough not to derail that excellent sequel, but with laughable turns in The Little Things (2021) as a serial killer and particularly House of Gucci (2021) as a comical Italian under layers of make-up to make him look fat and old, it feels like Leto’s either the worst thing in good projects or another thing to blame in bad ones. He doesn’t give an abysmal performance as Michael Morbius and certainly looks the part, but there’s nothing there for Leto to latch onto and he struggles to make this tortured genius likeable.
Buried by the marketing is the unexpected prominence of Matt Smith (Last Night in Soho) as Michael’s adopted brother, Milo Morbius, who suffers from the same blood disease but goes rogue when granted the same vampiric powers. But not enough is established between Michael and Milo to make any of their familial tragedy work emotionally, as it mostly comes down to a childhood flashback and lines of dialogue intended to resonate later in the story. Much like Venom and its sequel, it’s also a case of the writers having no idea how to turn a Spider-Man villain into more of a heroic figure, so deciding to simply have him fight an even worse version of himself. Smith at least realises the camp potential of Morbius and has moments that lean into that vibe, including a bare-chested dance scene, but he’s not particularly threatening and the breakdown of his relationship with Michael is seemingly rushed through thanks to last-minute editing to salvage a bad movie.
The supporting cast have even less to work with than the hero and villain, although I always enjoy seeing Jared Harris on screen (here playing the Morbius boy’s father figure). Adria Arjona (Good Omens) is sadly wasted as a bland love interest, whose role isn’t even particularly built around providing a romantic connection to Michael in order to underscore the tragedy of him becoming a bloodsucking monster. Tyrese Gibson (The Fast and the Furious) also appears as one half a cop duo with Al Madrigal, as if to make us wonder if Morbius really was on ice since the mid-2000s.
On the positive side, there’s a modicum of fun in seeing a disabled doctor suddenly become a vampire (as it sort of mixes Dracula with Jekyll & Hyde), and Morbius’s facial design is agreeably monstrous and more sinister than one would imagine Marvel Studios agreeing to. But the VFX is mostly a strange and retro mix of slow-motion acrobatics and a perplexing decision to add tendrils of digital ‘smoke’ to Morbius and Milo whenever they’re flitting around at lightning speed. One imagines it’s so we can see where they are on screen at any given moments, as the cinematography by Oliver Wood (The Equalizer 2) is an indistinct fog of blacks and blues with occasional flashes of neon.
If you’re prepared to suffer through Morbius for whatever easter eggs await fans of Marvel, there are two postscript scenes starring The Vulture/Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) from Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) that manage to be both dull and stupid. The first seems to have been removed from the body of the film, as it would make more sense to appear in the sequence when Michael’s thrown in prison, and the latter seems cobbled together and promises things nobody wants to see. It’s strange Sony are so desperate to connect their movies to the MCU, however vaguely, when they could more easily have woven in Eddie Brock for a cameo that truly builds on characters they outright own and don’t need to tip-toe carefully around.
Overall, Morbius was expected to be a disappointment and so it came to pass. It’s not entirely worthless if you’re in the mood for the type of superhero film they were making around the turn of the millennium, but even then it’s several rungs below Blade (1998), X-Men (2000), and Spider-Man (2002). This is more on the level of Daredevil (2003) and Blade: Trinity (2004).
USA | 2022 | 104 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Daniel Espinosa.
writers: Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless (based on Marvel Comics).
starring: Jared Leto, Matt Smith, Adria Arjona, Jared Harris, Al Madrigal & Tyrese Gibson.