Credit where it is due, as much as 2018’s Venom felt like a shameless attempt by Sony to capitalize on Spider-Man-related box office potential without actually featuring the webhead, the poorly reviewed antihero spectacle was a wildly successful moneymaker. A sequel was made. It was also successful (and better reviewed). Morbius is another attempt to craft an antihero story based around a notable Spider-Man villain. I may be even less familiar with the Living Vampire’s solo adventures than I was with Venom’s, but surely real-life vampire, Jared Leto, would be up to the task of giving a film like this the kind of oddball jolt Tom Hardy enhanced his movies with. Well, this did not prove to be the case.
One would think summing up the plot of this film could be even simpler following two years’ worth of trailers for this much-delayed film. As it stands, it’s both simple and hard to do, as the story presents nothing new for anyone that’s ever watched a superhero origin film. At the same time, there’s a lot of footage from the trailer not present in this film. Was there plenty of time to tinker with the final product, given all of the release date changes due to the pandemic (and possibly test screening reactions)? Indeed there was, and as a result, the final version of Morbius is as lifeless as a non-living vampire.
The story concerns Dr. Michael Morbius (Leto), a genius with a rare blood disease. He’s the kind of guy who is so smart yet so committed to finding a cure for what ails him that he refuses the Nobel Prize and keeps experimenting (though he still shows up to Sweden because who doesn’t like a free Scandinavian vacation?). Things look to be taking a turn for the better, as Dr. M is finally able to create a serum that combines the properties of a vampire bat with human blood. Of course, one can’t just finalize this process in a lab in New York, so it’s off to international waters.
You may know where this is going. The experiment “works” with a crazy side effect. As it turns out, in a world where superheroes and symbiotes exist, crossing DNA with a vampire bat totally turns Morbius into a vampire. Not a traditional vampire (not unlike Blade, he’s a daywalker), but one who gains powers such as super strength, flight, and “bat radar” by drinking blood. While it’s fortunate that the good doctor developed artificial blood (it’s blue!) he can feed on, that’s sadly not going to be enough. Oh, and there’s the other problem – Morbius’ surrogate brother, Milo (Matt Smith), has a real interest in what Morbius is up to, leading to killer results.
I may not have been a big fan of the Venom films, but it is easy to see their appeal. Hardy is putting his all into an off-the-wall dual performance. That level of camp, fitted inside of a more traditional superhero movie plot, clearly worked well for audiences. With that in mind, I would be hard-pressed to understand what Morbius has to offer.
Ideally, the X-factor would be having Leto embody this Living Vampire character. In the past few years, Leto managed to deliver his annoying/psychotic take on Joker as well as a live-action fashion-obsessed Super Mario in House of Gucci. Somehow, Leto’s livewire energy is nowhere to be found in this film. I can understand Dr. Morbius being a somewhat reserved character, but he never brings anything to this character resembling fun, whether in human or vampire form.
The rest of the cast mostly follows suit. A requisite female love interest, Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona, 21 years younger than Leto), shares next to no chemistry with Michael and only speaks in the form of plot momentum. Jared Harris is around as a father figure. Al Madrigal and Tyrese Gibson play the only two detectives in New York, with cases taking them from the harbor to Midtown (filmed in Manchester). As an aside, Gibson, a presence I generally like in films, could not be more bored here, which is impressive for a performer who so easily leaves an impression elsewhere.
The only actor attempting to bring life to this film is Matt Smith. Not playing a specific character from the comics (his role is influenced by Loxias Crown), Smith’s Milo follows the familiar concept of making the villain a meaner version of the hero. Still, Smith’s few moments to shine allow him to dive into the fun of being a bloodthirsty immortal who literally vamps it up as he relishes his newfound powers. With next to nothing to compliment this film, Smith at least adds something not terrible.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House, Life), there’s nothing here to suggest the work of a filmmaker whose passion for the character is finally being fully realized. If seeing a couple of slow-motion shots featuring Morbius in action is what you came for, this movie has those and an additional 103 minutes around them (including two clumsy mid-credit scenes). Sure, that makes for a mercifully short superhero film of this quality. Still, given the investment a studio puts in something like this, it would be great to get decent action or horror out of a Marvel vampire movie.
Instead, Morbius is always in a rush, eliminating the possibility of better character work, suspense, or any natural rhythm to connect with. Frequently, things feel pretty slapdash, with certain scenes barely making any sense, as if the film has been trimmed down to offer the most bang for one’s buck one can get while relying on the most minimal runtime possible for Morbius to still make some sense. Even the visual effects fail to leave much of an impression, between the blurry mush of vampires traveling at high speeds and the opportunity to give Leto and Smith wacky vampire faces.
There has to have been a vision for this film that would find a way to incorporate a more engaging lead performance into a story full of cool vampire action and possibly some horror elements to distinguish this superhero movie from the pack. We all know this is possible, as Blade was a huge evolutionary point for the genre back in 1998. If anything, it should be easy enough just to make something competent. Morbius doesn’t even live up to those lowest of expectations. My diagnosis: bad moviemaking.