Vampires aren’t the only things that suck in this draining ‘Spider-Man’ spinoff, with Jared Leto starring in a woeful Marvel mess.
March 31, 2022
Every studio wants a Marvel Cinematic Universe to call its own, or an equivalent that similarly takes a big bite out of the box office — and that very quest explains why Morbius exists. On the page, the character also known as 'the Living Vampire' has been battling Spider-Man since 1971. On the screen, he's now the second of the web-slinger's foes after Venom to get his own feature. This long-delayed flick, which was originally due to release before Venom: Let There Be Carnage until the pandemic struck, is also the third film in what's been dubbed Sony's Spider-Man Universe. As that name makes plain, the company is spinning its own on-screen world around everyone's favourite friendly neighbourhood superhero, because that's what it owns the rights to, and has started out focusing on villainous folks. So far, the movie magic hasn't flowed.
If that explanatory opening paragraph felt like something obligatory that you had to get through to set the scene, it's meant to. That's how Morbius feels as well. Actually, that's being kinder than this draining picture deserves given it only has one purpose: setting up more films to follow. Too many movies in too many comic book-inspired cinematic universes share the same fate, because this type of filmmaking has primarily become $20-per-ticket feature-length episodes on a big screen — but it's particularly blatant here. Before the MCU's success, the bulk of Morbius would've been a ten-minute introduction in a flick about supervillains, and its mid-credits teasers would've fuelled the first act. Now, flinging every bit of caped crusader-adjacent material into as large a number of cinematic outings as possible is the status quo, and this is one of the most bloodless examples yet.
Jumping over to the SSU from the DCEU — that'd be the DC Extended Universe, the pictures based around Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad and the like (but not including Joker or The Batman) — Jared Leto plays Morbius' eponymous figure. A renowned scientist, Dr Michael Morbius has a keen interest in the red liquid pumping through humans' veins stemming from his own health issues. As seen in early scenes set during his childhood, young Michael (Charlie Shotwell, The Nest) was a sickly kid in a medical facility thanks to a rare disease that stops him from producing new blood. There, under the care of Dr Emil Nikols (Jared Harris, Foundation), he befriended another unwell boy (debutant Joseph Esson), showed his smarts and earned a prestigious scholarship. As an adult, he now refuses the Nobel Prize for creating artificial plasma, then tries to cure himself using genes from vampire bats.
Morbius sports an awkward tone that filmmaker Daniel Espinosa (Life) can't overcome; its namesake may be a future big-screen baddie, but he's also meant to be this sympathetic flick's hero — and buying either is a stretch. In the overacting Leto's hands, he's too tedious to convince as a threat or someone to root for. He's too gleefully eccentric to resemble anything more than a skit at Leto's expense, too. Indeed, evoking any interest in Morbius' inner wrestling (because saving his own life with his experimental procedure comes at a bloodsucking cost) proves plodding. It does take a special set of skills to make such OTT displays so pedestrian at best, though, and that's a talent that Leto keeps showing to the misfortune of movie-goers. He offers more restraint here than in Suicide Squad (not to be confused with The Suicide Squad), The Little Things, House of Gucci or streaming series WeCrashed, but his post-Dallas Buyers Club Oscar-win resume remains dire — Blade Runner 2049 being the sole exception.
It mightn't have revived the film, but the answer to one of Espinosa's troubles could've been Matt Smith, who cuts a far more compelling figure as the grown-up version of Morbius' ailing pal Milo. The lanky Last Night in Soho star is saddled with a role somehow more cartoonish than Leto's, and with a character who doses himself with the same bat-derived serum but loves it — and, even without a spot of remorse for the body count he swiftly causes, he's the the most fascinating thing on-screen. Alas, in the latest underwhelming script by Dracula Untold, The Last Witch Hunter, Gods of Egypt and Power Rangers screenwriters Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama, Morbius and Milo are meant to be two sides of the same coin, but there's no depth or poignancy to their relationship. It just feels like a means to an end, giving Morbius another struggle to brood over. That shouldn't come as a surprise seeing that's the movie's whole gambit as well.
It doesn't help that the entire idea behind Morbius and Milo's friendship, and their reason for seeking a solution in bat DNA, is abhorrently ableist. Positing that both men can only be happy if they're free of their genetic ailment could never be anything else. Folks with a health situation that causes suffering may wish to farewell it, but the image of throwing away crutches, becoming more mobile, gaining extra senses and floating in the air is thoroughly tasteless when presented as the only alternative to having a medical condition. Doing something different would've required thought, however, which Morbius lacks again and again. No one could be bothered to flesh out its protagonist, or wonder why its villain outshines him, or worry that Leto and Smith have zero chemistry together, after all. And clearly nobody was concerned that the film looks wearyingly dull to suit its story, that its CGI is laughably atrocious and overdone at every moment, or that it's a vampire flick that's afraid of blood and gore.
Amid the murky cinematography by Oliver Wood (Holmes & Watson) and erratic editing from Pietro Scalia (Solo: A Star Wars Story), each compounding the movie's woes, Morbius also includes a weak attempt at a romance courtesy of fellow researcher Martine (Adria Arjona, 6 Underground), plus a crime angle via detectives Stroud (Tyrese Gibson, Fast and Furious 9) and Rodriguez (Al Madrigal, Physical) — all thankless. Its stab at giving the superhero/supervillain realm a mad scientist skew, a monster-movie chapter and a gothic horror spin proves dead on arrival as well, as does its evident pilfering from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. That this is the best version of Morbius after almost two years spent sitting on a shelf is as illogical as the film's many plot holes. This misfire only sinks its teeth into bland monotony; vampires aren't the only things that suck within its frames.