“Morbius” is a pretty lousy movie. I try not to judge a film too harshly before I’ve had a chance to actually watch it, but you likely won’t be surprised to hear that based on the film’s many release delays (some due to the pandemic, others more recently due to making way for other, presumably more successful movies) and its overplayed trailer that itself became the subject of ridicule. I wasn’t shocked to find that “Morbius” met my expectations that lingered somewhere down around the gutter, but I was surprised to find that I could somewhat see the potential the film has, had the cast and crew chosen to match the campy/comical tone of the “Venom” movies (which exist in the some Sony shared Marvel universe) rather than opting for a movie that not only takes itself too seriously, but also ultimately neglects to give weight to its characters and plot in favor of setting up future Spider-man-adjacent stories instead.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa and based on the Marvel Comics character Morbius, the Living Vampire, “Morbius” stars Jared Leto as Michael Morbius, a doctor with a rare blood disease who has devoted his life finding a cure. Michael wins a Nobel Prize for his work developing synthetic blood, all the while secretly working on more ethically ambiguous grounds, capturing dozens of vampire bats from Costa Rica in the hope that splicing his genes with theirs will yield results. It does, but not exactly the way he expected. The experiment essentially transforms Michael into a vampire, granting the hitherto physically weak man with superhuman strength and agility, as well as battier abilities like echolocation. The trade-off is that Michael must drink blood to survive, otherwise his bloodlust takes over and turns him into a killing machine.
But Michael isn’t the villain of this story, as easily as he could have been (and traditionally in the comics, he has been an adversary for hero Spider-man). That dastardly distinction belongs to Milo (Matt Smith), Michael’s childhood friend who suffers from the same disease as him, but who, unlike Michael, is happy to put others at risk for his own benefit. Milo finds out about the cure, subjects himself to the experiment, and gives into the bloodlust to possess the power he has always coveted, leaving Michael as the only one who can stop him.
“Morbius” the movie zips through all these occurrences just as quickly as Morbius the character can zip through the air with his super speed (I think he can fly too? Like most things, the movie isn’t super clear on that). A flashback scene at the start of the film establishes the relationship between Michael, Milo, and their mentor and the director of the hospital they’re being treated at, Dr. Nicholas (a wasted Jared Harris), and briefly shows that Milo may have a violent streak when he strikes back at some bullies who attack him. But the nature of their relationship after the story jumps ahead to the present day is nothing short of perplexing. Milo (an original character inspired by Loxias Crown/Hunger from the Marvel Comics) is apparently a mob boss, living in luxury surrounded by henchman, and Nicholas appears to work for him in some capacity, but the film only very loosely and briefly uses these elements as background dressing to indicate that Milo is maybe not a good guy. The story really hinges on the friendship and eventual parting of ways of Michael and Milo, but despite a promising early scene in which they banter and commiserate with each other, they don’t share enough scenes and aren’t developed enough either together or independently of each other for the conflict to feel as fraught as it should. The supporting characters are just as shallow. Adria Arjona plays Martine Bancroft, Michael’s colleague and painfully forced love interest, and Al Madrigal and Tyrese Gibson play the FBI agents hunting Michael under the belief that he is responsible for all the vampire attacks. Their primary purpose is to inject the film with some comical banter, but none of the attempts at humor land.
Not only does “Morbius” fail to create characters with any sort of heft to them, but the story is just as weightless. Any opportunities to wrestle with the moral and ethical complications that come with Michael’s vampire state are blown right past in favor of a cat and mouse game between a clear good guy and a clear bad guy that lacks solid action or suspense. Visually, the film is ugly, with flourishes meant to help illustrate the vampires’ powers overwhelming the scenes, while lacking a tangible setting with its monotonous, uninspired environments. The climax is hurried through, and as a few quick cuts between characters right before the credits roll and move into a couple of very dumb post-credit scenes (the second one essentially just restating the first one) reveal, this film doesn’t really care about telling Michael’s origin story. It only cares about getting the character out there so he can participate in sequels that presumably will center around more popular heroes and villains. The film doesn’t end so much as tease a lot of things that could happen in a future movie. Its sole purpose for existing is to set up other movies, and the film itself suffers greatly as a result.
And that’s a shame, because cut through the poor script and shared universe nonsense and I can kind of see how “Morbius” might have worked. Sure, it might not have been a good movie still, but it might have been a fun one. There are a handful of moments in “Morbius” that read as unintentionally funny, but the film really could have played up Michael’s descent into madness and its inherent ridiculousness, like when Milo and Michael’s features suddenly take on those of a bat. Smith’s big, occasionally exuberant performance comes close to embodying that vibe, but Leto (an insufferable actor to begin with thanks to his off-screen shenanigans that often border on harassment), like the rest of the movie, takes all this too seriously, even though his greasy hair, pale complexion, and sallow eyes lend themselves well to the whole vampire situation. Last year’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” played up the weirdness that worked in its lesser predecessor while centering much more on the leads’ relationship and imbuing them with a lot of heart, and was largely success as a result. A lot of “Morbius” doesn’t make sense, from the characters’ poorly-defined powers to their thinly-sketched backstories to the fact that Jared Harris doesn’t appear to age at all over the course of 25 years, but perhaps its most head-scratching aspect is that anyone involved in the production thought that any part of this movie as it is was working in the first place.
“Morbius” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 104 minutes. Rated PG-13.