A new Marvel legend arrives.
Right off the bat (pun unintended), it needs to be said that Daniel Espinosa’s Morbius reeks of Sony trying to cash in on Marvel’s enormous audience appeal but with little to no understanding about what makes a comic book IP interesting or entertaining. It’s a film devoted to an antihero origin story, which gives us no reason to really care about the protagonist nor his ethical struggles.
Dr. Michael Morbius was first introduced to the Spider-Man universe in 1971 by writers Roy Thomas and Gil Kane. Since then, he’s been a low-tier antihero who occasionally scuffles with Spider-Man as a sometimes friend and sometimes foe. Morbius is a man who suffers from guilt over his vampiric existence but can’t control his need for human blood.
When we first meet the cinematic Dr. Michael Morbius, played lazily by Jared Leto, he is trying to cure the rare blood disease that is slowly killing him. He walks on crutches and is visibly decaying. He needs infusions of blood regularly to keep him alive. Despite his debilitating condition, he is also a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, having invented a highly successful form of synthetic blood, and also a caring MD who watches over his chronically ill patients. Years of research have led him to believe that he can create a cure for his condition using the saliva of vampire bats as a way to create a coagulant to keep his blood from doing whatever it is that is killing him (none of this is really made clear in the script, we don’t actually know what the blood disease is). Added to his need to cure his own illness is the fact that his best friend since childhood, Milo (Matt Smith), is also suffering from the same condition. Time is running short for the two men, and Morbius is willing to go into the ethical grey areas to find a solution.
Flashing back to Michael’s childhood, we meet the kindly doctor and mentor Emil Nikols (Jared Harris), who cared for the young Michael (Charlie Shotwell) and Milo (Joseph Esson) in a facility in Greece. Michael and Milo form a lifelong friendship, which is disrupted when Nikols recognizes Michael’s genius and suggests he study in a prestigious New York school. Left behind and at the mercy of bullies, Milo opens himself up to resentment. Years later, he too has relocated to New York and is living as a wealthy shut-in, visited only by Michael and Nikols. When Michael comes to him asking for help in administering the cure (which is highly experimental and illegal and, for some reason, has to be done in international waters), Milo is able to find a cargo ship and a group of mercenaries to act as crew.
Coming along for the journey is Michael’s close associate Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona). She injects Michael with the formula, and hey presto, it’s the birth of Morbius the Living Vampire. Morbius, now part man, part bat-like creature, has an insatiable hunger for human blood and drains the entire crew. Martine, having been knocked unconscious by one of the mercenaries, misses the action, and the audience can consider her the lucky one because, wow, the action is so generic and poorly realized it’s almost unbelievable that it will be the blueprint for what we see in the rest of the film.
The cargo ship incident puts Morbius on the FBI’s radar. Agents Stroud (Tyrese Gibson) and Rodriguez (Al Madrigal) eventually track down Morbius at the hospital where a nurse has been exsanguinated. Morbius has been using his synthetic blood to curb his appetite, and we’ve been given enough of his tortured dilemma in clumsy voiceover to know that he’s not responsible for her death, which leaves only one other person in contention. To absolutely no one’s surprise, Milo has snuck into Morbius’ lab and taken the cure.
The rest of the film essentially boils down to a fight between the regretful Morbius and the elated Milo. Matt Smith, Last Night in Soho (2021), is deeply relishing his villain persona and is the highlight of the film with his unhinged performance. A man without power suddenly has superhuman strength and can unbottle all his anger and resentment with unbridled glee. Morbius feels responsible for his friend but also has to stop him from laying waste to innocent people, and yadda, yadda, can we please get a better script?
The action beats in the film are so poorly shot. In “vampire time,” we see some kind of hazy smoke effect that makes a lot of the movements blurred and muddy — to combat this, there is some lazy slow motion, so we can apparently marvel at the enhanced power of Morbius. For those who found the fight scenes in last year’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage ridiculous, the scenes in Morbius are next-level bad.
Jared Leto, Suicide Squad (2016), mumbles his way through his performance. We are told repeatedly that he’s a good guy who has just made a terrible mistake. Franky, it’s very hard to care about him and his dilemma with dealing with the Hippocratic Oath he swore and his overwhelming bloodlust. His relationship with Martine is characteristically without depth, with there being no indication that Michael pre-transformation was in love with her but perhaps trying to spare her a life with his illness. The usually excellent Jared Harris, Chernobyl (2019), is barely given any screen time, which is a shame as perhaps more time with a wise mentor figure would have given both Morbius and Milo more depth. It’s so very difficult to care about any of these underwritten characters. It’s harder still when they’re given the weakest of plots (writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless clearly didn’t receive any studio notes on revisions), all for an origin story of a character who is at his core so deeply uninteresting that it’s almost impossible to be invested in whatever happens to him.
Of course, since the opening of the Multiverse in Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), we are given two post-credits scenes that reintroduce us to a former Spider-Man villain. Both of these are as inert as the preceding film and do very little to excite the audience for a sequel.
Morbius is a prime example of what Scorsese was trying to point out about the generic nature of superhero films. There are always some excellent films in the pool of the cape genre (see Matt Reeves’ The Batman as a recent example) but increasingly, as the IP gets stretched further and further, there is less to work with that has true cinematic value. Morbius is a thin piece that lacks any reason to entice comic book fans, genre fans, or action fans. No doubt, because of the aggressive marketing Sony has done, it will get some traction and take a bite out of the box office, but a good film it is not.
1.5 / 5 – Poor
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney
Morbius is released through Sony Pictures Australia