Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
There are good superhero pictures. There are memorable vampire films. Some movies fall under guilty pleasures — entertainment for the sake of fun. Then there is Morbius which manages to get almost everything wrong.
Morbius, the Living Vampire, first appeared in Marvel Comics’ The Amazing Spider-Man (issue #101; October 1971). Due to a failed experiment intended to cure a rare blood disease, the former biochemist, Michael Morbius, was imbued with vampire-like abilities. While he became one of Spider-Man’s antagonists, he was also an adversary of Blade, the vampire hunter. (Originally, Morbius was to appear in Blade (1998) but was cut.)
Morbius follows a similar origin story. A prologue in a private clinic in Greece shows genius ten-year-old Michael Morbius (Charlie Shotwell) joined by the younger Lucien (Joseph Esson), whom he dubs Milo. The boys share the same blood illness that requires constant infusions. They form a deep and lasting connection.
Twenty-five years later, Michael (Jared Leto) is now a successful scientist who has just declined the Nobel Prize. He has now received funding to develop a treatment using vampire bats, and he creates a lab on a private vessel in international waters. Unfortunately, the remedy causes him to have vampiric characteristics, and he murders the entire crew.
He escapes the vessel and returns to New York. Endowed with new powers (strength, speed, reflexes, and super-hearing), he struggles with a bloodlust he staves off with the serum. However, the efficacy and duration become shorter. The now wealthy Milo (Matt Smith) discovers that Michael has found a cure but becomes furious when Michael refuses to share it. Incensed, Milo goes rogue. Meanwhile, FBI agents Simon Stroud (Tyrese Gibson) and Al Rodriguez (Al Madrigal) investigate Morbius’ victims.
While there is nothing original about the plot, in the right hands, the story is potentially engaging. However, Daniel Espinosa’s uninspired direction of Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama’s inept script make for an anemically leaden, mostly unwatchable hour and a half.
The dialogue is an insult to clichés. “You get to live, and I get to die,” says Milo. To which Michael responds, “It’s a cure. Forget me, brother.” Later, Morbius says, “Where is the brother I used to have?” Even better is his statement: “I’m starting to get hungry. You don’t want to see me when I’m hungry.” But the nadir is given to Rodriguez, who, looking at one of the victims, is forced to deliver with a straight face: “Those puncture wounds … do they look like fang marks to you?”
Even if The Batman’s noirish cinematography is not to your taste, there is a commitment to style. Here, Oliver Wood provides a murky atmosphere. The desaturation creates a dullness that reflects the film’s lack of energy. When Morbius isn’t drinking his artificial plasma from what looks like Sunny D pouches, there is action, but it feels pedestrian and predictable. The extended fights are not so much by the numbers as they are just numb. Worst of all, the visual effects are bizarre, bargain basement, and just plain annoying. However, it’s a good day to be a CGI bat.
Jared Leto is surprisingly bland in a role that calls for grand strokes. Even when declaring, “I brought this into the world — it’s up to me to take it out,” he lacks passion, running the gamut from A to … well, A. Michael is not so much a mad scientist as a mildly peeved one. He growls and snarls when transformed into the beast, but the ferocity is just above an irritated puppy.
Matt Smith, best known as the eleventh Dr. Who, has quirky fun with the antagonist, but the homoerotic connection between Michael and Milo is underdeveloped. While the writers hint around the edges (the Spartan reference “We are the few against the many” has multiple levels), they pull punches by introducing a pallid love interest for Michael with scientist Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona, drastically underused). Poor Gibson and Madrigal have little screen time and even less to do. (Maybe they’ve been spared.)
The epilogue more than hints at a future crossover into the Spider-Verse. Michael Keaton appears in a cameo in the credits as Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. The Vulture. It speaks volumes that ninety seconds in the credits have generated more interest than the ninety minutes of film.
Sadly, Morbius is not a traditional vampire tale, so it cannot be vanquished by stake, sunlight, or holy water. Morbius says, “It’s not a curse. It’s a gift.” Sorry. You got that reversed.
Rated PG-13, Morbius is now playing in local theaters.