A film review by Craig J. Koban April 14, 2022

MORBIUS jj
  

2022, PG-13, 104 mins.

Jared Leto as Dr. Michael Morbius  /  Matt Smith as Milo / Lucien  /  Adria Arjona as Martine Bancroft  /  Jared Harris as Dr. Nicholas  /  Al Madrigal as Agent Alberto Rodriguez  /  Tyrese Gibson as Agent Simon Stroud  /  Charlie Shotwell as Young Michael

Directed by Daniel Espinosa  /  Written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless

MORBIUS certainly can't claim to be the first vampire centric film based on a Marvel Comics character (BLADE beat it to the punch nearly 25 years ago), but it most definitely emerges as one of the more forgettable interpretations of an undead persona that found inspiration on the page.   

The character has been around an awfully long time, though, debuting as an adversary for Spider-Man in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #101 way back in 1971.  Despite being a relatively cool villain on paper for the world famous Wall Crawler, Morbius has never been considered anything beyond a second tier baddie at best.  Taking inspiration from the recent success of VENOM (on top of, yes, the limitless profitability of the SPIDER-MAN/MCU brand as a whole), Sony has opted to take Morbius and cultivate an own origin film for him as a bloodsucking anti-hero and potential franchise property.  There's some semblance of energy in Daniel Espinosa's (the underrated sci-fi thriller LIFE) approach and some good ideas at this film's core, but MORBIUS gets bogged down into way, way too much incomprehensible and distracting CG action, not to mention that the final product feels like it was drastically and carelessly edited down from a much longer length and maybe better cut.    

MORBIUS opens with decent potency, though, but never manages to pay itself off later as much as it needs to.  We're quickly introduced to Dr. Michael Morbius (a stealthily understated Jared Leto), who's a scientific genius that has had a rare blood disease since being an orphaned boy, leaving him in his currently emaciated and barely able to walk body.  In the introductory scene, the sickly doctor is taken to a very remote Costa Rican cave to collect vampire bats that he hopes can used to find a cure (his ambitious, but mostly crazy plan is to fuse human DNA with that of the bat to help cure his aliment - and the countless others that suffer from it - for good).  We also learn in a quick flashback to his orphanage days in a Greek hospital and learn of his struggles as a bullied boy.  While there he befriends a boy suffering from his same condition, Milo (played as an adult by Matt Smith).  We then flash forward back to the present and witness Morbius about to win a Nobel Prize for creating synthetic blood (yeah, that's pretty Nobel worthy), but like a true rebel he declines it, believing that this accomplishment is just a mere stepping stone to cure his disease. 

Realizing that his time may be limited to curing himself and his long-time BFF in Milo, Morbius decides to hastily embark in human trials to merge human and bat DNA, with himself being the guinea pig. The results - in pure movie mad scientist fashion - have fundamentally changed him, for better and mostly for worse.  He discovers, to his astonishment, that his physique is now ripped like Wolverine and he's able to walk without crutches, but that's not all.  He now has super human agility, speed, and strength that would rival Peter Parker's radioactive spider bite laced abilities (he also comes equipped with a bat's sonar sense that would give Spider-Man's spider-sense a run for its money).  There's one dreadful downside, though: Morbius becomes a horrific fang-drooling creature lusting for human blood that he can, conveniently enough, placate with his own blue-tinted artificial blood, but with only limited success.  It soon becomes clear that the only way to maintain his new super powered body is to consume blood every six hours or so...and the fake blood becomes less effective by the day, leading to him needing the real stuff (dicey, to say the least).  When Milo realizes that his pal for life has found a cure - granted, with major side effects - he decides to take it behind his back and without his permission, and poor Milo becomes even more unstably reckless with his newfound powers.  This leads to an unavoidable Nosferatu showdown between the former allies. 

 

 

The titular vampire is a compellingly sympathetic being here, and you can feel for Morbius' obsessive drive to permanently cure himself and Milo out of their depressingly meek state.  Early in the film, Morbius is so frail looking that it's astounding that he can even show up to work on a daily basis.  It's kind of intriguing how this scientist - in his quest to save people's lives - becomes a ghastly monster that ends up - after his first transformation - killing a lot of people and slurping up their precious blood (eight sailors, to be exact).  That, and Morbius' experiments are not entirely safe and ethical, although he defends his approach for being a part of a larger solution to a horrible problem that plagues so many.  In the early stages, MORBIUS crafts a genuinely involving portrait of a man of science that's facing multiple complex issues (being sworn to do no harm and then doing considerable harm to people is a conundrum, to say the least).  Like all super hero (or villain) origin tales, Morbius finds a manner of harnessing and controlling his powers, but the moral dilemma of his past murder spree still haunts him and establishes a complex psychological edge to this material.  And Leto is refreshingly restrained and unflashy in his role (which, coming off of his terrible over the top method actor camera mugging in HOUSE OF GUCCI, is a virtue in my book).  The actor looks shockingly good at 50 and fills out the physical demands of this character quite well, but his dexterously soft spoken and sensitive approach to playing the dual nature of this doomed doctor is quite welcome. 

Matt Smith, on the other hand, does most of the histrionic acting here as Morbius' former friend now mortal enemy, and the former DR. WHO actor has a field day playing up to Milo's newfound theatrical delusions of grandeur.  I really wanted, however, for many of the supporting characters to be as interesting as these two, and that's where MORBIUS really falters.  The sensational Jared Harris is criminally underused in an underwritten surrogate father figure to both Morbius and Milo, as is the lovely Adria Arjona playing Dr. Bancroft, who becomes an obligatory work colleague/love interest to Morbius.  Then there's a couple of cops (a sleep walking Tyrese Gibson and a somewhat miscast Al Madrigal) that spend most of the film engaging in DOA cynical detective banter that are also hopelessly inept at their respective jobs (Gibson in particular can play memorably quirky sidekicks - see THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS series - but here he seems hopelessly disinterested in being in this film altogether).  The frequently moronic scripting does these characters no favors either:  For being a hyper intelligent man of science, Morbius is guilty of being stupid enough to return to his lab after a series of brutal murders that he perpetrated (probably the last place he should be with cops hot on his trail) or, in another howl inducing moment, he decides to go to a local coffee shop with Bancroft to plot their next move despite Morbius' mug being plastered all over the front page of The Daily Bugle (remember, this is a Spider-Man adjacent world) with the headline "Wanted For Murder."  Morbius is lethally good at sucking blood, but he truly sucks at keeping a low profile. 

Speaking of sucking the life out of something, there are two other mistakes that hurt MORBIUS: (a) It's soft-pedaled PG-13 approach, which makes no sense for a film about and the horrors of a vampire monster and (b) the heavy preponderance of CG overkill gives too much of this film an aggressively artificial look and feel.  BLADE, to its credit all those years ago, embraced the extremes of its R-rating, but MORBIUS - excuse the pun - has been ruthlessly de-fanged and lacks a terrifyingly gory edge altogether.  There are moments when you can sense that Espinosa is aiming for gnarly carnage and mayhem, but so much of the blood letting via neck bites and slashes is curiously either weirdly bloodless or the violence is shown off screen (this, of course, really shows in the film's clunky and sometimes incoherent editing, which was obviously done to secure a more family friendly rating).  The film's middling to simply mediocre VFX don't help at all either, with too much of Morbius' transformations and later battles with Milo being rendered in not-ready-for-prime-time and mostly shoddy CGI (it's pretty astounding how little a film like this uses good old fashioned makeup to transform Leto's pretty boy facade into this creature of the night).  When Morbius and Milo do engage in their preordained climatic showdown it's handled so murkily, so chaotically, and without much symmetry or flow that it often becomes impossible to decipher what's happening in the sequence.  That, and MORBIUS adheres to the same formula of the first VENOM film of having hero and villain developing the same extraordinary powers and becoming ghoulish monsters fighting it out in a finale that's more hard on the eyes and senses than truly exhilarating.  Too many of these films are on pure autopilot in their final act. 

Of course, because MORBIUS is meant to be a bridging vehicle between the Disney controlled MCU and Sony helmed Spidey cinematic universes.  There's a tacked on and routine mid-end credits sequence that - without going into spoilers - attempts to ride in on the coattails of the multiverse narrative of SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME by featuring a cameo that - when you modestly pick apart the established MCU mythology that has been set up - makes no sense whatsoever.  Maybe that's my largest misgiving with MORBIUS: Instead of trying to stand proudly on its own two feet as a unique standalone entry, Sony is just attempting to suck on the exhaust fumes of the success of the last SPIDER-MAN picture, and it really shows here.  I'll say that MORBIUS, to its credit, is no where near as putrid as all of the pre-release chatter online has led you to believe.  I think the central character is well played by Leto and his world has so much untapped promise that's regrettably never fulfilled in the final product.  Plus, I found it to be significantly more engaging on a conceptual level than the last VENOM sequel, which I found to be insufferable to sit through.  But, yeah, MORBIUS is still kind of a mess, but an interesting mess that has a certain generic and vanilla plain entertainment value.  Considering the vast litany of previous vampire lore specific films (comic book themed or not), MORBIUS has momentary flashes of ingenuity, but frankly doesn't seem equal to the task of doing something new with this ageless genre.  Like too many on-brand comic book movie extravaganzas, it feels copied and pasted from a factory assembly line playbook.  

And pondering just how long it took MORBIUS to make it to cinemas (it was a victim of constant pandemic related release re-scheduling), it feels oddly incomplete and unfinished.  Still, I doubt that waiting another year would have fixed this somewhat doomed production any more. 

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