By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Jared Leto, Matt Smith and Adria Arjona
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless
MORBIUS is part of the SPIDER-MAN-verse of big-budget Marvel-inspired movies from Sony Pictures/Columbia, though on a certain aesthetic level, it’s more reminiscent of those days when Cannon Films and Roger Corman attempted to bring the publisher’s superheroes to the screen. There’s a decided B-movie feel hanging over the whole thing, no matter how much gratuitous CGI it throws at us. Simply put, this is not the preferred comics-based bat man to see on screens right now.
I’m not familiar with the comics that inspired MORBIUS, though Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’ credit for both “screen story and screenplay” suggests liberties have been taken. It opens with a sufficient bang as Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto), a brilliant scientist debilitated by a blood disease, arrives at a Costa Rican cave to trap a colony of vampire bats that are crucial to his research. Before we learn of their importance, the movie flashes back to Morbius’ childhood in a Greek clinic, where he began a lifetime friendship with similarly afflicted Loxias Crown, whom he comes to call Milo. Back in the present, Milo (Matt Smith) is bankrolling Morbius’ experiments involving the synthesizing of anticoagulants in the bats’ saliva into a serum that can cure himself, Milo and potentially countless others.
Instead, as anyone familiar with horror-movie standards knows, testing the drug on himself causes Morbius to become a character who’s part human and part vampire, and also part Spider-Man (able to leap around with superhuman strength and agility) and part Hulk (given to rage-screaming transformations). The rules of his condition, and how he deals with them, are pretty shaky, and change depending on the needs of the plot. What’s for sure is that after taking out a squad of mercs on a ship that then drifts into a New York harbor (it’s not called the Demeter, but the Murnau, wink wink), Morbius becomes determined to keep his inner monster at bay until he can find a solution to his condition.
Complicating matters: Milo, envious of the physical improvement and buff physique the serum has given Morbius, steals some of it and also vamps out, though he has fewer compunctions about restraining his new dark side. That provides the central conflict, shot through with themes of humanity and responsibility that have been seen in countless past films about vampires, Dr. Jekyll and other supernatural beings, and get little in the way of imaginative reconception here. One of the joys of so many of the Marvel movies, including the three Tom Holland SPIDER-MEN, is how they have found ways to ask very human dramatic questions in the midst of all the spectacle. In MORBIUS, everything is pro forma, playing out exactly as you expect it will, with the revelation of Milo as the story’s villain handled in an especially haphazard, offhanded manner.
Smith seems to be having fun in a role given no quirks to distinguish him from countless past semihuman/power-mad villains, while Leto, underplaying some of the time, does his best to invest gravity into a role with only the most standard of shadings. Everyone else has purely functional roles to play, including Adria Arjona as Dr. Martine Bancroft, a colleague of Morbius’ who tries to help him out, Jared Harris as Dr. Emil Nicholas, Morbius and Milo’s longtime personal physician, and especially Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal as a couple of FBI agents on Morbius’ case. Gibson is the bad-ass one, Madrigal delivers the (mild) wisecracks and the duo have absolutely no impact on the storyline whatsoever.
Director Daniel Espinosa previously guided street-level crime dramas like SNABBA CASH, SAFE HOUSE and CHILD 44, which would seem to make him well-suited for a Manhattan-set vampire epic. However…actually, let’s talk about the Manhattan thing first. The occasional helicopter shot of the real thing cannot hide the fact that MORBIUS was clearly shot somewhere other than the Big Apple (London, as it turns out); with the budget this movie had, you’d think they’d be able to set a key action setpiece in a New York City subway station that actually looks like a New York City subway station. And speaking of the budget, any attempt at gritty urban atmosphere is visually drowned out by all the digital trickery on view, as Morbius and Milo (whose vamp faces are almost all done via computers, not prosthetics) leave trails of CGI swirlies whenever they’re in monster mode, and especially when they fight. This reduces a number of the action sequences, particularly the climactic blowout, to incoherent blurs.
Shot nearly three years ago, MORBIUS has clearly been subject to a lot of recutting and possibly reshooting, given the number of moments in its two trailers that appear nowhere in the film itself. These include appearances by a key character from a past SPIDER-MAN adventure who, those previews suggest, once had a greater role in the proceedings. In the final cut, he’s seen only in a pair of mid-end-credits bits that appear to have been hastily put together in the wake of SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME’s huge success. They make it clear that Morbius, no surprise, will be back in a future movie or movies, and also that–no surprise to anybody who sees this one–he’s not going to be the headliner.