Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenwriters: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless
Starring: Jared Leto, Matt Smith, Adria Arjona, Jared Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Al Madrigal
Morbius the Living Vampire first appeared in “Spider-Man” comics in 1971 after the American Comics Code Authority lifted their bizarre ban on horror-based and supernatural characters. Unless you grew up in the 1990s and saw his memorable episodes of the ‘Spider-Man’ animated series you’re probably not all that familiar with who he is and what he is about. This isn’t another Venom situation where Sony have taken an instantly recognisable supervillain turned anti-hero and given him his own side adventure, so it’s a pretty obscure choice for a solo comic book movie that producer Avi Arad and others have been trying to get off the ground for years. Nearly two years after its original scheduled release date, is Morbius worth the wait? It is not.
In an effort to cure his debilitating blood disease, Nobel-winning scientist Dr Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) begins unethical experiments with the DNA of vampire bats, and after testing the resulting serum on himself transforms into a vampiric creature that needs to feed on blood to survive. Finally freed from his lifelong pain and physical limitations, Morbius must fight against his dark side just as others seek to use the same power without restraint.
The strangest and arguably most interesting thing about Morbius, the final form of which is a boringly mediocre superhero horror, is how clearly the screenplay and overall arc of the central characters in this story were at least partially re-written midway through. Adria Arjona and Jared Harris seem to have lost most of their screen time and character moments in the edit. And, according to interviews he has given, Matt Smith didn’t even know for sure which villain he was supposed to be playing, his fairly entertaining performance as Michael Morbius’ troubled surrogate brother Milo all too often overshadowed by distracting add-it-in-post stuff.
We know next to nothing about our protagonist Michael Morbius by the end of the nearly two hours we spend with him. He’s shown to have made some significant scientific breakthroughs for the good of mankind, and dreams to cure himself and others of their conditions, but beyond that there’s nothing to him. Something is really troubling about Michael’s “I should have died years ago” line, too. It frames his disease as all he is, someone to pity, and quite insultingly implies he should be prepared to throw in the towel on life should he fail in his latest curative mission.
Michael is gravely warned that “You’re mixing human DNA with bat DNA” in case we in the audience hadn’t worked that out, all because a vampire bat’s anti-coagulation ability helps fight Michael’s rare, unnamed and fictional blood disease, or something, in addition to giving him “bat radar” powers. The vampire bat is an animal in need of some serious character rehabilitation like the Great White Shark justly received a few years post-Jaws – it’s suggested here that they’re capable of shredding animals like kind of flying piranhas when in reality a human’s biggest risk from them would be contracting rabies.
No moment in this story feels in any way original or organic, and everything feels like they thought of the set pieces first and hastily stitched the scene progressions between them after the fact. Michael isn’t on a boat in international waters because he’s conducting an illegal experiment, but he is instead placed there to give Morbius a confined space in which to run violently amok following his first transformation, and because the various versions of Dracula did it. In the final battle, Morbius punches his opponent using a swarm of bats not because he is gradually learning the extent of his new powers by instinct but because he has been regular-punching his opponent for about ten minutes by that point and because Dracula Untold did it (no surprise both films share screenwriters).
‘Buffy’ did monster-face vampires so much better using prosthetics and clever editing, but here, thanks to some sub-par VFX over practical options, it looks like Morbius is constantly being photographed mid-computer render when he’s letting his animalistic side take control. There’s no reason for a film costing $75million to look so much like an early-2000s effort, though it at least appears as if physical sets and real locations were employed extensively – which is a sad rarity in blockbuster filmmaking these days.
The smug references to other, better Marvel movies throughout the film are pretty insufferable as well. Young Michael is sent to a “school for the gifted” in New York, he warns interrogating FBI agents that “You don’t want to see me when I’m hungry”, and then there’s the frankly embarrassing mid-credits extended cameo that features in some of the trailers.
The old “gift is also a curse” metaphor is taken to literal extremes here, with Morbius conquering his condition at a terrible price and unwilling to pass it on to other sufferers lest they turn into a similar monster as he has. This of course happens to the big baddie who, wouldn’t you guess it, is a dark reflection of Morbius with the exact same powers but none of the moral scruples.
We end up with the standard two-special-effects-fighting-each-other-at-night finale that Sony might as well patent at this point after ending both Venom movies in this way. One visual gimmick employed throughout the film to portray super-speed is to give everyone with vampire powers a vapour trail colour-matched to the dominant shade of their outfit, which at least helps distinguish the two combatants as they wiz around the screen punching and bloodlessly slashing at each other, but it’s a jarring visual that appears to be trying to be distinct for the sake of it.
Though it is technically competent enough in most aspects, Morbius is a superhero horror film that isn’t thrilling or scary and generally lacks any much-needed bite. To be fair to Jared Leto, he does his best with uninspiring material, and Matt Smith chews scenery with the best of ’em, but everyone involved in this needed a clearer idea from the start of who the characters are and what the film is trying to say within its well-worn genre trappings.
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