In the future, every Marvel comics character will have their own movie for 15 minutes. Right now, the spinning intellectual property wheel has stopped on Dr. Michael Morbius — prize-winning scientist, terminally ill patient, Type O connoisseur. Initially introduced as a Spider-Man villain in the early Seventies, the man known as “the living vampire” helped cash in on the horror-crossover craze and eventually earned his own solo stories in titles like Adventures Into Fear, where he promised to only feast on those who crossed society’s lines. His dislikes included webslingers, werewolves, vampire hunters named after sharp objects (looking at you, Blade) and clothes that were not one-piece jumpsuits with plunging necklines and very large collars. His likes included Ghost Rider, the blood of the guilty, piña coladas, and long walks on the beach.
Even when he teamed up with other spooky antiheroes/superheroes — your Man-Things, your Manphibians — Morbius wasn’t exactly the most compelling player in Marvel’s deep bench of monsters. He felt like a fanged footnote at best. But hey, Sony owns the rights to a stable of Spidey-adjacent characters, and that includes the good plasma-craving doctor. Plus, movie audiences and stockholders hunger for anything even slightly superheroic, so guess who’s got his own movie now? Initially, Jared Leto’s inaugural turn as the lauded biochemist who tries to cure his own rare blood disease with bat DNA and then, whoops, becomes a scientifically superhuman vampire, was supposed to hit theaters in July of 2020; a certain pandemic caused it to be delayed to March 2021. Then the movie’s release seemed to be continually punted down the road, and it was hard not to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this game of multiplex-schedule musical chairs wasn’t solely Covid-related. Having now endured this addition to the cinematic Spider-Canon … let’s put it this way: A wise man once said that you should never confuse shit with cioccolato. We’re not sure everyone involved with the making of Morbius listened to that bit of advice.
When we meet Dr. Morbius, he’s not in good shape; the illness that’s plagued him since his childhood in Greece has left him frail and unable to walk without the help of canes. But that doesn’t stop him from flying down to Costa Rica and gathering up every single bat he can find in the name of research. He’s brilliant, you see, and extremely driven — the gent turned down the Nobel Prize because the lifesaving fake blood he invented wasn’t up to up his standards! — and also, he thinks the dozens of winged mammals he keeps in a terrarium in his office hold the key to a cure. This “Bat-man,” if you will, creates a serum that, because it’s highly unethical and completely illegal, he must test on himself while sailing in international waters. His fellow scientist-slash-romantic-interest, Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), is thankfully along for the ride. The result leaves a ship full of corpses and her alive but unconscious.
But it also makes Morbius feel better than ever! And gives him superhuman strength! And the ability to glide on the wind, just like his furry little friends! Whereas once Leto sported a Peter Murphy-esque pallor, he’s now jacked and looks like a superhot rock star — call him Thirty Seconds to Morbius! The downside is that Morbius craves blood, and he has tendency to get a little monstrous when he indulges. The fake blood he invented all those years ago helps keep him stable, but only for about six hours. The real stuff lasts longer, but after witnessing the carnage he left on that boat, the doctor has vowed “not to drink the red.” Unfortunately, his childhood friend Milo (Matt Smith), who suffers from the same disease as Morbius does, has no such compunction about tapping jugulars after he sneakily downs the serum as well. It’s a pure good vamp/bad vamp showdown from here on out.
You can tell that the creators want to keep one foot firmly planted in Sony’s ongoing Spider-Verse — there’s a reference to “that thing in San Francisco” for you Venom lovers, and given that he’s listed on the film’s IMDb page, no one’s hiding Michael “Remember when he played the Vulture?” Keaton’s involvement — while dipping a toe or two into some horror-flick territory. Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) seems more comfortable with the second part, leaning heavily into the creepy elements as much as he can; you can sense him having fun as he stages a sequence involving a nurse, a predator, and a hallway with motion-activated lights. Yet when things require elements like the coordination of action, or narrative momentum, or helping establish a sense of character past “bad dude” or “damsel in distress,” he comes off as a little lost in the corporate fog of Superhero I.P. 101. Once Morbius becomes a vampire, his preternatural powers are rendered via colorful, almost mist-like trails that streak and dissipate as he moves. It’s a good way to visually distinguish his character at first. Once you have two vampires fighting in subway stations and rooftops with these traits, however, the action sequences start to resemble someone vomiting onto a Jackson Pollock painting.
As for Leto, he’s restrained himself from chewing the scenery despite having those bitchin’ fangs, and goes for a more brooding, moody, existentially-conflicted-hero mojo that feels par for the course he’s forced to play on. No actor should have to sell dialogue like the follow-up to a description of his super-hearing — “‘bat radar,’ for the uninitiated”; that’s the actual line — or the solemn declaration that those flying mammals “now greet me like a brother.” Matt Smith’s gleefully evil bad guy may not be the most dangerous Marvel villain ever, but he does wear chic designer suits with running shoes, so his Milo is definitely the douchiest Marvel villain to date. Tyrese Gibson shows up as the youngest cop ever to be too old for this shit, while his partner Al Madrigal cracks wise and then cracks wiser. We love Jared Harris, who plays Morbius’ mentor, so we’re leaving him out of this altogether. Pay that mortgage, my man.
Is Morbius the worst Marvel movie ever made? In an alternate universe without The New Mutants, the answer would likely be yes. And with all these multiverses now colliding into each other, who knows: There may even be a world out there where things actually came together for this old-school comic-book bloodsucker onscreen, where his determination to fight his newly monstrous nature while taking on the corrupt and the criminal gave us a deeper, darker antihero and Leto the chance to make his mark in the larger Marvel ecosphere. We’re stuck in this timeline, where the Morbius we’ve got is, plain and simple, a mess. If it’s not the worst of these films, it’s certainly the most anemic — and even die-hard fans are apt to feel completely drained by all of it.