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“Morbius” Is a Throwback to Everything Unpleasant about the Superhero Movies of Yore (Review)

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Morbius is a throwback, and not in a good way. It’s surprising that a film like this even exists. I don’t mean that in a business way – I get the financial appeal of strip mining the Spider-Man IP for as long as the superhero bubble will allow. In the early 2000s in the wake of the success of X-Men and Spider-Man a wave of superhero movies were unleashed on theaters that essentially seemed to tell audiences “We want the brand awareness, but could not care less about the characters.” Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Jonah Hex, and The Punisher stand as just a few the movies that seemed cynically concocted to chase box office clout

It’s no longer 2005. In a world where films like The Batman or Sony’s own Spider-Man: No Way Home and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are crafted with a passionate desire to engage with the history, ethos, and persona of a given character, I’m baffled how this film was allowed to shoot with this script. Not one element of this film’s storytelling seems to be crafted with any care whatsoever for this character.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

I don’t mean to demand some sort of perfect fidelity to canon or anything like that. Guardians of the Galaxy, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and most recently Moon Knight are proof positive that canonical fidelity is anything but necessary for a successful superhero story. All of those, however, seem like they give a damn about telling the stories of the underlying characters.

I was worried I was in for a rough sit from the opening of the film. Following a dopey title sequence dragged from two decades ago, we see Dr. Michael Morbius land on Cerro de la Muerte in Costa Rica. As he exits the helicopter and leans upon his cane a character asks “Do you need a doctor?” “I am a doctor.” Morbius responds without a hint of good humor. And so the film’s first act sees conversation after conversation after conversation between characters who, ostensibly, have known one another for years but speak to one another as though they’ve never met and have been programmed to dump exposition on the audience.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Most baffling is the character of Martine Bancroft. That a scientist/doctor, Morbius’ literal partner in his experiments, requires our titular hero to explain the very basic details of what sort of project he’s working on is just embarrassing. I feel for actress Adria Arjona (6 Underground); she has an easy charisma and a good screen presence but she’s utterly wasted here in one of the most thankless parts I can recall in a recent blockbuster. It seems as though the screen writers had originally written her character as a secretary or some sort of subservient position to Morbius and simply made her a “doctor” to make the whole project seem more progressive. News flash, having the Puerto Rican female scientist serve as the most scientifically illiterate character in the film – less savvy even than the detectives trailing Morbius and perhaps the most unscientific scientist since Dr. Christmas Jones in The World Is Not Enough – is not progress.

When Morbius decides it is time to attempt the big experiment to treat his disease (and, of course, turn himself into a vampire monster in the monster), he tells a colleague he has to do this in international waters. The film next cuts to a ship in the ocean as text on the screen tells us the ship is located in “International Waters.” It’s just so lazy and condescending. There’s not a hint of faith in the audience. And there’s simply no reason why Morbius’ science experiment ship is populated by Morbius, Martine, and 8 evil mercenaries armed with machine guns who seem keen on harassing Martine. Morbius turns himself into a superpowered vampire and murders all the mercenaries just as they’re about to… who cares? The script sure doesn’t. Somehow Morbius is able to swim back from international waters to New York. Script note: he has vampire bat DNA, not dolphin fins.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

These sort of careless elisions in storytelling are omnipresent. The script reminded me in many respects of the films made during the writer’s strike – genuinely baffling plot holes and leaps in logic abound. I have no interest whatsoever in doing some sort of Cinema Sins-style criticism of a movie. I don’t care if the wine levels in a glass differ in adjacent shots or if an anachronistic coffee cup can be seen in the background of a scene. This movie however has galling leaps of logic and plot that are crippling to the story.

A common response I get to negative reviews of action, horror, or superhero movies is some – always respectful, of course – version of wondering why I can’t just realize that stuff like character arcs and writing doesn’t matter so long as the cheap thrills of whatever promised action is delivered. Here the action doesn’t make any damn sense. There are some cool stylistic choices. When Morbius flies (or does he float on friction in the air from stuff around him? The movie is, as usual, entirely unclear), there’s a nifty design to show the air in motion around him. The bat sonar feature is pretty cool aesthetically, but – again – it apparently allows Morbius to hear individual heartbeats across New York City when the plot requires. The way Morbius moves is interesting as well – each leap leaves a contrail of the colors around him. I’m not sure it makes any sense, but it does look pretty sweet. Yet when the actual action begins the ill-defined nature of Morbius’ powers removes any sense of stakes. He has the powers of Superman or the weakness of a mortal as the film’s plotting requires. I don’t really care precisely what the canonical scope of Morbius’ powers are; I care very much that the film defines the rules of his powers and then abides by them.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

I do have two things I quite enjoyed: Matt Smith (Last Night in Soho) and Al Madrigal (The Way Back). Madrigal, a comic by training, seems to exist in a more classic MCU movie. He’s blessed with self-awareness of Morbius’ vampiric nature. He’s funny and charming; I’d like to see him imported into a buddy comedy with Randall Park’s Jimmy Woo in a future true MCU TV show. Matt Smith too is in a very different movie from everyone else. I would very much prefer to be at his movie. Perhaps the film’s most energetic sequence focuses on Smith dancing around his dressing room to a hilarious perfect song called “Sex Me” by H-Town as he celebrates his newfound vampiric virility (we had learned previously in a near unwatchable flashback sequence that he has the same health problem as Morbius). He heads to a bar where he uses his newfound health and virility to flirt with a cute girl. A toxic finance bro asserts his “dibs” on the woman and starts a scuffle. Smith responds by eating the jerks in the parking lot. It’s the only aspect of this movie that seems tonally consistent with what’s so fun about Venom: Let There Be Carnage. I think there’s an only slightly insane read of this film that sees his Milo/Lucian as the hero, and Morbius as the evil scientist antagonist.

We’ve managed to make it all this way without my mentioning the star of the film, Jared Leto. I am not generally a fan of Mr. Leto. Sometimes his off-kilter energy enlivens a moribund project like The Little Things, but more frequently he delivers hammy shtick that lives closer to clowning than acting like in House of Gucci. Leto just exists here. Perhaps most damning is that – like the rest of the film – he’s too inert to move anything inside me, positively or negatively.

One last note on the marketing of this movie – and perhaps this constitutes light spoilers – but the overwhelming majority of the most titillating things shown in the Morbius trailer are not actually in the film. That background wanted poster of Spider-Man? Nowhere to be found. The Michael Keaton “What’s up, doc?” scene? Blipped away. Even the “I’m Venom” joke from the end of the trailer is played straight and devoid of humor in the final edit. It seems like a particularly nasty manipulation of fan expectations to tease a bunch of Spider-Man related Easter Eggs that aren’t even in the finished film…

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Morbius will be released in theaters, perhaps fittingly, on April Fool’s Day.