If the Venom film series began as a strange experiment in making Spider-Man without Spider-Man, Morbius is at once stranger still, and more mundane: A Venom without Venom, with Jared Leto as another super-monster who must try to contain the beast within. The newest entry in the SSMCU—Sony Sorta-Marvel Cinematic Underverse—casts Leto as Morbius, The Living Vampire. He’s the latest in a rich lineage of Spider-Man antagonists who begin as frustrated scientists, one of multiple mirror-shard reflections of the STEM-minded and mostly virtuous Peter Parker. This particular Dr. Frankenstein riff crossfades into Dracula territory, as Leto’s Dr. Michael Morbius—Nobel-rejecting genius, friend to children, master of origami—Goes Too Far when researching a possible cure for his rare, debilitating blood disease. Experimenting with vampire bats, he turns himself into a stronger but less predictable creature whose face can crinkle into a man-bat hybrid. His improved health comes with a newfound thirst for the sweet sustenance of human blood.
It’s all more horrific than the MCUPAL (Marvel Cinematic Universe People Actually Like) can handle, at least in theory. Like Venom, who Dr. Morbius nonsensically makes reference to while menacing a gang of counterfeiters, this character makes an immediate play for sympathetic-antihero status, with a lot of the gruesome stuff (Venom’s head-chomping; Dr. Mike’s blood-guzzling) elided, or limited to gun-toting, anonymous bad guys. Leto may specialize in preening, stunt-acting turns like Paolo Gucci or his ill-fated gangster imitation of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but he’s in belated (and largely unwelcome) movie-star mode here: The handsome, decent-yet-conflicted leading man. The weirdest aspect of this performance is how his attempts to go light, charming and virtuous sometimes sound like an actor trying to master a flattened-out American accent—like he’s imitating something he’s heard countless times without ever actually inhabiting himself.
It’s too bad Leto’s performance isn’t much fun, because at times, Morbius has some of the straight-faced B-movie absurdity that the low-rent Venom pictures keep winking away. Like its corporate sib, the movie’s true super-antihero is a snazzy bit of computer effects, more outré than the tastefully muted costumes of Ant-Man, Shang-Chi or Captain America. When he’s hungry or cornered, the doctor’s contrived bedside manner falls away as he becomes a sharp-toothed, beady-eyed, claw-handed monstrosity who whooshes through the air in a cloud of tinted CG smoke. It’s cheesy as hell, and I never got tired of looking at it; at times, the colorful smears of FX resemble ink bleeding across a comic page. Director Daniel Espinosa has a workmanlike touch enlivened by its passing resemblance to competent ’90s/’00s hackwork. That’s especially true of his collaboration with cinematographer Oliver Wood, an old hand at slick grown-up thrillers like Face/Off and The Bourne Identity, who gives this digital-era tentpole some film-like grain and texture (even if the substitution of England for New York City is frequently obvious). Sometimes it’s downright relaxing to be whisked through slam-bang efficiency, riding the glorious CG mists of a dumb vampire guy in a skulking hoodie.
Alas, Morbius, a 90-minute movie padded out with the blockbuster-standard extra-long credits (complete with the obligatory pair of mid-credits tease scenes that have nothing to do with anything in the movie you just watched), confounds its own momentum by offering more of a situation than a story—or even a mood. The blood-chugging doc attempts to reconcile his condition with his desire to help people, and eventually squares off against his similarly afflicted pal Milo (Matt Smith), pausing to make time with his longtime friend-or-more-or-whatever Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona). That’s about it.
Smith does his part, giving the relishing-dandy performance missing from so many recent superhero villains, but while this quasi-horror movie feels fleet at first, it ultimately jettisons too much. Beyond whatever scenes have been reworked, recut or just plain deleted from an abbreviated final cut, the movie shies away from the vampirism that could have made this more than a swift origin story: There’s surprisingly little blood in this sucker and, of course, eroticism is largely eschewed. The movie is most enticing when Dr. Michael Morbius feels like a threat to himself and/or others, and that feeling isn’t allowed to linger. It’s a perverse tactic, given that Sony transparently yearns for these villains to team up and take on some version, any version, of Spider-Man. The actual pre-credits body of Morbius—what’s traditionally known as “the movie”—doesn’t actually waste any time on this set-up. Yet there’s some kind of invisible force here, hurrying things along in the hopes of a future team-up, making sure this feature film arrives more undead than alive.
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Writers: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless
Starring: Jared Leto, Matt Smith, Adria Arjona, Tyrese Gibson, Jared Harris, Al Madrigal
Release Date: April 1, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.