I’m not here to talk about the fact that Morbius kinda sucked, and not in the way you hope a vampire movie sucks. Much ink has been spilled about that, including some of it here at Paste about what this means for the ongoing Spider-Man movie experiment. Those of us who watch the film industry (God help us) have to wonder about stuff like that, because it’s going to affect the next however many years of our moviegoing habits in one way or another. For those who watch films, or those who are beginning their journey to loving film, I wonder what, if anything, Morbius makes them wonder about.
Because the weather over my featureless stretch of the Midwest has finally mellowed enough to allow it (and because I still don’t go to movie theaters), I saw Morbius at a drive-in theater in a double feature with Spider-Man: No Way Home. And because it’s always good to give her a chance to get out of the house and away from her three siblings, I brought along my 13-year-old, whose opinions on tentpole features always elucidate something for me. As we settled in for a good five-hour stretch at the picture show with smuggled fast food hiding under our coats, she told me she’d seen incessant ads for Morbius but knew jack shit about it.
I told her a little about what I knew of Morbius the character, which is not much: He was a vampire guy on the Spider-Man animated show I watched in the ’90s when I was younger than her. She hid during the gross parts. We talked about how the scene aboard the ship where Jared Leto’s physically disabled main character goes full vamp for the first time felt like maybe it was edited out of a completely different cut of the movie. (Adria Arjona’s love interest character bursting back to life in the last scene—in a shot that had nothing to do with anything else, with no reaction from or denouement with the title character—seems like a pretty obvious reshoot to respond to somebody’s sour-grapes reaction to something, somewhere.)
And then there are the two scenes the movie is actually there to support, which occur…during the credits. The movie surrounding them is akin to a temple built only to house a reliquary (or, perhaps, launder money). In the first, we see Michael Keaton in a prison cell for some reason, and then learn that he is… not in his original timeline? There’s a news story about it, presumably because having a newscaster explain stuff to the audience is fairly easy. We are made to understand that this is Keaton’s character from Spider-Man: Homecoming. In an additional post-credits sequence, Morbius meets with Keaton and drops Spider-Man’s name completely out of nowhere. We are meant to feel something here.
These two scenes make marginally more sense if you have already watched Spider-Man: No Way Home, which was actually the second feature of the double feature. It was actually instructive to watch them out of sequence, because it helped highlight how these movies just do not scan as standalone works. No Way Home was competently made, had some good performances and great laughs, and reunited the actors who have portrayed Spider-Man across 20 years to tell a story about what makes Spider-Man the hero he is. (And it features interdimensional bullshit that is the reason for Keaton’s character getting bounced into Morbius’ world. It makes sense if you examine it for no longer than it took me to write that sentence, and ceases to make sense if you do for as long as it took me to write this one.)
No Way Home also made way less of an impression on my passenger, because she has not seen those movies. The reveal of Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire entering the narrative didn’t elicit the kind of reaction that I know it did in me and millions of other moviegoers. And here’s the thing: There isn’t anything wrong with a movie requiring knowledge of a previous entry in a series, nor with a work of art requiring some other context to fully appreciate. It’s just that increasingly, every movie of a certain type now requires this fastidiousness, and it requires it of an audience who were not yet born when the movies being referenced originally came out. And this means that they’re fundamentally not doing the same thing for younger viewers as they were for me when I saw, say, Spider-Man in 2002, a movie that stands completely on its own. The occasional bit of foreknowledge of the character was certainly required to get a joke here or there, but it wasn’t required for the film to legible.
At their very best, big action genre films can still thrill and tell tales of heroes and epic conflict even if they need to hang some of their narrative on previous installments. Morbius and even Spider-Man: No Way Home are not, strictly speaking, here to do that. They’re here to get you to watch more movies like Morbius or Spider-Man: No Way Home so that such movies continue to reliably make money. My concern is less with that than it is with the next generation of movie lovers, who are not gonna care about Ghostbusters or Star Wars or Spider-Man in the same way that people my age do. My 13-year-old already has enough homework without having to put five Spider-movies in her assignment notebook so that she can get the same degree of appreciation I do when she sees a movie like No Way Home. The kid was simply not born in time to drown in the sweet sorrow that was Spider-Man 2, and if she ever seeks it out later in life, it should be for her own reasons.
More and more, that insistence on self-reference (and the hours of investment in the gargantuan back catalogs being referenced) is becoming the defining feature of long-running multimedia properties. More and more, it feels like this leaves behind the youngest viewers, who should be the first folks in mind when you’re shooting a movie about dudes in spandex fighting lizard men.
Kenneth Lowe catches thieves just like flies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.