Morbius, the long-delayed next film in Sony’s Spider-Man universe, is like a roller coaster without a pulse. There are highs, there are lows, there’s plenty of disorientation, and by the end, you aren’t upset with the ride, but largely underwhelmed because you have the sense it should have been better.
Oscar winner Jared Leto stars as Dr. Michael Morbius, a rich, genius doctor who has spent his entire life looking to cure his very own rare blood disease. Which, eventually, he does. Except the cure involves splicing human DNA with bat DNA and it turns him into a bloodthirsty vampire. The desire to kill humans and drain their blood is bad but everything else that comes along with it is good: super strength, speed, enhanced movement, and hearing. So Morbius decides he needs to figure out how to balance the two. Will he be a hero? Or will he be a villain?
At the start, that’s the basic idea of Morbius and, after an at first interesting but ultimately confusing opening scene that never comes back into the narrative, the film begins on that trajectory. We see Morbius as a young child, he meets another boy he nicknames Milo who shares the same rare disease, and eventually, the two grow up to be rich and successful. Morbius wins a Nobel Prize for creating synthetic blood and Milo… also grows up to do something of note. We don’t know what exactly, but we know it’s good because older Milo is played by Matt Smith and he lives in a nice apartment.
As those relationships and characters get introduced, director Daniel Espinosa (Life) seems interested in exploring all the various dynamics. What it’s like to be a person fighting for your life and what it would be like to win that battle, even if it came at a great cost. And eventually, the idea of struggling between hero and villain seems poised to drive the film. However, at a certain point soon after Morbius becomes a vampire, the film loses its focus. One bad story decision leads to another. The rules and boundaries of these powers are never defined and eventually, the story of Morbius trying to find his balance gets pushed to the side. Instead, he becomes a fugitive at large and once Morbius finds himself behind bars, so too does the film, as all character development is derailed in service of narrative excess.
The tide does turn for a while when Matt Smith’s Milo becomes more prominent. The film’s marketing has largely kept Smith out of it but suffice to say he’s much, much more crucial to the film than the trailers might lead you to believe. We won’t say exactly what happens but if you had a life-long best friend with whom you shared the same terminal disease, and then one of you found a cure, cursed as it may be, well… you can begin to connect the dots. Smith makes the most of his newfound importance to the film and relishes every second he’s onscreen with a comic book glee that can border on parody.
It’s in these moments though, especially juxtaposed with the deathly serious tone of the movie around it, that Morbius’ cracks really become prominent. Smith’s Doctor Who-esque bravado versus Leto’s stoic intensity just makes you want more of the former. More humour. More energy. More wow. This is a comic book movie after all, right? And there is certainly some “wow.” The visual effects-driven action sequences in Morbius have a dynamic, unique way of attempting to quantify the vampire’s powers. They’re fluid and propulsive, almost like the string-cheese symbiote of Venom mixed with the dense battiness of Batman Begins. These scenes are few and far between however, and they’re certainly among the best beats in the movie, especially when it’s Leto’s Morbius battling the film’s surprising main villain.
Once Smith gets moved to the forefront, you quickly realise that Morbius’ new story about two friends struggling with powers is even more compelling than what the film originally seemed like it was going to be about. But that’s the problem. That there’s even a question of what story Morbius is trying to tell is a stake through the heart. Halfway through the movie, it’s almost like everything that came before is completely derailed or subverted. Detectives who had been looking for Morbius, played by the wildly miscast Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal, are mere afterthoughts. Morbius’ friendship with a fellow doctor played by Adria Arjona becomes a romance almost out of nowhere, and that whole idea of “How do I balance being a killer vampire and being a good hero?” that began the movie goes away, never to be heard from again. Finally, the ending of Morbius is so shockingly abrupt, it felt less like the end of a story and more like 20 minutes are missing.
Morbius has a few good ideas in it and the action scenes are decent, but even the good stuff just makes the other stuff look worse in comparison. Jared Leto is coasting on his movie-star status, Smith blows everyone else off the screen, and Arjona is completely underused. Outside of those action scenes, there’s very little about Morbius that distinguishes it in any way, even in terms of its connection with fellow Spider-Man films. All told, it’s a messy void that isn’t terrible when you’re watching it, but leaves a bad taste in your mouth by the end.
Morbius, starring Jared Leto as Dr. Michael Morbius, opens March 31 in theatres only.