Walking in and sitting down for my screening of Morbius felt like walking into a meeting room knowing you’re about to get fired. Not in the way that anything is actually happening to you, obviously, but because in the moments leading up to entering the meeting room, and as the meeting kicks off, you are acutely aware of a particular sense of dread. This is not going to go well. The Jared Leto led, several times delayed, Sony helmed, superhero movie about a super villain, did not find me with my expectations high. See, Sony has this…problem. One of those itching pains that doesn’t restrict you to your bed, but rather nags at you all day. They don’t remember how to make good superhero movies.
Of course I have to get out in front of that specific statement to acknowledge that yes, Into the Spider-Verse is incredible. Without question. But the dozen-or-so questions that linger around the creation of that movie aren’t comfortable questions to answer, most notably: How in the world did Spider-Verse dodge the miasma of the Sony Spider-Man Universe? We may never know. The last five live-action Sony superhero films are: Amazing Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man 2, Venom, Venom 2, and now Morbius. If there was a reward for the most tepid attempts at hero fiction, Sony would have to be the longest tenured repeat winner. Somewhere there is a shadow box with four awards depicting a slouching figure gathering dust. The good news is, there is about to be a fifth, and it doesn’t have dust on it yet.
Generally, walking into a film with subterranean levels of expectation leads to generous, even surprised responses to even the most mediocre films. Hard to disappoint a viewer who left their heart in the glove compartment before they walked into the smells of popcorn and sugared treats. Somehow, despite mirroring this process almost exactly (I left my heart at home, it was rainy after all), Morbius still found a way to find those buried expectations and drill them even deeper into the earth. For a film about a vampire, you expect to see someone get the life drained from them. You don’t plan on that someone being you.
Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) is a doctor with a rare blood disease, leaving him weak and perpetually ill. For reasons unbeknownst to viewers, the film opens on a Caribbean Island (or the Amazon perhaps?) where our doctor plans to capture a specific species of vampire bat. The entire time he is there, his crew comments that they shouldn’t be there, or that they have to be gone by nightfall. Morbius ignores their warnings (turns out neither the location, nor the bat species has any plot significance) and inexplicably cuts open his hand and places it in a “trap,” enticing the bats to leave their slumber and swarm him.
From there Morbius is content to give us about fifteen minutes of shockingly clumsy exposition. We are introduced to Morbius as a child, where we also meet Jared Harris’s Dr. Emil Nicholas. We then watch an award ceremony, or rather a few moments from an award ceremony wherein Dr. Nicholas awards the adult Dr. Morbius with a Nobel Prize, only to be quickly cut to a hospital bed where we find out he didn’t accept the award. The revelation delivered by Morbius as he works with a patient, just moments after the film had the opportunity to show us why he didn’t accept the award. This is a problem that plagues this film. There seems to be every opportunity to show character development and growth, yet those opportunities are completely abandoned for the sake of, well I’m not really sure.
This film isn’t hurting for casting. In fact, the only excitement I had leading up to Morbius rested in the fact that I knew Matt Smith, Jared Harris, and Adria Arjona were going to be supporting Jared Leto. Leto is one of those performers that can, and often does, make or break a film he is in. The only real exception being the first attempt at the Suicide Squad. His Joker never got a fair shake, and because we never truly saw him in even a supporting role, Suicide Squad’s poor performance can rest on different shoulders. I loved Leto in Blade Runner 2049, largely because he portrayed a billionaire mogul just dripping with hubris, a role that doesn’t seem to stray too far from Leto’s public persona. This is the guy who sent condoms and pig heads to his “castmates” for Suicide Squad. This is the guy who started a “cult” with his band 30 Seconds to Mars. He is eccentric to say the very least, and while he clearly tries to lift Morbius out of the mud, even his polarizing talent can’t pull it off.
I won’t say that Leto’s performance is what weighs this film down. It doesn’t exactly do much to lift it, but the writing is so juvenile I find it hard to believe anyone could have made it into something more. The exposition is sloppy and used as a creative crutch, several lines read like campy writing but feel like they are supposed to be taken dead seriously. The plot, as a whole, wanders aimlessly for the first forty minutes, swapping from time periods and locations so rapidly that if they didn’t use establishing shots it would be easy to lose track of where you are. What’s more, it feels like half of the movie moves from laboratory to laboratory, which does nothing if not confuse the aesthetic of a vampire entirely.
Matt Smith is responsible for my favorite scene, a moment that is, on its own, goofy and a bit deranged. He almost carries the film, truly. Not often a man found in roles devoted to such over-the-top lunacy as a Marvel villain, seeing Smith shake his feathers is amusing, if only distracting from the slow motion car crash all around him. The most egregious crime is the stunt-casting of Jared Harris. While there are more offensive omissions from this film, as made clear by its marketing (oh hey Michael Keaton…fancy seeing you here), to cast Jared Harris in a film about scientific and medical morality and not allow him to speak for more than twenty seconds is an abhorrent waste of an opportunity.
That’s where Morbius lands for me. A waste of an opportunity. In speaking with my plus one, there are clear demarcations of a movie that was absolutely butchered in the editor’s room. I can find no other justifiable explanation for Jared Harris’s absence. There are also several moments of ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement, or the process of re-recording audio and placing it over film) where the audio obviously doesn’t match what the actor is saying. Tell-tale sign that, after an edit, they had to bring actors back in to clean up dialogue inconsistencies. There is a moment, in the last act of the film, where a character’s dying words appear to be ADR’d, causing me to second guess what the final act was originally planned to be.
I can appreciate what the visual effects team tried to do with Morbius and his suite of powers. We have seen super-hearing, super-speed, super-strength, and flying before. Making those look unique is a challenge. Morbius doesn’t nail their attempt at imagining a new way to represent these powers, but I appreciate the effort. Again, there are signs that the film’s editing impacted some of these effects, with their appearance slightly changing in the third act. But for all of the intricacies of those effects, when you pit two characters with the same power-set together it makes parsing the screen a chore that no amount of slow motion can solve. What better way to illustrate this messy and silly movie. Oh and please…stay for the mid-credits scenes. They are absolutely unhinged.
Sony continues to flounder in their attempts to convince people they can do right by Spider-Man. While the Venom movies feel like they are willing to admit how ridiculous they are, at least to some degree, Morbius seems to think it has something more special. Instead, like the artificial blood that Dr. Morbius invents, this film feels manufactured, lacking spirit and bravery. And while his reason to turn down the Nobel Prize seems strange and performative, I wouldn’t blame you for turning down an invite to see Morbius. | Caleb Sawyer