(SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.
Dr Morbius: As a result of my procedure, I have the overpowering urge to consume blood. Human blood.
In the wake of Spider-Man: No Way Home, there was talk that Sony had nixed Disney overtures to uber-progressive content in no uncertain terms, hence a viewing experience that rather stands apart from the ramped-up identity politics of the last couple of years of MCU output. Morbius confirms that to such an extent – likely the Avi Arad influence, in which case not an entirely malign presence, just mostly – you wonder if it has any attitude at all, anywhere, towards anything. Which is undoubtedly preferable to being patronised or preached at, but you don’t feel Morbius is getting its teeth into its material, dramatically or thematically.
One might, were one so to choose, take the pulse of the character’s premise and consider how it applies to the current landscape, having as it does roots in vampirism/elite predation and evolutionary theory; as for as the movie is concerned, both things are demonstrably “bad”, albeit evolution isn’t so much jettisoned as “proved” in a faintly unconvincing way.
Morbius, the Living Vampire debuted in 1971, and is, at its core, your classic “perils of unchecked science/experimentation gone wrong” story (see also The Incredible Hulk – “You won’t like me when I’m hungry” – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and The Invisible Man). The personification of the vampire is decidedly feral, in contrast to the suave Christopher Lee opposite extreme. However, notwithstanding that it’s no picnic being a hideous self-loathing bloodsucker, there’s a “Look how super it makes you, if only you can keep those urges in check”.
Certainly, that’s a “necessary” element, with Morbius repositioned as it has been, as a tentpole attraction; Sony, having limited resources to draw upon, is emphasising the heroic side of as many Spidey villains/antiheroes as possible, hence Venom and Morbius and next Kraven the Hunter. It’s slightly less insidious than Disney’s edict with its classic villains, but one might argue the “sympathy for the devil” aspect is to much the same ends. And in Sony terms of practicality, it means finding the antihero someone more definably villainous to battle (Carnage, Milo).
Dr Morbius: The fusion of different species is a legacy we already carry in our bodies. Viruses insinuating their nucleic acids into our own over hundreds of thousands of years. That’s evolution.
Given director Daniel Espinosa’s approach is on the down-to-earth (even with Life), journeyman side, it makes sense that the opening of the Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (Gods of Egypt) scripted movie should emphasise the “science”. Dr Morbius invokes evolution as a justification for mixing human and bat DNA (doubtless those undertaking depraved hybrid experiments in DUMBs could forward similar rationales, were they to feel any burden of ethical guidelines) but he will later renege on such waffle – the weak sauce evolution example above – when he realises “It’s a curse”. Instead, it’s childhood friend and fellow blood-illness sufferer Milo (Matt Smith, playing a character partly based on Marvel’s Loxian Crown), a self-administered recipient of the “cure”, who takes up the baton: “We’re evolved! You’re a scientist, Michael. Surely, surely you understand that?”
Milo: What would you do if you could be normal, just for an hour?
Indeed, Morbius spouts the usual rhetoric of Rockefeller medicine – one must take the risk, or there will be “no science, no medicine, no breakthroughs at all” – and it certainly appears he has come up trumps before. His “development of artificial blood has saved more lives than penicillin” (“Your artificial blood saved my arm in Afghanistan” attests Tyrese Gibson’s comics-derived FBI guy Simon Stroud; in a deleted scene it’s revealed Stroud has a cybernetic arm, so I don’t know if that means it didn’t save the other one). Indirectly, though, this breakthrough emphasises that synthetic can only ever be a pale imitation; Morbius gains diminishing sustenance from the fake stuff, while Milo is unrepentant in his wanton bloodlust. Indeed, Milo’s language, even when afflicted, is couched in superior aspirations (“We’re the original Spartans, mate”); “There’s no shame in what we are” he tells Michael, and invoking elite thinking, he contests “We are few against the many”.
Milo: You know, you shouldn’t judge someone by how they look. Did your mother teach you no manners?
There’s some engaging enough interplay between the two early on. Leto doesn’t get to go full Depp in his role, which means he’s on the ineffectual side (Sony will have to look out for this with Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Kraven). Smith is enjoying himself, it seems, although his ticks and cadences seem to carry unchecked from role to role. Both go from emaciated to impervious; Jared is ripped and Matt is ripped, although the latter still has the head of a shoe.
Much of the last forty minutes comprises their extended altercations, and it’s here that Morbius drops off a cliff. It’s all so much weightless – visually and dramatically – sound and fury. The CGI transformation effects are both a lazy choice and deeply unimpressive (“I really fought for CG!” so blame Jared – Leto, not Harris).
Espinosa is a competent technician, but no more than that (which didn’t stop Scott Derrickson making a good MCU movie). His approach essentially means that, if other elements – performance, plot – don’t stand out, nothing will. He attempts some oomph with vamp super motion, by way of a CGI-augmented flying slugfest, but it doesn’t quite cut it (all motion effects and bullet time). It seems Antoine Fuqua and F Gary Gray were also considered, both serviceably competent and exactly not the kind of guys you chase to elevate a B-character; Espinosa’s the best pick of the three, but the material shows up all his weaknesses. There’s nothing interesting or distinctive about Morbius in any department (cinematography, set design, costuming, score), which adds to the sense of an almost defiantly pedestrian production.
In the supporting cast, Jared Harris should have been given a larger role as mentor/carer Dr Nicholas. He can be relied upon, though, to fulfil his standard movie duties by being unceremoniously killed off. Adria Arjona makes almost no impression at all, but now has vampirism coursing through her veins for the follow up that won’t happen. Gibson, stuck as the straight man – perhaps not his best move; his Fast & Furious schtick is certainly much more engaging – is denied the one recompense of suggested superheroic stature (although, it seems he has a three-picture deal). His partner, played by Al Madrigal, fires off possibly improvised quips and quickly becomes irritating, so it’s a shame he wasn’t drained of juice.
Adrian Toomes: Guys like us. Should team up to do some good.
Dr Morbius: I’m listening.
Morbius’ connectivity to the MCU appears to have been one of stops and starts, with Sony having to cut bits, add bits and hope for the best when it became clear they weren’t up to speed with Mouse House plans. JK Simmons was excised when they learnt J Jonah Jameson comes from a different universe (so the Raimi-verse, I guess?) Spider-Man graffiti was removed, having been added without Espinosa’s involvement. Carnage was set to cameo. Of which, there is reference to “that thing in San Francisco”, so Venom is in this universe somewhere. As for Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes/the Vulture appearing in two mid-credits scenes (“Hope the food’s better in this joint” and the above), it’s been rightly called out as making very little sense in any way, shape or form. One can only assume Disney consented because they don’t care about the character.
Rodriguez: It’s what these bloodsuckers do. They multiply.
Morbius may lack a brain, heart and the courage of its convictions, but it could have been worse. It inspires escalating ambivalence and then fatigue, rather than active irritation. The thing is, there’s always the potential for making an interesting vampire movie, so there’s absolutely no need for them to be as forgettable, say, as Dracula Untold. As it is, I find it difficult to see how Venom bringing Leto over would benefit the former, unless there’s a significant rethink. The bigger problem seems to be that Sony just don’t seem to comprehend the issue. You need suitable directors and lead actors to make these properties more than they are, not just someone who will do.