Dir: Daniel Espinosa. Starring: Jared Leto, Matt Smith, Adria Arjona, Jared Harris, Al Madrigal, Tyrese Gibson. Cert 15, 104 minutes
Somewhere in the middle of Morbius, a film about a Spider-Man villain that does not feature Spider-Man, I was ready to tap out. To get up and leave. To move to an alpine cottage in Switzerland and simply never engage with Sony’s Spider-Man-less Spider-Man Universe ever again. It’s too much effort, with too little reward.
There’s no reason all of this should be so complicated. Morbius, in the comics, makes for a fine adversary. Even the film’s given origin story could have neatly fit into the sidelines of a Spider-Man outing: Michael Morbius (Jared Leto), the inventor of artificial blood and a man so humble he turned down the Nobel Peace Prize, lives with a condition that requires three blood transfusions a day to survive. A fear of his own mortality corrupts him, so he flies to Costa Rica to seek out a rare type of blood-sucking bat (what’s scarier than a vampire? A vampire with colonialist ambitions). He mixes its DNA into human blood and – bada boom – he’s now Nosferatu for the Hot Topic generation. Morbius looks like Jared Leto with extra highlight shimmer. He can fly by riding air flows, leaves trails of smoke behind him, and has wiggly ears capable of echolocation. Sometimes he wears a kagoul. It’s all pretty straightforward.
Sony, because of its deal with Disney’s Marvel Studios, has loaned out Spider-Man for the foreseeable future. But apparently unable to simply sit on its piles of cash and enjoy the view, the studio has forged ahead with its own franchise, one which continuously implies the existence of Spider-Man without confirming which of the three existing Spider-Men – Holland, Garfield, Maguire – we’re talking about. Morbius follows two Venom films, and there is a single, oblique reference to that character in this one. It will be followed by Kraven the Hunter. Who knows how he fits in. At least Sony had enough faith in director Andy Serkis to trust him with last year’s sequel Venom: Let There Be Carnage. There was a voice there. A little bit of originality in its central romcom conceit. Morbius, from top to bottom, is a work of shameless corporate desperation.
It can’t be described as the wild, untethered disaster that some were secretly hoping for, either, because that would imply some level of creative risk. No, this is the flavourless product of far too many board meetings, where anything offered by director Daniel Espinosa has been whittled down to the level of pure “content”. I’m not sure it’s even meant to function as a film in the traditional sense. It’s more a two-hour prelude to a post-credit scene, which happens to be one of the most sloppily written teases ever committed to screen. Morbius also doesn’t have an ending. It simply cuts to the credits when everyone’s had enough.
Elsewhere, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’s script largely submits to Leto’s overwhelming desire to act. He yells. He throws things. He contorts his body. It’s expression without any real character, nor the fallback of a quirky Italian accent à la House of Gucci. Morbius learns to control his powers without much effort, so the majority of the film is dedicated to Leto monologuing about how he can only be sustained by artificial blood for so long. Eventually, he’ll have to start sipping on the red stuff. Around the film’s midpoint, it also lets Matt Smith, playing Morbius’s BFF Milo, do some acting, too. An entire superhero vehicle is reduced to two guys ineffectively trying to convince us that they did this for the art and not for the money.
In Espinosa’s defence, there are ghostly traces here of a film with horror ambitions. We see blood splattered across glass windows, lights flickering in a hospital corridor, and grimly lit nightclubs. There’s violence, but only ever implied – lost somewhere in all the chaotic editing, which seems so unsure about what a vampire in battle should look like that it simply fudges every action scene into an indescribable blur. It’s humourless in places where it should be goofy, if only to acknowledge how much Morbius’s wrinkly, snarly vampire face makes him look like he’s about to be staked by Buffy. But, conversely, it also drops humour into all the wrong places – “You don’t want to see me when I’m hungry,” Morbius says during a police interrogation, to zero applause.
All in all, Morbius is a film that’s more frustrating than it is gleefully inept. And if superhero movies really are going to dominate modern cinema for the next decade or so, we should at least be allowed a little healthy competition between studios. I hope, in the future, Sony can put up a better fight than this.
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