In 2004, Morbius might have been a pretty good movie. Today, the comic book spin-off, which stars Jared Leto as Spider-Man opponent Dr. Michael Morbius, feels dated and purposeless. If this were a Disney Marvel Studios property, rather than under the Sony umbrella, you’d be watching Morbius this weekend on Disney+ as part of a six-part limited series showcasing the origins of the tormented, blood-sucking villain, rather than feeling forced to pay for a big-screen experience that doesn’t necessitate a big screen.
MORBIUS 1/2 (0.5/4 stars)
Leto, who hopefully didn’t fully method act his way through this one, portrays Michael with complete humorless sincerity, which causes a ripple effect through the film’s overall somber tone. Venom, as well as its slightly less successful sequel, worked because it never took itself too seriously, offering a real sense of fun, particularly in the outlandish characterization of the title character. Not so much here. The only thing remotely whimsical about Morbius, helmed by director Daniel Espinosa, is Matt Smith’s performance as Milo, Michael’s childhood best friend.
Michael and Milo grew up together, both suffering from the same degenerative blood disease. After a youth spent in a hospital in Greece, looked after by a kindly doctor named Nicholas (a wasted Jared Harris), Michael becomes world-renowned for creating synthetic blood, which saves many lives—but not his own. So intent on finding a cure for his illness, which makes him weak and barely able to walk, Michael rejects the Nobel Prize and begins secretly running experiments using vampire bat DNA. He manages to combine his own blood with that of some bats he captured in Costa Rica and injects a serum into his spine with the help of his sort-of love interest Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona). This sense of hubris, of course, goes dramatically awry and Michael becomes a blood-thirty vampire himself, killing a bunch of people in the process.
All of this set-up is . . . fine. But once Michael transforms into Morbius, who looks a lot like those badly prosthetic-ed vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nothing is really at stake. After the universe-shattering plot of Spider-Man: No Way Home this is a pin prick. The only drama comes when Milo gets his hands on the serum and takes advantage of his new-found power with some mildly murderous intent. But the world isn’t in trouble. Even the city of New York, which has been CGI-ed together after the film shot in London, isn’t really under any kind of threat. Early on the film Michael is deeply concerned about a young patient, who presumably also suffers a blood disorder, but we never find out what happens to her. Does Morbius save anyone? Do we care? Where’s Venom to make a joke and lighten the mood?
Visually, there are some interesting moments, especially when Espinosa hints at creepy horror aesthetics, but the visual effects feel like something out of that early era of superhero movies in the mid-‘00s when the technology wasn’t quite there yet. The final showdown between Michael and Milo, where, again, nothing really appears to be at stake, is a muddled mess of CGI. Moon Knight, which premiered its first episode this week on Disney+, has better visual effects and broader scope than this and yet Sony still kept delaying the release of Morbius until it could be seen in theaters. Unless your ticket is free, don’t bother. This movie is as lifeless as the bodies Morbius drains and throws on the floor.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.