2022, PG-13, 104 min. Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Starring Jared Leto, Matt Smith, Adria Arjona, Jared Harris, Al Madrigal.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 8, 2022

There are dark and brooding superheroes, and then there's Morbius the Living Vampire. Originally created in 1971, he was one of Marvel's first horror characters after the Comics Code Authority started to relax its rules on more eerie content. Those edicts had been put in place to push 1950s horror publishers out of business, and when Marvel had the opportunity to bring back those more terrifying aspects they still wanted to merge them with their existing crop of superheroes. Thus, Morbius, one of Spider-Man's allies and a sporadic member of his rogues' gallery. After all, it's a little hard to be the good guy if you happen to be prone to a raging, murderous bloodlust.

Significantly, Morbius' vampirism was due (as was often the way with Spidey's foes) to scientific hubris, and that's another aspect of the character carried over into Morbius, his first movie outing. Michael Morbius (Leto) has a rare blood disorder, but as a supergenius researcher he's hunting for a cure that would help people like him, including his childhood fried, Milo (Smith). Unfortunately, this cure involves injecting himself with vampire bat DNA: Side effects may include flight, superstrength, superhearing, echolocation, and the occasional killing spree.

Morbius continues Sony's trepidatious attempts to turn their Spider-Man films into an extensive franchise, mostly by building out his villains in stand-alone movies. We've had two Venom flicks, both succesful in spite of themselves, and the prospect of Leto as a charismatic bloodsucker seems to set Morbius up for similar success. However, like Venom, it will be more through momentum than actually taking advantage of what could be done here.

Watching Morbius isn't about watching a bad film, or even a boring one. It just feels consistently incomplete. The script by Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama has all the flaws of their earlier muted blockbusters like Dracula Untold and Gods of Egypt: expositional, bland, designed to move the story along with no flourishes. It's like director Daniel Espinosa (responsible for the oddly underrated alien horror Life) took their first draft and just filmed that, with all the punch-up and vague plotting that gets fixed in rewrites left undone. If that's what happened, it would not be the worst decision Espinosa makes here. So many choices, from longtime collaborator Jon Ekstrand's clashing keyboard-and-strings score to individual shot compositions to the way Morbius leaves a trail of misty vampire dandruff floating in the air, just seem halfhearted. They're not terrible, but they're also not interesting.

That may be what's most frustrating about Morbius, that there's clearly a better film lurking under the surface. After all, this is Leto and Smith, two of the most curiously charismatic actors of their generation. Yes, while it is de rigueur to castigate Leto, he seems constitutionally incapable of making a boring decision (cf him being the most interesting part of the cartoonish House of Gucci); so even though Morbius is rarely given a line that does anything more than move the plot from A to B, he still tweaks some moments of levity and weight out of them. His earliest scenes with Smith are surprisingly tender, imbued with the details that make their supposed lifelong friendship plausible. If only there was more of that, then Morbius could be the film it wants to be. But there's not.

So it's not that Morbius degrades into a CGI-powered slugfest, followed by the mandatory mid-credit sequences that imply long-term connections to the bigger Spider-Man cinematic realm (spinoffs and team-ups and sequels, oh my!). Getting upset at those is like getting upset at third acts. They're just part of modern superhero storytelling. It's that Morbius does what it's supposed to, nothing more, and barely that. If only this living vampire had more of a pulse.

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Morbius, Daniel Espinosa, Jared Leto, Matt Smith, Adria Arjona, Jared Harris, Al Madrigal

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