MORBIUS is a movie I have been semi-anticipating. Not because I expected it to be particularly good, but because I have an interest in these sort of misbegotten wannabe blockbusters that seem already rejected by the public by the time it’s too late for the studio to turn back. I’m talking about movies that are the kind of pulpy lowbrow crap I enjoy, but seem somewhat misguided or clueless about what the public wants in such a movie, and therefore might do something kind of interesting. I think of them as big budget b-movies, as discussed in my review for SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS. Although I waited for video on that one I tend to see them at sparsely attended matinees – that’s what I did for STEALTH, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, HERCULES, ROBIN HOOD and THE LAST WITCH HUNTER.
I did kind of enjoy this thing, but I think I got more out of all of the above mentioned movies. This one’s officially a part of Sony’s In Association With Marvel Cinematic Universe with VENOM and VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE, and I think it’s a little less clunky than those on a narrative level, but not as good because it lacks the magic of Tom Hardy having a blast playing two bickering characters inhabiting one shapeshifting body. It does have the novelty of an Academy Award winning weirdo serious actor (Jared Leto, URBAN LEGEND) who’s usually in a supporting role trying to carry a questionable mainstream franchise on his shoulders.
We’ll get into Leto a little more later, but for now I want to set aside anything we know about him as a person and just say that I enjoy the friction of that type of off-kilter casting, and think it works for this movie. He’s very invested in the first act’s strange, fragile Dr. Michael Morbius, an oddball genius trying to find the cure for the rare blood disease that has made him a skeletal husk before an experiment with bat DNA turns him buff and bloodthirsty. (I don’t think he pulled a MACHINIST, I think the skinny part is FX, the muscles are real, and so is the long hair and the various manbun opportunities it creates.) But he’s not off-puttingly weird – he has a way of joking around with his friends that actually seems a little more easygoing and human than what we usually get out of Leto.
I’ve already described enough of the plot to get across why people think this movie is dumb and also why it appeals to me. This is based on a Marvel Comics character, and in the year of our lord 2022 people expect a certain level of wit and sophistication out of comic book movies. But I have a soft spot for this old fashioned “what if a guy had bat DNA, he would turn into a vampire wouldn’t he?” type of premise that seems more of the time before shared universes.
As you’d expect, the experiment (which happens on a boat that ends up coming ashore with its entire crew dead – nice nod to Dracula) leaves him feeling invigorated and in awe of his abilities. That includes walking without crutches, hanging from the ceiling, using “bat-radar” from the effectively disgusting-looking slits on his ears, and Peter Pan style flying. But also he realizes he has urges to drink human blood that, when not indulged, make him lose his powers and become sicker than ever. So he worries about his monster side endangering his loved ones and understands that drinking from “bad people” isn’t the solution either (though there’s a funny part where he quickly foils a counterfeiting ring in order to steal their lab for his DARKMAN-style off-the-grid experiments).
Until the laughable MCU tie-ins in the end credits (we’ll get to that later too) this is not much of a super hero movie, it’s more of a monster movie, and I like that! I think the creature effects are pretty cool. I like his spindly, clawed fingers and the painful looking way his regular ones morph in and out of them. I like the exaggerated, animated way he moves when leaping or flying or crawling on the walls and ceiling. Most of all I like the movie’s dedication to exaggeratedly angular cheekbones. I love what they can do now digitally, removing parts of the face instead of having to build over it and make the head look giant. From interviews with director Daniel Espinosa (SNABBA CASH, SAFE HOUSE, LIFE) it sounds like they gave up on makeup and did it all mocap and stuff, but I couldn’t tell exactly what I was looking at all the time. For example the above looks practical + digital to me, but maybe it’s not.
After a little Wikipedia reading it sounds like the story follows the comic book origin pretty closely, but this could also be any sci-fi monster movie. It’s not a super hero movie. The comic book feel comes in in the action, with lots of speed ramping beats that basically work as splash pages. And when they leap they leave sort of an inky trail of colorful fumes like Nightcrawler in X2. It starts to get a little visually messy at times, but I like how it sort of works as motion lines. (I’ve also seen all this stuff compared to video games, and Espinosa saying he was influenced by Pokemon.)
Former Doctor Who Matt Smith co-stars in the role of “friend who you assume from the beginning is gonna turn into the villain.” He’s Morbius’s childhood friend who shares the same disease, funds his search for the cure, then insists on taking it himself despite the consequences, and doesn’t attempt to be ethical about his monsterhood like Morbius does. My main impression of Smith is from his ridiculous part in TERMINATOR GENISYS [sic], so I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed him in this. He seems to be having fun when he turns evil.
I also appreciated that, to my surprise, former Simpsons writer/Daily Show correspondent Al Madrigal plays one of the FBI agents trailing Morbius. He gets some funny line deliveries and is just a nicely non-cliche casting choice. He’s partnered with a character played by Tyrese Gibson, who seems like he deserves more to do. Some of that may have been cut. In an interview, Tyrese says he has a robot arm, but in the movie we only hear that Morbius’ artificial blood saved his arm.
I do believe this movie could’ve benefited from one or more robot arms, though that could be said of almost every movie ever made, especially ones without any robot arms. In a big budget b-movie you want to have some laugh out loud stupid stuff – the Rob Cohen factor, if you will. So it’s a little disappointing, maybe, that we only get that during the end credits. They connect Morbius to the MCU by SPOILER I GUESS calling Michael Keaton down to the minors – a tear in the multiverse brings his SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING character Adrian “Vulture” Toomes to the In Association With Marvel Cinematic Universe, then he flies in to meet with Morbius and asks him to team up to fight Spider-man, which Morbius responds to positively. It’s weird because Morbius has been portrayed as a good person for the whole movie and now he’s ready to pal up with a complete stranger from another dimension speaking to him in an openly super villainous voice.
I still think the credits scene should’ve just been a remastering of the unused ending of BLADE:
I guess that’s BLADE director Stephen Norrington as the original live action (deleted) Morbius!
An unusual thing about MORBIUS is that its first trailer came out in January of 2020, and then the movie was repeatedly delayed, first due to the pandemic and then due to the runaway success of its big brother SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. During that time we saw the trailers approximately 7.5 million times, while reading reports of reshoots and recuts, so the finished movie seemed to inspire many people to try to figure out what changes were made, especially to Keaton’s cameo, since unused versions of it were glimpsed in the trailer and chopped up into two years’ worth of theoretical MCU clickbait bullshit. To me it was more distracting that there were scenes where a line I saw 250 times in the trailer was no longer present. The absence of a corny Venom joke was appreciated, but the missing line “If you’re gonna run, do it now” in the opening scene was puzzling. In both cases it felt strange not to have some line there, but none of this stuff will seem relevant when MORBIUS reaches its final resting place as a movie you occasionally come across on cable and think “Oh yeah, I forgot about this.”
Here’s some other online-only minutia. In 2017 Sony released a sci-fi movie called LIFE starring Jake Gyllenhaal, about astronauts returning to Earth with a deadly alien organism on their ship. In its trailer there was a crowd shot that somebody recognized was taken from SPIDER-MAN 3. This and other details inspired certain internet types to theorize that LIFE was gonna be a stealth origin story for a new Venom movie.
Of course that didn’t happen at all. But it’s kinda weird that life director Espinosa didn’t make another film until this here vampire cousin of VENOM. The script is credited to the team of Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless, who were writers on DRACULA UNTOLD, THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, GODS OF EGYPT and POWER RANGERS (story only). They’ve also written unproduced movies based on Flash Gordon, Missile Command, Clue and the Night On Bald Mountain sequence of FANTASIA. I.P. miners, I guess. Before the WGA credits were official, Art Marcum & Matt Holoway (IRON MAN, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, TRANSFORMERS PRESENTS THE LAST KNIGHT) were also listed as writers.
My mildly positive review of MORBIUS brings up a question some may ask of me: what is the value of forgiving mediocrity? I made “strive for excellence” my motto, after all, not “be okay with okayness.” But here I am.
I want to be clear that MORBIUS is by no means a great movie or something I can recommend to most people. However, it fulfilled what I wanted from a cheesy matinee viewing in a completely empty theater on opening day. It seems to me that people claiming it’s some kind of shockingly terrible disaster are just projecting stuff onto it having to do with its release, its star, its somewhat off-brand status, and it being a type of comic book movie that’s not really in vogue anymore. I kinda wish it was the terrible movie they say, because that would be more memorable. But I try to be honest and fair, and to be honest and fair this is a mildly enjoyable monster movie programmer that does some things right, and while not as good as the MCU movies, it feels kind of refreshing for not being the same type of thing, exactly. If we’re gonna have so many comic book movies (which I’m really not against as long as we also have other stuff) I want to have different types, including these ones that don’t fit in with the cool kids.
Of course, it’s a stretch to call MORBIUS an underdog, even if it’s some lowbrow shit that has been a punchline since the day they announced it. It’s still a big budget movie made by Sony and Disney, and that seems to have been enough to turn it into a moneymaker. Here’s the thing though. I’m sure that if a similar movie had been done with much more limited means, we could all admire it for what it was able to pull off. But since I enjoy this type of pulpy, trashy movie, don’t I deserve a few that don’t have to be made on a shoe string, by the skin of their teeth, or with made-for-Sy-Fy visual FX? Don’t I deserve expensive flying vampire fights? Can’t I enjoy just this one vampire movie where the opening expedition seems like JURASSIC PARK instead of stock footage, and where I get to see top notch digital artists plying their artistry and technology to full-on FROM DUSK TILL DAWN type drooling vampire maws? I can’t help but appreciate some of that stuff.
So I guess to me, right now, the distinction is that if people were treating this as a great example of what the genre (comic books, vampires, whatever) could achieve then I would push back against that, because we can certainly do better. But since everybody’s laughing it off, I feel comfortable saying it’s okay little guy. You tried your best. Good Morbius.
That’s good Morbius, though. Bad Jared Leto. After I saw this and was telling Twitter it’s not that bad, I kinda liked it, I felt like an asshole because then I started seeing alot of stuff about Leto being notorious for allegedly inviting teenage fans of his band to his hotel room and shit. And for leading a sex cult? I tried reading a little and the latter seemed mostly unsupported, but the former has at least been alleged by many people for many years. That doesn’t mean he’s guilty, but I hope it’s being looked into and that there will be consequences if it’s true. We can’t go on letting monsters get away with shit just because they’re talented or have alot (or just the MORBIUS franchise) riding on them.
I believe we as viewers/listeners/etc. can separate the art from the artist at our own discretion, but it’s stressful how often we need to make that choice these days! So I think they should just go ahead and make MORBIUS II with somebody else playing Morbius. I tried to come up with someone who fits the acclaimed actor/Method actor weirdo/strange choice to lead a super hero franchise mold of Hardy and Leto. Ben Foster maybe? But most of the others in that age group have already been outed as sex creeps or assholes, so maybe we need to go a different direction.
Unless they can get Stephen Norrington to sign on to reprise the role he originated, the best idea I’ve come up with is Mark Dacascos. I know that sounds like a DTV casting (which would be cool too), but no, if they’re gonna make this theatrical, I think he would be great! Something about his eyes kinda reminds me of Leto, but he’s a more likeable actor who would add much more of an action element and who deserves that kind of big showcase. Also it would be funny for him to have long hair again.
And after I came up with this I also realized it would be fun to have one super hero series – might as well be this one – where the lead gets recast for each installment and we get to see different actors do their spin on it. Nobody’s buying Sony’s attempt to wedge themselves into the larger continuity, so why not go completely in the opposite direction? Blaze your own trail, MORBIUS II.
P.S. Big missed opportunity not having Busta Rhymes redo this song “Whoomp Addams Family There It Is” style for the end credits.