'Morbius' Review: A Dull, Depressing Comic Book / Horror Hybrid

There’s nothing like on-screen text over a crystal-clear establishing shot to tell you exactly how stupid a filmmaker thinks their audience is. Sometimes it’s the big, bold “PARIS, FRANCE” chyron over an aerial shot of the Eiffel Tower; sometimes we get a widescreen image of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Capital building with a helpful “WASHINGTON, D.C.” In “Morbius,” our title character is explaining to his best friend that an experimental procedure has to be performed in international waters, after which director Daniel Espinoza cuts to a giant shipping boat, in the middle of the ocean, with the words “INTERNATIONAL WATERS, EASTERN SEABOARD” plastered on the bottom of the screen. Did… did they think that we would be confused?

In their defense, however, they’re making a movie for an audience that is ready to plunk down their hard-earned cash for a Jared Leto comic book movie, so maybe it’s best not to overestimate anyone’s intelligence. Leto stars as Dr. Michael Morbius, whom we first meet capturing a whole mess of vampire bats in Costa Rica before we leap back into a flashback of his hospital-bound childhood. Morbius has a rare blood disorder that inflicts exhaustion and constant pain, and he has considerable trouble walking. But he has a gift for science and mechanics; his mentor, Emil Nikols (oh no, Jared Harris) sends him to a school for gifted children, informing him, “You have a gift, Michael. It would be a shame to see it go to waste.”

And then we’re back in the present day, where we discover Morbius has won the Nobel Prize for developing a life-saving “artificial blood,” but that was a mere byproduct of his ultimate goal, which is to splice human and vampire bat DNA to cure his blood disease. (Uh, ok?) Yadda yadda yadda, scientific explanation, he’s closing in on a “highly experimental, morally questionable” cure, which is how we wind up on that boat in international waters for that old comic book movie standby, the experiment-gone-awry sequence. His “cure” fills Morbius out from a bony weakling to a swaggering beefcake, but he kills eight guys and drinks their blood during the transition, oopsie doodle. (The ship is called the Murnau, the movie’s one clever touch, and single indication that its creators have ever seen a non-comic book movie.)

The vampire gimmick established, Leto begins chugging blood bags, bonding with the vampire bats that he keeps swirling around in a glass box at all hours (he’s something of a Bat… Man?), and going through blood withdrawal, which gives him all kinds of opportunities to overact grotesquely, growling and shouting (“I CAN’T CONTROL IT!”) and whispering (“It’s a curse”), or merely glowering intensely while his face and eyes are special-effected. Leto’s performance, like his work in “House of Gucci” and “Suicide Squad,” is the kind of out-of-control acting that only an Oscar winner can get away with, the kind of bug-eyed “going for it” that impresses high school drama kids and no one else; he’s truly become the kind of actor Nicolas Cage is falsely accused of being, all over-cranked, affected, weirdo intensity – but with none of Cage’s sense of craft, sense of humor, or joy of performance.  

The one thing that could make “Morbius” unique among its comic book movie brethren – or, at least, less of a thing we’ve seen a million times before – is the less-ubiquitous idea of a supervillian (rather than superhero) movie. Alas, and in spite of the carefully misleading ads, Morbius isn’t really the villain; that would be Milo (Matt Smith, poor Matt Smith), Morbius’ childhood friend and partner-in-illness, who helps himself to the “cure” as well and becomes a worse super-vampire, more cold-blooded and blood-thirsty, not all bummed out about it like his wet-blanket pal. Morbius thus becomes the lesser of two evils and must stop Milo, so the audience can have a proper rooting interest, etc.

But before that, we get multiple, cringe-worthy scenes of Smith dancing and mugging and trying to steal the show, under the woefully misguided notion that he’s Nicholson in “Batman” or something. He’s not the only performer adrift here; as an investigating detective, Al Madrigal, dear sweet Al Madrigal, tries his absolute hardest to fulfill the role of comic relief without the helpful tool of “jokes,” or any feedback whatsoever from Tyrese Gibson, at his most wooden as Madrigal’s partner. There’s nothing much to say about Adria Arjona, who is saddled with no discernable character traits and the most perfunctory romance in comic book movie history, which is saying something. (Michael Keaton, whom the trailers make look like a full-fledged co-star, appears for maybe a minute – in closing credit scenes.)

Talented filmmakers spent time and energy on this thing – Oliver Wood shot it, Pietro Scalia cut it – though director Espinoza (“Life”) isn’t one of them. Action scenes are poorly staged, shoddily animated, choppily edited (complete with random moments of slow-motion), and clumsily shot; at the conclusion of one, the movie seems to just give up, and simply shakes the camera for a few seconds. Once the vampire plot kicks in, it goes from badly aping the tropes of superhero movies to badly aping the tropes of horror movies, just as incompetently. By the end, it’s all auto-pilot; they get so desperate, they trot out bullet time. (More than once!)

“Morbius” is bad, yes, but it’s not even fun-bad, like the “Venom” movies; it’s just kind of depressing. There’s not a single thrilling, surprising, or entertaining moment in it, from start to finish, because comic book movies have reached a point of longevity and saturation that all of them (even the marginally entertaining ones, like “The Batman”) are purely paint-by-number affairs: the laborious origin stories, the washed-out color palates, the bombastic scores, the daddy issues, the climactic barely-lit, CGI-heavy final fights to the death (I’m just unspeakably tired of barely-lit, CGI-heavy final fights to the death), and the mid-credit sequences to set up future installments (as if anyone who’s just sat through “Morbius” wants to even briefly entertain the notion of sitting through another one). The nicest thing I can say about it is that it’s short. [D-]