I thought Morbius the Living Vampire was scary when I was 6 or 7 and he showed up in a 1977 comic I picked up at the toy store. In a time when the Comics Code Authority was still touchy about allowing comics to show the undead because they might turn young readers into rampaging juvenile delinquents, Morbius exploited a loophole with an origin that revealed him as not an actual vampire, but as a scientist who conducted questionable experiments to cure his own rare blood disease, which went awry and turned him into a science vampire, with many vampiric powers and few-if-any vampiric weaknesses. He was a forerunner of the irritating horror sub-subgenre Vampires Who Ignore Vampire Rules and Who Therefore Aren’t Vampires by Definition So Maybe the Writer Should’ve Made Up Their Own Monster Instead of Misusing the Word “Vampire”.
But someone in charge really wanted to see Spidey fight a super-vampire. Over the years Morbius was an infrequently recurring Spider-villain, never a must-read for me. Fast-forward to the early ’90s, and he was among dozens of Marvel characters given their own series, no matter how little sense it made or how little demand there was, when Marvel’s bigwigs decided to flood the comics market with their products so retailers who felt obligated to order every Marvel title couldn’t afford to order titles from any other publishers. Reframed as an antihero when those were all the rage (see also: the Punisher, Venom, Darkhawk, et al.) Morbius was one grunt among many in the Marvel glut infantry.
A few readers took that era of crappy comics too seriously. More worrisome, Sony has been plumbing the depths of their Spider-Man film license and its attached IP catalog to see if they could do to theaters today what ’90s Marvel once did to comic shops. So far they’ve been mercifully slow about it, but now here we are with an entire Morbius motion picture on our hands, directed by Daniel Espinosa, whose biggest credit to date was the Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds buddy-drama Safe House.
A few details have changed, but Espinosa and screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (Dracula Untold) kept the basic outline. Academy Award Winner Jared Leto (remember Dallas Buyers Club and not House of Gucci) is Dr. Michael Morbius, a scientist who conducts questionable experiments to cure his own rare blood disease, which goes awry and turns him into a science vampire, with many vampiric powers and no weaknesses except dire cravings for blood and sucker punches from other vampires. But in this very limited world — defined so far only by the two Venom films, which explicitly don’t take place in the Tom Holland ‘verse and have shown no evidence Spider-Man exists yet — Leto’s Morbius effectively isn’t in a superhero sandbox (for now) and is therefore free of costumes, code names, and other trappings. What that potentially liberating omission leaves at the core is an old-fashioned monster film, for better or worse.
You can see faint DNA traces from the 1930s Universal classics and quasi-classics — not the popular ones that have their own Halloween costumes, but some of the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi dust-ups like The Black Cat or The Raven. In one corner, Morbius is what if Dr. Frankenstein turned himself into Dracula. In the other corner is Matt Smith (The Crown! Doctor Who!) as Morbius’ BFF Lucien, who’s been likewise debilitated with his own equally vague condition since childhood (the film avoids complex medical terminology and scientific vocabulary at all costs, to a researchless fault) and is yearning for a cure when he discovers a post-experimental Morbius looking more hale and buff, and wants some of what he’s having. A conscience-stricken Morbius, who by this point regrets his new need to make others bleed, refuses to inflict the same consequences on him. It’s no massive surprise that Lucien finds his own path to science vampiredom, and thus do monsters fight and fight and fight.
The film’s chief concession to superhero tropes is the power-learning process, as Morbius has to spend time before the vampire showdown running through his superpowers one by one. He’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive (kids, ask your parents what those used to be), and he’s able to CG himself over tall buildings by draping himself in a ball of inscrutable smoke, which in turn makes all other nearby objects spew smoke like they’ve sprouted mini-chimneys. He has the power of bat-flight even though he doesn’t have wings. He has a bat’s echolocation skill, which is superfluous when his eyes are open and basically amounts to super-hearing. In full vampire mode he can suck entire victims dry, making bleeding noises but leaving nary a drop of bloodshed in sight, so as to protect the PG-13 rating. Also, his face can go full-vamp a la TV’s Buffy and Angel but without painful makeup appliques. He and Smith shift back and forth between face-modes so often, sometimes only for split-seconds, that one wonders if they even bothered hiring practical makeup artists at all. In this sense they betray their ancestors.
Other actors abound, none given much screen time to make an impression. Leto is morose and penitent and allowed no time for the Method overacting that’s turned supporting roles into head-scratching oddities, but an utterly unleashed Smith chews the scenery out from under him as if the ghost of James Whale were shouting encouragement in his ear. Mostly it’s one big, frenetic vampire duel posing as a super-anti-hero origin story, all of it hung on the clothesline of the Batman Begins score slightly remixed. The final boss battle is an incomprehensible CG mess that looks like trash bags exploding. The overall visual aesthetic feels like pre-Iron Man Marvel dross, occasionally perked up with bits of speed-ramping that interrupt the blurry action to create super cool pin-ups you can use as wallpaper or posters, which is a classic annoying storytelling tic popularized by early-’90s Marvel artists who loved this indulgence because the larger-paneled pages could fetch higher prices when they sold the original artwork later to their fans.
But the ’90s are dead. At its best, Morbius feels like a perfectly serviceable Blockbuster Video rental that might’ve been worth your $1.99 if they were all out of Blade. If monster-flick fans can respect it at a distance apart from Sony’s other Marvel films, it might even work fifty years from now as a Svengoolie episode…if they chop off the end credits, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Speaking of which, in the customary MCC film breakdowns…
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Fast/Furious teammate Tyrese Gibson is New York detective Simon Stroud, based extremely loosely on a recurring character who’s chased Morbius and other folks in decades past. I don’t remember him and was surprised to find I’d read exactly one story costarring him when I was eight. I’m surprised he didn’t have his own ’90s series, but we’ll see what Sony lets Tyrese do with him in the future. He’s upstaged in most scenes by Al Madrigal (The Way Back) as his comic-relief partner.
Adria Arjona (6 Underground) is The Female in search of a Bechdel Test partner. Character actor Corey Johnson (one of those everywhere Everyman faces) is a mercenary ship’s captain who facilitates Morbius’ shady testing by taking him out to “International Seawaters, Eastern Seaboard” (the actual caption, my second biggest laugh at the film).
Best Actor in Morbius is awarded to the legendary Jared Harris (Mad Men! Chernobyl! Fringe! Sherlock Holmes 2! Ulysses S. Grant in Lincoln! The Crown with Matt Smith! this parenthetical is too long but he’s worth it!) making his superhero film debut as the doctor who cared for li’l Michael and Lucien in a kids’ hospital all their lives, then in adulthood apparently ditched all his other patients except them. Harris brings authentic gravitas to his moments exactly as the best supporting actors in any monster film should.
Remember how Michael Keaton was in the two Morbius trailers, reprising his Spider-Man: Homecoming role as Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. the Vulture? Funny thing about that…
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there are indeed two scenes during the Morbius end credits, which one of our theater’s five (5) total attendees walked out on and missed. For those who tuned out prematurely and really want to know, and didn’t already click elsewhere…
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship…]
…previously on “Sony’s Marvel End Credits”: at the end of Venom: Let There Be Carnage we saw Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock a.k.a. Venom magically transported from this universe to the Tom Holland ‘Verse, a.k.a. the Sony wing of the mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe, where he learned they have a superhero named Spider-Man. In the Spider-Man: No Way Home end credits we saw Brock catching up on the entire MCU continuity shortly before Doctor Strange’s counterspell kicked in and sent him back to his own Spider-Man-free universe. Thus endeth the crossover of their two very explicitly different Earths, or so we thought.
On to the Morbius end credits, then: not a single frame of Keaton’s trailer scenes or lines are here. Instead, we see Adrian Toomes magically teleported from his prison cell on Earth-MCU into a cell on Earth-Venom. “Hope they got better food here,” he grumbles after a momentary disorientation for everyone. He knows nothing of Doctor Strange, and we in turn have no clue how he got arbitrarily sucked into the same spell. Soon the authorities realize Toomes is nobody to them and they have no idea why he’s in their jail, so they let him go, and his weird predicament makes the evening news. If he were nonwhite, they would’ve deported his paperless, I.D.-less self out of the U.S. (as happened recently to someone on TV’s Picard), but he’s Michael Keaton, so they let him hang out.
A few more credits are rolled, and then comes the show-stopper. Morbius, not yet brought to justice for the mercenaries he murdered, drives out to nowhere in the middle of the night. He parks and waits, and isn’t alone for long as the Vulture lands next to him, now clad in a full new set of his original MCU armor — which, some may not recall, was originally cobbled together by the Tinkerer using Chitauri tech, neither of which exist on this side of the reality wall. Toomes asked to meet him because he doesn’t understand what’s just happened but he thinks Spider-Man was somehow involved. He reasons “guys like us” should form a team and get to the bottom of it.
Morbius replies, “Intriguing,” instead of the more logical retort, “What’s a Spider-Man?”
Their terse exchange is perfunctorily worded, shamelessly tacked on, and reeks of the same level of continuity wreckage and quality-control carelessness that got the X-Men films killed. Its sheer banality feels written and directed by Sony execs still greedily desperate to build up to the Sinister Six villain supergroup film they’ve been dreaming of for years. It’s a contrived sop to ultramega fanboys who can’t discern that concept and execution are two different storytelling skills that can each be done poorly and ruin the other, and consequently super-love anything they’re handed that has “SUPERHERO” branded on its backside, even when it makes absolutely no sense.
Anyway, I laughed so long and loudly at that last end-credits scene that I think I frightened the theater staff. That’s more fear than Morbius gave me.
[UPDATED 4/3/2022, 6:38 p.m. EDT, to throw in another nitpick because our household can’t stop brainstorming them.]