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Jared Leto hoodies up as Dr. Michael Morbius in an alley in the movie Morbius. Photo: Columbia Pictures

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The Morbius movie wants what Venom has

The latest Spider-Man villain turned solo-movie anti-hero manages to make Jared Leto boring

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

It’s true: movies are magic. It’s just that people often forget that sometimes, magic is bad. Morbius is the kind of magic you’d want to keep a lid on: a two-hour spell that makes viewers forget it actually stars Jared Leto, one of the few men alive in danger of being too interesting, thanks to his widely publicized overcommitment to Method acting and a public persona that frequently evokes “benevolent cult leader” vibes. Unfortunately, Morbius isn’t a good showcase for his talents the way its Sony/Marvel predecessor Venom was a showcase for Tom Hardy, even though the two movies share a similar structure. And a movie that apes Venom without an unpredictable performance at the center, it turns out, is a pretty lousy time.

Like Venom, Morbius spins off a Spider-Man villain into a story that makes him the anti-hero of his own little corner of the world. (The film, as one gag from the trailers underlines, is set in the same universe as Venom.) Dr. Michael Morbius (Leto) is a brilliant scientist with a rare, debilitating blood disease, one that leaves him frail, unable to walk without support, and in regular need of blood transfusions. Dr. Morbius, we’re told, is one of the world’s foremost scientific minds, having developed a blue-tinged artificial blood that has “saved more lives than penicillin.” Yet he still has not found a cure for his disease — something he desperately wants, not for his own sake, but for his childhood friend Milo (Matt Smith), who suffers from the same disease and funds Morbius’ research through his wealth.

In a desperate attempt to test his first viable cure, Morbius uses himself as a guinea pig for a serum meant to rewrite his genome and make him into a hybrid human and vampire bat — an experiment that’s off the books and unethical. (If it wasn’t, someone probably would have asked him to say “human/bat chimera” out loud, and re-consider whether the experiment was a good idea.) With the help of colleague and love interest Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), Morbius “accidentally” turns himself into a Living Vampire — basically a regular vampire, but without the traditional church allergies.

Morbius the growling vampire from the movie Morbius Image: Sony Pictures

Morbius is the kind of film where it would serve viewers well not to sweat the details. Anyone wondering about the specifics of Morbius’ disease or superpowers is better off not trying to parse the film’s thin explanations. This is a film set in New York City but very clearly shot in London, where the crew taped up a few subway signs in a Tube station wall and called it a day. The film only truly comes to life when Matt Smith’s Milo assumes his villainous role, learning what Morbius has become and taking the serum himself.

The newly vampiric Milo relishes the powers that horrify Morbius, enjoying the thrills of being superhuman, and casting off the scruples that keep Morbius feeding on artificial blue blood instead of real human blood. (The two of them repeatedly refer to this as drinking “red” or “blue,” which never stops being funny.) Herein lies the biggest problem for Morbius: The villain, who is not in the film nearly as much as he should be, is having the sort of fun Morbius ought to be having. Milo dances and preens every moment he’s on camera, in a performance that’s only marred by the CGI makeover both leads get when they vamp up, a choice that doesn’t seem much better than Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style prosthetics.

Smith’s dynamism painfully underlines the lack of imagination and energy elsewhere in the film. Plainly shot, with a score (and a scene or two) that shamelessly ape Batman Begins, Morbius comes across as algorithmically calibrated to enter the blockbuster market as smoothly as possible. Its action is unimaginative, complete with exhausting slow-mo pauses. Its violence is toned down and defanged, even though it’s about, y’know, vampires. In spite of direction from Daniel Espinosa, who previously made 2017’s surprisingly creepy Life, Morbius does not convey any real atmosphere. If Instagram had a “blockbuster” filter, this film would use it the whole time.

Matt Smith walking through a subway station as Milo in the film Morbius Photo: Sony Pictures

One of the important lessons of Venom’s success was that if unimaginative superhero franchise films must be churned out, they can still feel worthwhile if they’re fueled by smart, funny performances. Audiences do turn out for characters they love, but they also show up for characters played by people, by actors who give them weird quirks and specific mannerisms. Morbius is what happens when there’s a studio desire for another Venom, but without much thought as to how Venom connected with anyone. It’s only there to plug into a burgeoning crossover franchise. (As a pair of nonsensical mid-credits scenes indicate.)

It’s also buck-wild that Morbius manages to do all this while starring Jared Leto. He’s the guy who made the Joker comically twisted, his hilariously transformative performance is the best part of House of Gucci, he’s doing extremely committed accent work in WeCrashed. This is a man who should be able to make Morbius a meme. Instead, he’s a victim, sucked dry by a big-budget movie that’s only interested in selling a sequel.

Morbius opens in theaters on March 31.


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