No one wants to watch a lousy movie, but an unmitigated disaster can often be more interesting than something that’s just mediocre. Morbius falls into the latter category, a run-of-the-mill origin story that’s capably acted and professionally mounted, but mostly lifeless up on screen—and feels more disappointing after two years of anticipation for its release. Jared Leto delivers an adequately creepy and conflicted take on the eponymous scientist opposite a scenery-chewing Matt Smith as his surrogate brother and sometime adversary, while director Daniel Espinoza (Life) stages the action like his latest project is cosplaying as a series of classic horror movies. The result is a bland, competent, and safe superhero adventure that seems destined to be forgotten before its end credits finish rolling.
Leto (House of Gucci) plays Dr. Michael Morbius, a scientist who devoted his life and career to curing rare blood diseases after contracting one as a child. Bankrolled by his surrogate brother Lucien (Smith), a rich orphan who was alternately raised and monitored by their shared physician Nicholas (Jared Harris), Morbius takes increasingly risky and ethically questionable chances to alleviate fatigue and physical disability from which they both suffer. After harvesting the organs of vampire bats in the search for a crucial anti-coagulant, Morbius administers an experimental treatment to himself which restores his health and strength—but not before he succumbs to an inexplicable bloodlust and murders the team of mercenaries shepherding his laboratory through international waters.
When his lab partner Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona) is injured during the excursion, Morbius summons the authorities on her behalf and flees the scene before being apprehended. But while he tries to figure out what to do about his newfound condition, Lucien contacts Morbius and demands his own dosage of the treatment. As two detectives close in on Morbius, seeking answers about his role in a gruesome string of deaths, he races to create a cure for this insatiable appetite. Before long, Morbius finds himself at odds not only with the cops, but with Lucien after his former friend embraces becoming a bloodthirsty, superhuman monster. That makes Morbius more determined than ever to find a cure for the violent and all-consuming affliction from which both he and Lucien suffer, while recognizing that doing so may cost both of them their lives.
Working from a script by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, whose first credit was on Luke Evans’ 2014 vampire film Dracula Untold, Espinoza shuffles through a familiar series of bloodsucker cliches that are frequently joked about but are otherwise reduced to the symptoms of a superhero’s curse, a la the Hulk. It’s hard to remember the last film that treated these fictional creatures with any real dignity. This one is all too happy to exploit their violent and dangerous impulses for set pieces, then undercut the more interesting elements of addiction or biological need to let Morbius, Lucien and his costars prattle on in increasingly tedious, expository exchanges. Essentially, when it isn’t standing on the shoulders of genre giants to elicit scary moments, Morbius wants to be the Batman Begins of Sony’s supervillain franchise, and it’s unafraid to borrow liberally from its predecessors to evoke the same atmosphere or tone.
Morbius’ first attack on the mercenaries, for example, unfolds like he’s the xenomorph in a better-lit, earthbound version of the Nostromo and/or LV-426, decimating space truckers and automatic-weapon-wielding Marines with swift brutality. A later fight between Morbius and Lucien, meanwhile, conjures the tube chase from An American Werewolf In London, but with less style and more computer-generated imagery. One supposes there are only so many locations that filmmakers can use for action scenes that haven’t already been shot in some iconic fashion, but it takes little imagination to make those cinematic connections while they’re happening. Moreover, Jon Ekstrand’s score functions in precisely the kind of same-y, nondescript way that so much film and TV music seems to these days. The few moments that stand out do so because they sound so similar to Hans Zimmer’s wall-of-sound work on Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, especially when they’re accompanying a scene where, say, a man is looking skyward as a swarm of bats flutter around him in obedience.
While close-ups of Jared Leto’s vibrating ears feel unnecessary, the effect of Morbius’ “radar” as he scans his environment—from his elegantly appointed laboratory to the entirety of Manhattan—actually offers a neat visual, as the buildings dissolve beneath expanding waves of mist. But endlessly transforming faces and colored trails that trace these monsters’ progression across a cityscape quickly grow repetitive, and by the time Morbius and Lucien are hammering each other from one rubble pile to the next, the action becomes an empty placeholder for the hero’s resolution that Espinoza telegraphs. His instincts to try for something semi-tragic, even operatic are admirable, and occasionally work when he slows things down to create a single, tableau-like moment, but the rest of the time the movie ebbs and flows without excitement between dopey character motivations and reams of technical jargon about blood.
If he’s not quite winging it like Tom Hardy is in the Venom franchise, Leto thankfully doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously to prevent a little bit of fun from creeping into the film. But his character’s journey is too obvious, predictable and oddly impatient to get to his resolution for audiences to care much about whether or not he becomes a superhero or succumbs to his disease. Especially since there’s no particular inclination for Morbius to help ordinary people without the enormous financial resources of Lucien, it’s hard to imagine him doing much of anything for anybody after acquiring his powers and apparently learning how to control them. Smith, on the other hand, seems to relish his chance to turn heel opposite Leto, but he also seems to be well aware that however viewers receive his performance as the film’s bloodsucking super-baddie, his face will be covered more often than not with wildly uneven computer-generated effects.
Without spoiling anything, a couple of post-credits sequences set up a future for Leto’s character in a larger world that you understand why Sony would try and telegraph, but given the failures of past Spider-Man spin-offs (particularly those from the Amazing movies) it’s hard to believe they have really thought any of those next steps through. But until then, Morbius feels like exactly the kind of second-tier superhero adventure audiences will accept in between ones that they actively want. Admittedly, it’s odd to want a movie like this to have been worse, but that would mean it failed as bigly as the swings it took; by comparison, Morbius is a walk, or at best a bunt. That may qualify it as a hit for Leto, Espinoza and Sony, but that doesn’t mean it’s much fun to watch from the stands.