Debuting nearly two years after its originally scheduled release date, Morbius is the beneficiary of fortuitous timing, opening as it is in the wake of Sony’s sky-high superhero successes Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Alas, at least some of the goodwill generated by those Marvel efforts is squandered by Daniel Espinosa’s origin story for vampiric Michael Morbius, another Spider-Man adversary who’s been reconfigured into a cursed antihero. Designed to expand the studio’s web-slinging cinematic universe, this generic monster mash adheres to such a rote formula that its every move feels lethargically mechanical. Jared Leto’s bat-man isn’t the Dark Knight, and his film definitely isn’t The Batman—although neither is it the debacle suggested by its underwhelming promos.
If one thing remains true about Oscar-winner Leto, it’s that he’s rarely a safe or boring screen presence. Nonetheless, Morbius finds him eschewing the affected gimmickry he recently brought to House of Gucci and WeCrashed. Leto is Dr. Michael Morbius, a famed scientist with a rare blood disorder that requires regular transfusions. Michael doesn’t play by the rules, as evidenced by his initial decision to collect a few of the millions of dangerous vampire bats lurking in a Costa Rica cave, and his subsequent refusal to accept his Nobel prize. Of sole concern to Michael is curing himself of his fatal affliction, as well as saving those like him, be it a young girl who’s a patient at his clinic, or Milo (Matt Smith), his childhood friend and present-day financial benefactor.
With sunken eyes, pale skin, and a veiny, emaciated frame, Michael resembles a skeletal specter, but his toil pays off when his experiments with mixing human and vampire-bat DNA reap astounding rewards. Because such work is ethically dubious and totally illegal, he and his colleague/eventual love interest Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona) head out into international waters aboard a tanker to see if Michael’s concoction will do the trick and spare him an early grave. It does, albeit with a catch: Michael gains superhuman speed, strength, and echolocation powers, a supernatural badass who must feed on blood. Following a rampage in which he slaughters the vessel’s (not-very-nice) mercenaries, Michael runs tests on himself, and determines that his revolutionary artificial blood won’t sustain him for long; at a certain point, he’ll have to unleash his inner beast and consume “the red.”
When Michael goes feral, his face transforms into a ghastly visage that, uneven CGI work aside, would have been perfectly at home in a classic Universal monster movie. On the other hand, the sight of him leaping and twisting through the air, wispy blue smoke trails in his wake while the camera segues from hyper-speed to super-slow-motion at a moment’s notice (the better to catch an extended glimpse of him in action), is right out of a modern-day Marvel venture. During his non-violent episodes, meanwhile, Michael looks like Leto doing Peter Steele cosplay, his long black hair, matching beard, and lengthy trench coat with a perpetually upturned collar—more than slightly recalling a cape—giving him the air of a fashion model with a fondness for Type O Negative-style goth metal.
Written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, Morbius establishes its dramatic foundation with a minimum of fuss, as well as flair. There’s a dutiful quality to the film’s early passages, including a flashback to Michael and Milo’s youth, during which the latter is picked on by schoolyard creeps. That incident is all we get when it comes to Milo’s motivation to both crave Michael’s miracle cure—no matter the gruesome side effects—and, once he has it, to seize the opportunity to be the bully who preys upon the weak. Smith isn’t given much to work with, especially since Milo frequently can’t seem to make up his mind about whether he wants to convince Michael to embrace his bloodlust, or simply murder him for being a killjoy. Still, with a diabolical twinkle in his eye, he makes the most of his opportunities, on more than one occasion instinctively breaking into dance as an expression of joy over his newfound might.
Espinosa drenches everything in inky shadows and icy hues, and though he can’t come up with an aesthetic approach that distinguishes the film from any number of vampire or Batman predecessors, his direction is as assured as it has to be, save for those sporadic instances when everything devolves into a blur of CGI noise. Certainly, Morbius is as capably helmed as both Venom affairs, and its digital mayhem is more lucid, if not quite as striking. Competence is often what Marvel enterprises value most, and in that regard, it accomplishes its modest goals. Morbius introduces Michael as a tortured soul who doesn’t want to slaughter his fellow man but might not be able to resist his urges, and pits him against a mirror-image adversary who shares his tremendous gifts and none of his pesky moral qualms.
There are other characters in Morbius, such as Jared Harris’ father-figure scientist Nicholas (who raised and cared for both Michael and Milo), and Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal’s FBI agents, who assume the dutiful narrative function of pursuing Michael and, in the process, throwing up a temporary roadblock or two in his way. Yet those three figures play little part in the eventual outcome of this tale, which zips along at a fleet 104 minutes, doing its business with scant originality but just enough aptitude to register as inoffensive. Moreover, it peppers its story with the usual winks and nods to its franchise brethren, from a shot of The Daily Bugle and a subway add for Thomas & Kane (i.e. Morbius creators Roy Thomas and Gil Kane), to two mid-credit scenes involving Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, aka Vulture, whose appearance would have been a bigger surprise had it not been spoiled by the project’s trailers.
All the while, Leto engages in passable brooding and performs some less-than-hilarious quipping, determined to play his antihero as straight as possible. That prevents his latest from becoming a showcase for campy theatrics. It also, however, keeps Morbius from boasting anything like a pointed personality.