‘Morbius’ is moribund

The moribund Morbius is a numbing narrative that’s no-menace and all-premise: a brilliant scientist crippled by a rare DNA deficiency finds a cure that turns him into a bloodsucking monster. The end. There’s a subplot with a similarly sick childhood friend who turns villainous, but that anemic character development needs more than just a blood transfusion. One of the rare Marvel misfires, this whole movie feels perfunctory. It’s placeholder content that spins its wheels milking an overlong running time in order to simply set up the titular vampiric doctor.

MORBIUS★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Written by: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless
Starring:  Jared Leto, Matt Smith, Adria Arjona, Jared Harris, Al Madrigal, Tyrese Gibson
Running time: 104 mins

But, fine, let’s go through the motions so we can hopscotch to the next installment of Sony’s Spider-Man multiverse—an extended IP which now has two Venom flicks and more to come. Morbius is what happens when a team of lawyers joins the writer’s room at a Hollywood studio that only owns the rights to use Marvel’s webslinger along with all of his enemies. How best to exploit this sliver of Marvel’s library? In between Spidey flicks, you release origin stories for his nemeses, making them de facto anti-heroes so audiences can find a way to root for the baddies.

So here we have Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto), a chronically wizened science wiz obsessed with fixing his genetic flaws so he can walk without crutches and free himself of his terminal illness. He met his billionaire bestie Lucien, whom he nicknamed Milo (Matt Smith), 25 years earlier at a Greek hospital specializing in children with the same rare disease. Now both men are living their death-shrouded lives in New York, cracking rueful jokes and grandly comparing themselves to the original Spartans.

Their essential problem has something vaguely to do with getting more robust anti-coagulants in their system, and Morbius thinks the key is in a special breed of bats living in a Costa Rican cave. Those sharp-teethed mammals need blood to survive, so Morbius bafflingly figures that mixing human DNA with bat DNA will automatically cure him. It’s literally comic-book science, so sure—even though his beautiful labcoat girlfriend Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona) has the gaul to protest. In a fit of pique, Morbius mansplains their field of expertise. “We need to push the boundaries—take the risks!” he seethes at her. “Without that, there is no science.” Girls are so dumb. Why doesn’t she realize that fusing humans with bat DNA is totes genius?

Except it’s not, really, since the transgenic experiment turns Morbius into a super-enhanced beast with sharp claws, sharp teeth, and sharp hearing. He also has a jacked-up body that gives him lightning-fast reflexes and some sort of ability to fly or glide or leap or whatever in that predictably silly way Marvel superhumans always defy gravity. Bonus: when Morbius feels the need to move, he generates wispy chemtrails for some reason. Looks cool, makes no sense.

Jared Leto, in a casual ‘Morbius’ moment. (Sony).

Milo drops by the lab and discovers Morbius’ dirty little secret, one that also has a diminishing time limit of no more than 6 hours—almost like a laptop battery that needs recharging, except instead of electricity it’s blood. Good thing Morbius made his name in the scientific community developing a special sort of blue plasma everyone blandly calls “artificial blood,” the methodone substitution to real blood which he drinks to avoid killing people.

Technically he’s a vampire, although his transformation in and out of that batlike alter ego has more of a Jekyll-Hyde vibe. Also, vampires generally have a gothic-romantic-religious edge to them as well as lots of rules about sunlight, garlic, and crucifixes. So maybe think of Morbius as a secular vampire?  Although I kept forgetting he was a vampire and just thought of him as a hot-tempered monster with super powers and an appetite for plasma.

Also a monster? Milo, since he saw Mobius’ Olympic-athlete torso and said Yes Please. He secretly took one of Morbius’ spare doses of fused DNA and becomes a party animal, complete with a music montage of him getting dressed followed by a gleeful night out on the town killing cops.

Milo, off the chain and on the loose, leaves a trail of ex-sanguinated bodies, while two semi-bumbling detectives (Al Madrigal, Tyrese Gibson) follow the clues and stay clueless. It’s up to poor Morbius to take down his BFF and save the city, natch, in turn generating piles of urban chaos and structural debris.

Not unwatchable, Morbius is, in its own supercilious way, stylishly directed and competently acted. There’s visual flair and thespian sincerity despite all the manic pablum, which makes the entire experience mostly bearable, and, at times, even briefly enjoyable. The bigger problem is that the film feels remarkably unremarkable, an experience that seems to dissolve almost in real time.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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