So here we are: another entry in Sony’s not-quite MCU, not-quite Spider-Man multi-villain series following the two oddly (but rightly popular) Venom flicks. Based on a character who originated from the wacky ’70s era of comic books (when Marvel had a Dracula title and DC had Green Lantern and Green Arrow team up to stop heroin addiction), this completely forgettable entry only serves to further prove how, despite their popularity—or rather: complete stranglehold on the culture—superhero movies have actually given their source material kind of a bad name: outlandish artwork rendered into ugly CGI and ambitious storylines as codeword for post-credit stingers. This might sound silly, but Morbius the Vampire feels like he deserves better.
It begins with a flashback in Rome where we find two young boys, each with a debilitating and extremely rare blood condition, bonding over their mutual hopes for a better future only to see them grow into the esteemed Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) and old-money playboy Milo (Matt Smith). And their dream may have come true—we find the former something, something extracting blood or DNA or whatever from bats in Costa Rica and turning it into a serum that can cure their condition. Though of course, in experimenting on himself, Michael is becoming a vampiric iteration of the Hulk who wreaks havoc sucking the blood of innocent people.
For a while there’s slight suspense this movie doesn’t have a villain and might actually become a classical monster picture where an anti-hero has to wrestle with himself. But inevitably [spoiler alert] Morbius’ childhood friend becomes a vampire, too, with whom he has to face off in the third act; at least he doesn’t become a bigger, veinier version of him à la most comic book movies. The two CG monsters smashing into each other is often a pretty incomprehensible mush of images, even when presented in slow-motion. Morbius faces the problem of actually making its character and his powers compelling onscreen. It’s odd that a full two decades after the first Spider-Man they haven’t figured out something more exciting and innovative than a video game character flying over a city, but sure—audiences don’t seem to have a problem.
Not helping matters is that star Jared Leto is doing none of the obnoxious overacting that nonetheless livened up otherwise dreary prestige projects like The Little Things or House of Gucci. Relying on the 30 Seconds to Mars frontman’s sunken eyes and generally unwelcoming presence, his performance seems like another joke he’s playing on the audience and Hollywood in general—this time he can get away with phoning in as much as possible. If anything he might be the one superhero actor (outside Benedict Cumberbatch) with the most visible contempt for delivering lame one-liners.
A lack of passion isn’t totally his fault, though. Stuck in certain four-quadrant expectations, Morbius is unable to transcend the lame PG-13 air around it; case in point is the film’s own Voyage of the Demeter sequence where Morbius has his first massacre (the victims are a bunch of innocent grunts) that’s obscured in darkness and quick cuts, ensuring it’s neither gory nor suspenseful. It’s hardly surprising with the whole enterprise steered by Daniel Espinosa, who’s made his name doing Scott Brothers cosplay (Safe House, Life) and seemingly didn’t get the memo to move past some Nolan influence. Note a scene of Morbius surrounded by bats scored to what’s nearly an identical copy of a Hans Zimmer music cue from Batman Begins (not to mention the often handsome nighttime cityscape shots that recall DP Wally Pfister’s work from those films).
As an identity-less work, the initial charm of its relatively low stakes and brief running time only goes so far. If you need evidence of what’s missing, just look at Tom Hardy’s passionate levels of mugging in the Venom pictures, which showed that no matter how stupid and lowbrow the material seemed to the critical establishment—and even comic book movie fans—nothing was “beneath” him, and made them much more fun than any MCU title. Despite being almost objectively terrible, Morbius is sort of hard to get truly mad at. It’s a low-effort enterprise to the bone, like everyone’s dragging their feet around starting a franchise—the transparency of which might be clear to even the most casual moviegoers.
Morbius opens in theaters on April 1.