Review: Morbius (2022)
It can be hard to separate movies from the hype machine. Take Morbius, for instance: the film was originally slated for release almost two years ago, before a global pandemic caused not one, not two, but SIX release delays. Now, many months after those first teaser trailers and who knows how many rewrites and reshoots, the full movie has opened in theaters to lackluster critical reviews and poor word of mouth.
But you know what? I like Morbius, and here's why.
Jared Leto stars as Michael Morbius, a reclusive doctor with a disease that has left him nearly crippled, but a mind that is sharp and eager to help the helpless. As a last ditch effort to find a cure for his illness, he resorts to an experimental and dangerous procedure involving the DNA of vampire bats. Because this is a comic book movie, he's granted bat-like powers that include sonar, gliding ability, and super strength. But gifts come with a price, and for Morbius, the cost is an insatiable thirst for human blood. He is a living vampire that can walk in the daylight but who thrives in the darkness, forever cursed. This duality is stuff that comics thrive upon, especially the super-powered players that haunt the pages of Marvel Comics.
The films is a throwback to an earlier era of comic book movie that I have tremendous affection for. Before the massive connected tapestry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the films were smaller. They didn't often have massive budgets or three-hour running times. Movies like Blade, Ghost Rider, The Punisher (pick your poison: either the 1989 Dolph Lundgren interpretation or the 2004 Thomas Jane version), even Daredevil and Elektra marked what we thought might be our only chance to see a particular character make the leap from the four-color page to the majesty of a movie screen. Sure, the MCU changed all that, but there's still a place for the mid-card, and this movie fits that bill.
The character of Morbius debuted in the Spider-Man comics of the 1970s. He's a B (C?) list character that has often been a supporting player or a part of a team, rather than a focal point. To be blunt, the fact that he's the subject of a major motion picture is nothing short of a minor miracle. As you may have surmised from this review or the many voices loudly criticizing the movie, it's not exactly a slam dunk. The film is mostly a by-the-numbers origin story with no real surprises or grace notes. Jared Leto is fine as the titular anti-hero, but there's nothing in the role or performance to endear him to viewers other than his bad-boy good looks and outsider rock and roll image, which--let's be honest--is part of the appeal. Matt Smith, the man who helmed the TARDIS when Doctor Who conquered North America, chews the scenery as the villain of this tale, but comics fans will take issue with the revisionist history of the baddie. Adria Arjona, Tyrese Gibson, and Al Madrigal fill what are essentially cookie-cutter roles as the damsel in distress and the curious cops, respectively. In fact, the whole screenplay feels routine, harkening back to a more generic era of superhero movies.
But for me, that's okay because Morbius is kind of a generic character. As a life-long comics fan, I realized long ago that there are certain players that have incredible images and gimmicks, but don't have the depth of the A-listers, keeping them forever on the fringes. Sure, we may get a Taskmaster limited series from time to time, or a new take on Moon Knight (I'm looking at you, Disney Plus), but there's only so much you can do. They aren't Spidey, Cap, Iron Man, or Wolverine. Morbius is like that: he looks cool, he's got a great costume and set of powers, but there's only so much gas in that tank. The new film wrings every ounce of that limited potential into its running time.
Morbius is not epic. It's a brief 104 minute spectacle, and almost all of those minutes are devoted to telling the story at hand. This movie is not a puzzle piece to a larger tapestry either, and it mostly stands alone--a few sloppy, misplaced mid-credits sequences aside. It's not super-serious or driven by angst; the central gothic motif notwithstanding, this is not a particularly moody movie and our living vampire doesn't spend 45 minutes deciding if he wants to use his powers to help or hurt anyone. He doesn't listen to grunge and there are no meditations on human nature or the cost of doing the right thing. There's a good guy, a bad guy, and a a few big fights. With a budget of $75 million, this is as close to mid-budget as any modern superhero movie is likely to get, and frankly, I think that's great. It's nice to see a modest-budgeted comic book movie at the multiplex, even if it's not what the modern twenty-something ticket-buying audience wants to see. This is not a four-course emo banquet about feelings, it's a Snickers bar and a can of Dr. Pepper. You won't be thinking about it long after it's over, and that's okay. Remember when movies only needed to entertain you for a couple of hours and didn't have to change the world?
Because of my age, I'm old enough to have witnessed first-hand almost the entire history of the comic book movie, going back to Christopher Reeve in the blue tights. Morbius taps into the kid in me that didn't care so much about plot or acting and just wanted to see something cool. The teenager in me who loved Marvel's Midnight Sons in the '90s is thrilled that a movie exists in which the living vampire walks, flies, and stalks among us in ways that had previously only existed on the comics page. No, Spider-Man isn't here. No, neither is Ghost Rider, Mephisto, the Werewolf by Night, or any of the other darker denizens of Marvel's teen-geared gritty comics. Let's be honest, this is probably not the beginning of a new supernatural Spidey-verse franchise or a team-up movie with Venom, as much as I'm sure Sony had hoped it would be. But hey, who knows? Wait a few years and we'll likely see fandom soften on this movie and revisit it with kinder eyes. It's what we do: equalize.
It's true, Morbius is not a great movie. Then again, Morbius is perhaps not a great comic book character, at least not in the traditional sense. But he sure is cool. Sometimes that's good enough.