Morbius should have been a delight. There was a rich comic book history to pull from, the type of conflicted anti-hero that's surprisingly absent from today's saturated superhero market, and a chance to create a new kind of vampire mythology in a major franchise.
So what happened? The answer lies in years of development hell that can be blamed on the constant push and pull between Sony and Disney's plans to eventually include the more off-brand protagonist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and perhaps also with a lead actor more than a few fans weren't eager to embrace as a part of an omnipresent franchise.
Originating in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, the character had the sort of background familiar to even the most casual comic book readers. A scientist born with a rare and fatal blood disorder, Michael Alexander Morbius attempted to cure himself by experimenting with vampire bat DNA. What happens next is predictable – things go horribly wrong. Morbius became a vampire, a tragic villain who repeatedly clashed with Spider-Man before becoming an occasional ally, then an anti-hero.
The movie keeps a surprising amount of his origin story intact, even hinting at a possible encounter with the webslinger towards the end. Jared Leto plays the well-respected scientist Dr. Michael Morbius, who joins the ranks of the undead much the same way his comics counterpart did, even if the genetic technology involving vampire bats is given a needed update.
When things go awry, Michael emerges with a lust for blood, a whole lot of vampiric powers, a suitably ab-tastic body, and an appropriate foil in his surrogate brother Milo (Matt Smith), also ill since childhood, who becomes his biggest obstacle after he transforms himself using Michael's methods. They say a hero is only as good as his villain, and Milo is more than up to the task, with no moral qualms about murdering innocent people to satisfy his hunger.
There's no reason it shouldn't work. On paper, the plot is a lot less ludicrous than far more successful entries in the MCU. If Marvel can make a talking tree and a raccoon work as major characters, surely it could handle a vampire. But Morbius is technically in Sony's Spider-Man Universe, which has a mixed record on characters who aren't played by Tom Holland.
Morbius leaves much unexplored, and it was rewarded with dismal reviews and a box office bomb so explosive it ended up setting a few records. It's hard to blame audiences for not sticking around, since the two most important characters in the movie barely spend any time together. Viewers have no reason to care about their relationship.
Instead, Milo and Morbius' differing approaches to masculinity determine how they react to suddenly being imbued with not only physical power, but sudden freedom from lifelong pain in a society that often treats people with chronic illness as burdens. It’s an interesting subject but, like the rest of Morbius, the movie doesn’t hesitate to let a good idea go to waste.
Mostly the movie desperately tries to convince us that Michael is a nice guy, a pseudo-rebel who takes the time to be nice to sick children, and who treats his love interest and fellow doctor Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona) with care and consideration. You'd almost think it’s trying to compensate for something, given Leto's history of alleged abusive behavior toward his co-stars and underage girls.
So there’s actually a twisted satisfaction in how Leto spends most of the time getting his ass kicked by Smith, who practically walks off with the whole movie. But even the most skilled actor would be unable to compensate for the film’s ills, including the decision to use digital effects that could come off as cool if they weren’t so, ironically enough, bloodless. Not to mention familiar: When the score swells as the hero stands amid a swarm of bats, certain dark knights will no doubt spring to mind.
It’s also not very scary. There are plenty of hints that Morbius wanted to lean more towards horror, with a body count far higher and more personal than your typical action film. Victims aren’t dispatched from afar in massive battles; they’re hunted down in individualistic, gruesome fashion, from some jerks in a bar unfortunate enough to cross the wrong guy to a nurse whose only crime was being alone in a creepy hallway with flickering lights.
Morbius may not be the final say on the character. Since it’s not officially part of the MCU, Disney could try again if the rights to the character shift. Given how many iterations Spider-Man went through before Tom Holland swung into action alongside The Avengers, chances are another reboot is in order before such a conflicted character is safely integrated into a franchise that’s ravenous for new blood at all costs.
Morbius is streaming now on Netflix.