In “Morbius”, a helicopter sweeps through the misty jungles of Costa Rica and lands on a remote cliff. As the camera pans through a dark cave awash in CGI, you’d be hard-pressed to feel the intended gloom of the opening scene. It’s no secret that the desperate lengths of contemporary movies, especially of the comic book variety, rely on VFX to do the heavy lifting of a movie’s emotional work. And after “Venom,” “Joker,” and more, the tired newness of villains starring in their own likable origin stories offers few surprises. As Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto), a brooding biochemist living with a blood disease, swings with the help of crutches from the helicopter, the mystery of his story is moot. We’ve seen this movie before, in much better forms.
Daniel Espinosa’s “Morbius,” an ill-conceived and artistically bankrupt bid by writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless to fuse a side of gothic horror to the MCU, is the nadir of comic book cinema. Created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, the titular villain, sometimes anti-hero, emerged from the pages of “The Amazing Spider-Man” in 1971, imbuing the webslinger universe with supernatural grit. On the face of it, injecting Morbius into the sterile, overly clean confines of the MCU should achieve similar goals. Espinosa, unfortunately, is so indebted to the stamp of mass entertainment that he struggles to give his film the bloodthirsty, brutality and scares needed to rise above a snort.
The cleanup in “Morbius” begins with a flashback to 25 years earlier. A young Morbius befriends Milo, a boy who also has a blood disease that requires three transfusions a day to live. They see themselves as two broken people defying a cruel world. It’s a sickening ability angle, barely addressed by the random storyline, only escalated when Dr. Nichols (a criminally unused Jared Harris), the head of the facility where they’re being treated, notices Morbius’ innate gift. for mechanics and sends him to a place where his talents will not be wasted.
Unlike other elongated comic book movies, Espinosa’s 108-minute film features a compact runtime. Bearing in mind the wise words of critic Roger Ebert, however, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” Morbius falls into the latter.
At first, for example, the film goes to great lengths to build a romance between Morbius and the devoted Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona). She strongly supports the pained and pale Morbius – now a Nobel Prize winner for the invention of artificial blood – by helping him with his unethical experiments. Fusing human and bat DNA, he ends up testing his invented serum on himself, accidentally transforming into a dhampir. Endowed with super strength, he no longer needs crutches to walk. He also acquires sound hearing, can float in the air and communicate with bats. The problem: every few hours it needs blood or it will revert to its previous state.
We are never fully invested in Morbius. This shortcoming derives somewhat from Leto. The desperate character serves as the second journey through comic book country, having portrayed the unhinged Joker in “Suicide Squad.” Contrary to this role, there is here a palpable distance between him and the public. Leto enjoys flexing uncomfortable weirdos to difficult and haunting ends. Unlike “Blade Runner 2049” or “The Little Things,” where he could float through scenes as a blank villain, Morbius requires pathos, a layer deeply absent from Leto’s lineup. The result is a heartless story.
The lack of sympathy for Morbius could be brushed aside if the other components of the film were stronger. Instead, a general retail course allergy runs through every vein.
The special effects are simply appalling. Rather than relying on makeup or practical effects to achieve Morbius’ dhampir look, the infographic forces a comically sunken face, exposing his cheekbones and mummifying his jawline for a dehydrated look rather than a powerful or terrifying look. The first major action sequence, set on a freighter sailing through international waters, sees Morbius decimating a team of mercenaries. The slow-motion, jump scare editing, mixed with plumes of black smoke, aims for fright, but only manages to piece together a handful of incomprehensible images.
The bloody incident attracts the attention of Detectives Stroud (Tyrese Gibson) and Rodriguez (Al Madrigal), who come to suspect Morbius of a series of murders. While the agents are within reach of a gritty medium, the underwritten storyline only gives the pair boilerplate dialogue, rendering them as mere window dressing. A similar disease strikes scares: A scare, set in a dark hospital hallway, in which a nurse frantically flees from an unseen predator, falls flat under generic horror tropes.
For this film to be successful on all levels, the relationship between Morbius and Milo (Matt Smith) needs credibility. Tired of waiting for death, the latter takes Morbius’ serum, becoming a vicious murderer who must be stopped. Smith soars above the film, moving with lanky, unhindered energy akin to his “Doctor Who” days. He and Leto, unfortunately, don’t share any chemistry. Each plays in a totally different film. Their fight scenes hold little potency under cinematographer Oliver Wood’s murky, teal lighting. In fact, you can barely make out their faces.
As they hover in the air, trading blows as a flurry of debris flies towards the objective, it’s a challenge to follow the characters’ movements, let alone feel awe. Why are action scenes so difficult for Hollywood now? It’s a shocking glitch in “Morbius” given editor Pietro Scalia’s award-winning work on “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down.” Why is Espinosa so afraid to show blood or gore? What’s to stop him from allowing us to see human bodies moving around each other rather than actors diluted in grotesque wax figures swooping wildly out of sight? An overreliance on special effects is all too common in today’s cinema. And “Morbius” might be the worst of them all.
This film also lacks depth. It’s emblematic of a system that places amusement park wonder above solid storytelling. It’s no surprise how quickly two post-credit scenes setting up a sequel wrap up the film. Was it a real movie or just a poorly made vehicle for future franchises? That the question requires an answer speaks volumes about the current state of Hollywood blockbusters and the lackluster quality of “Morbius.”
Rated: PG-13, for intense sequences of violence, frightening images and brief coarse language
Operating time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Starts April 1 in general release