The evolution of the comic book movie era has seen characters once thought to be fringe move to the mainstream. Few could have predicted that the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Shazam would someday be headlining their own movies, but here we are. Now joining the unexpected list is Morbius, aka the Living Vampire.
Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) is a brilliant scientist who has spent his entire life trying to find a cure to a disease that forces him to use canes and has left his body gaunt. His big innovation, artificial blood, has earned him international acclaim, but not the treatment that he desires. Next on his list is to splice human DNA with vampire bat DNA to create a curative serum, a risky if not insane idea.
Naturally, he experiments on himself in the first human trial, but instead of merely healing him, it turns him into a being that needs fresh blood in order to thrive and survive. Michael is horrified at what he has done to himself, but his childhood friend Milo (Matt Smith) — who suffers from a similar ailment — has no such qualms about the violent side effects of the serum.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa and written by Matt Sazama and Buck Sharpless, the film is another long-delayed effort that was mostly shot prior to the pandemic. The character, which has a history in the Spider-Man universe, initially seems to be a hard sell, given that Dr. Morbius is pretty prickly. And even though his transformation into a blood-sucking creature is dreadful to witness, it actually serves to make him a fully-realized person.
The effects the filmmakers use to show how Morbius is adapting to his newfound powers are dynamic and — rare for a movie as CGI-dependent as this — coherent. Pulsating waves, shimmering streaks, and more are employed to give the audience a feel for what Morbius is experiencing, and they continue to work throughout the film, never becoming redundant.
As for the storyline … well, at least it’s never dull. The antagonism that grows between Morbius and Milo is initially interesting, although it gets less so the more each becomes entrenched in their respective viewpoints. A semi-romance between Morbius and his co-worker, Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona) sparks a bit, but it’s kind of hard to get past the inherent disconnect between a vampire and a human.
Leto, like fellow actor Tom Hardy, seems to delight in hiding or altering his normal face, which he does for most of this film. Oddly, though, for an objectively odd character in both human and vampire form, Leto puts on a better performance as Morbius than he did while dialing it up in House of Gucci. Smith complements him well, but he’s the one who goes over-the-top in this film. Arjona’s character never truly connects, but Jared Harris is effective in a mentor-type role.
Given that Morbius is supposed to be an antihero with possibly some redeeming qualities, it’ll be interesting to see how he’s positioned in the Spider-Man universe going forward. An appearance by a previous Spider-Man villain in a stinger scene during the end credits seems to point definitively in one direction, but that might also make it difficult to make a Morbius 2, as is the practice these days.
For now, Morbius is a good-enough introduction for a character who most viewers may not know well. It’s not spectacular entertainment like the Spider-Man movies, but neither will it have viewers wishing for their money back.
Morbius opens in theaters on April 1.