Morbius

If you’re not terribly interested in seeing Morbius, here’s all you need to know: Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) is a scientist who, in seeking a cure for his blood-borne illness, turns himself into a vampire-like being.  Similar to a vampire, he has super strength, speed and moral ambiguity.  And like other Marvel heroes, he’s paid his dues at the gym, sporting a nice set of pecs.  Since he’s actually a human-bat hybrid, he’s not bothered by the usual vampire afflictions (daylight, holy water, etc.)  Although he’s essentially the villain in his movie, the history of his character in the comic books indicates he sometimes plays the hero, depending on his moods.  Similar to Venom, Morbius exists mainly as the cinematic introduction of Morbius to the Spider-Man universe of villains.  Credit cookies point to a future collaboration (team-up!) with Michael Keaton’s Vulture, who was introduced in Spider-Man: Homecoming.  (Spider-Man does not make an appearance in this movie, unfortunately.)  Even though Morbius is a small-stakes movie, it’s decently made and reasonably entertaining.  I enjoyed the movie’s breezily, gothic-lite sensibility, its unique visualization of vampiric powers and Jered Leto’s intense performance.  Mildly recommended.

If you’re still interested in learning more about the movie, read on…

The Marvel Universe (both cinematic and comic) is overflowing with brilliant scientists who end up turning themselves into supervillains.  Spider-Man (a.k.a. Peter Parker), himself no slouch at all things scientific, encounters the lion’s-share of these evil-genius types as part of his duties.  Norman Osborne, Dr. Otto Octavious and Dr. Curt Connors were brilliant scientists when Peter Parker initially met them, but soon became the Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, The Lizard, respectively.  Now Dr. Michael Morbius has joined their exclusive club.  Coincidence?  Or does Parker just have incredibly bad luck?

In the comics, Morbius is known as “The Living Vampire”.  How does one become a living vampire?  As Morbius shows us, it ain’t easy.  As far as superhero/supervillain origin stories go, Morbius has left incredible in the rear view mirror and is hurtling towards downright loopy.

Morbius was born with a blood-related ailment that requires you to get the equivalent of dialysis three times a day in Greece by the very English Dr. Emil Nicholas (Jared Harris).  Why Greece?  Not explained.  He meets Lucien while convalescing in Greece, a boy his age who also suffers from the same incredibly rare affliction.  Morbius nicknames him “Milo” in reference to the parade of boys who have died in the bed Lucien now occupies.  One day, Milo’s blood-cleansing machine breaks down, and Morbius manages to fix it using the spring from a ball-point pen (seriously).  Recognizing that he has a childhood prodigy on his hands, Dr. Nicholas sends Morbius to New York so that he can become a brilliant scientist.  (When Nicholas mentions a school for gifted children, I thought it was a reference to Dr. Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.  Alas, it is not.)

Decades later, an introduction during a Nobel Prize ceremony tells us that Morbius (Jared Leto) completed his doctorate at nineteen.  While searching for a cure to his (and Milo’s) illness, Morbius invents artificial blood, an achievement that earns him a Nobel Prize and that he promptly turns down.  (It’s great that the MCU was able to fill Tony Stark’s immensely ego-driven shoes so quickly.)

Saving Milo all those years ago turned out to be a very fortunate thing for Morbius to have done.  Milo (Matt Smith) inherited his family’s wealth (the source of it not explained), making it possible to fund his friend’s private research into a cure for what ails them for decades.  This includes funding an expedition to Costa Rica where Morbius can capture a colony of vampire bats for his research.  There’s no good reason why Morbius, looking weak and emaciated and hobbling around on crutches, needs to make the trip himself or provide his own blood as bait.  If this isn’t what minions are for, what is?  Regardless, I have to admire Morbius’ sense of showmanship.  Naturally, there’s a shot of Morbius getting swarmed by bats ala Bruce Wayne.

Back in New York with bats in hand, Morbius works with comely fellow scientist Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona) on a serum that will combine his DNA with that of vampire bats.  Something about their ability to biologically manufacture an anticoagulant holds the key.  (I honestly didn’t follow that part, but in all honesty, it doesn’t matter.)   When test #892 (not the real number) apparently succeeds, Morbius and Martine head to “international waters” so that he can administer the serum on himself.  Since all of the research is privately funded, it stands to reason that Morbius can just inject it on himself within the cozy confines of his lab in NYC.  However, that would prevent the movie from recreating a famous bit from Dracula cannon.  

On the good ship Murnau (cudos for name-dropping the Nosferatu director), Morbius administers his cure and sets off security alarms.  The gun-toting henchmen come to the conclusion that Morbius is up to no good and needs to be taken out.  You would think that the last thing they would want to do is to harm the friend of the man who’s paying their salary, but henchmen gotta do what henchmen do, right?  Unfortunately for them, Morbius has turned himself into a powerful creature with an all-consuming thirst for blood.  He quickly hunts down the henchmen and drains all of their blood, but lets Martine live because, well, he’s sweet on her.  (Did I mention she’s pretty?)  

Morbius radios in the incident and heads back to New York to avoid answering obvious questions like, Why is everyone dead except you? and, Where did all of their blood go?  How Morbius travels is not explained.  However, since he doesn’t yet know how to fly (that comes later), we have to assume that he either swam or took a rowboat.  (I didn’t know this when I saw the movie, but the definition of international waters is twelve miles past the nearest shore.  Hmm.)

The Feds sent to investigate the “unfortunate incident” on the Murnau are Simon Stroud (Tyrese Gibson) and Al Rodriguez (Al Madrigal), your typical odd couple detectives.  Clever types, they’re able to link Martine back to the company she and Morbius work for.  When they visit Martine at the hospital and ask her what happened on the ship, she clams up.  Love definitely makes you make…interesting choices.

Back at his lab, Morbius satisfies his urge to consume human blood by consuming bags of his own artificial blood, which is blue, by the way.  (I chuckled at the thought that Morbius was actually downing bag after bag of Go Gurt.)  The blue blood tames his urges for six hours but  since the blood is artificial, its effect is lessening (not explained).  Now that he’s no longer ravenously thirsty Morbius discovers that he now has superhuman speed, strength, echolocation and a body by Marvel.  Morbius is able to jump around his lab with ease.  Even cooler, each of his superpowered movements is trailed by colored wisps of smoke.  (The effects don’t make much sense, but I thought they looked cool, regardless.)

Milo pays Morbius a visit and naturally asks, Would you give me the cure?  Morbius declines, saying that the cure is not worth it.  Milo is understandably upset at not getting what he’d spent untold millions paying for.  He sneaks off with a vial of the serum and takes it off-camera.  (One transformation scene is enough for this movie.)  Morbius visits Martine at the hospital, and while he’s there, a colleague is killed.  Since his blood-fueled rage results in amnesia, Morbius isn’t sure if he’s responsible.  (The movie is cagey about it as well.)  Regardless, Morbius decides he needs to get out of Dodge.  Unfortunately, those pesky Feds corner him at his office and take him in.

Milo visits Morbius in jail and reveals that he’s taken the cure.  Milo tosses some threats to Morbius, who (literally) busts out.  He and Martine work on a cure for the cure in an illegal currency setup that Morbius has converted into a lab.  (That Morbius is one heck of a genius.  I wonder if the Avengers could use a guy like…nah.)  The last act of the movie is one where  Morbius and Milo duke it out for vampiric supremacy, with the fate of Martine (somewhat) in the balance.  No spoilers on who eventually wins.  I will say that one supporting character is not as dead as they appear.  Another one remains dead.  Well, at least I think they are still dead.

Since I’ve taken so many shots at Morbius up to this point, you may be under the impression that I hated this movie.  As incredible as this may sound, I honestly liked the movie.  Maybe the movie was filmed with some new technology that effectively glamored me while I watched it, but I can’t deny that I found the experience to be mildly entertaining.

First off, I admit that everything leading up to the moment when Morbius becomes a “living vampire” is riddled with enormous plot holes.  (There are plot holes after that point, but not as many or as significant.)  After Morbius takes the serum and all hell breaks loose, the movie finally is able to become what it aspires to be: a mid-grade vampire story.

That’s not to say what precedes Morbius’ transition isn’t interesting.  Everything that happens in the first act is so utterly ridiculous, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the many logical ellipses the movie tosses out.  Since I’m still under oath, I have to say that I really didn’t care much about the whys and wherefores of who Dr. Morbius was before he became Morbius, The Living Vampire.  I’ve seen so many vampire stories in my life, all I was interested in was seeing vampires depicted differently than I had before.  Morbius definitely accomplishes that.  As I mentioned above, I liked how the movie represents Morbius and Milo’s vampire powers with a distinct visual style.  That alone isn’t enough to make a movie worth watching though.

The performances are mostly good throughout.  Well, they’re good enough for this movie at least. Jared Leto gives Morbius a strange intensity that held my attention throughout.  His performance in Morbius is not at the same level as Requiem for a Dream, Lord of War, Dallas Buyers Club or House of Gucci, but like those, it’s never boring.  He’s not one of my favorite actors, but whenever I see him, he tends to deliver a performance worth watching.  (For the record, I enjoyed his grandiose performance in Gucci.)  Given that Morbius is blatantly a B-movie, I seriously doubt that having another actor play Moribus wouldn’t have made it a better movie.  I did find it curious that the movie only showed Leto with his shirt off once.  Seemed like a waste for all of that time he probably spent in the gym.

Matt Smith is also good as Milo/Lucien.  He’s another actor I haven’t seen much of until recently (The Crown, Last Night in Soho, Terminator Genesys).  Of all the performances in Morbius, he has the most range.  I found his transformation from a charming but dying rich person into a charming but amoral psychopath convincing.  Once he’s in bitey-bitey mode, he appears to be having a lot of fun, and like Leto, takes his shirt off once to flash his washboard abs.  Jared Harris has the thankless task of bringing life to the vastly underwritten part of Dr. Emil Nicholas.  Harris is a great actor, and I’m sure he is a believer in the saying that “there’s no small parts, only small actors.”  He brings passion, grace and a note of tragedy in his scenes, and I wish he had a bigger role in the film.  

As Feds Stroud and Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal are a strange pairing.  Gibson looks so uncomfortable throughout, I suspected he didn’t find out what movie his agent signed him up for until he showed up on set.  Rodriguez, wisely, just goes with it, and gets to deliver the movie’s funniest lines.  Adria Arjona is fine as pretty scientist Martine.  Based on how the movie ends, I suspect she’ll have more to do in a sequel or wherever Morbius appears in the Spider-Man Universe.

If I had seen Morbius in the late Eighties or early Nineties, I would have considered it as being at the (roughly) same level as Predator or Demolition Man.  On its own, it’s perfectly acceptable escapist entertainment.  Not a great movie by any means, but good enough.  (If I squint hard enough, Morbius plays like a tween-appropriate version of True Blood.)  What works against a movie like Morbius is the ever increasing size and spectacle of the Marvel and DC superhero movies.  A superhero origin story where said hero doesn’t have to deal with the fate of the world hanging in the balance just feels lesser in comparison.  

Before seeing Morbius, I couldn’t help but notice the critical thrashing the movie was getting.  As a result, I had pretty low expectations going in.  The movie’s goth-lite atmosphere, goofy plot, good special effects and Leto’s singular performance kept me entertained.  The movie may not take itself seriously, and neither should you.  If you have an open mind and an hour-and-a-half to kill, Morbius is worth a look.

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