Morbius has no reason to exist as an actual movie, but maybe that’s why it worked for me. This origin story for a second-tier Spider-Man villain is largely Sony’s way of capitalizing on its rights to the Spidey universe in order to maintain a partnership with Marvel and keep up with Disney. It has relatively little to prove, and not much to advance brand-wise; the Spider-verse will happily live on whether this movie does or not. Really, Morbius exists primarily to deliver its end-credits scenes, which you can read about here and which feel like they belong in a completely different movie. But the film itself, the one that plays until those end-credits start to roll, is surprisingly fun, a picture that can just kind of be whatever the heck it wants.
And it wants, unsurprisingly, to be a mad-scientist movie, with all the tragic melodrama that comes along with it. Freed from the shackles of elaborate world-building or jokey, family-friendly tentpole-dom, this is a tight, brisk little over-the-top thriller, with plenty of atmosphere, effective jump scares, and a couple of genuinely moving performances at its heart. As Michael Morbius, a brilliant doctor looking to cure a rare disease that prevents his body from creating new blood, Jared Leto seems well-suited to the part, with those sad, intense eyes, that gaunt visage, and that slightly aloof presence. You buy him as a sick man, you buy him as a possessed man, and you buy him as the buff (but still sad) vampire he becomes after fusing human blood with a bunch of bats he stole from a mountain in Costa Rica.
The character’s sense of purpose defines him: Michael wants to save the world, and himself, but also his best friend. An early scene, set 25 years ago in Greece, shows him as a lonely 10-year-old patient at a private hospital, meeting fellow child patient Lucien, whom he dubs Milo, a name Michael apparently gives to every kid who comes through the hospital and dies. But Michael, already showing signs of genius, gets sent off to a special school in New York before he can lose New Milo to their horrid common ailment. “I’m gonna find a cure for us, so we can be cranky old men together,” he writes to his friend before leaving, setting up the bond between the two, as well as the painful turn it will eventually take.
The whole film is built around this relationship, which is promising, especially since Milo grows up to be played by Matt Smith, one of those actors who seems incapable of giving an uninteresting performance. Adult Milo has little of young Milo’s emotional fragility; he’s a charismatic, devil-may-care hedonist, consistent with someone who’s lived life knowing they’re not long for this world. (The two pals like to evoke the dedication of the Spartan warriors at Thermopylae when talking about their friendship, but Milo seems to be, spiritually at least, a full-on Athenian.) Smith, whose angular features already make him look like a walking noir pastiche, plays off Leto nicely: He leans in where Leto hesitates, and he leers where Leto demurs. Smith’s eyes aren’t haunted like Leto’s; they’re hungry. The second you see the two men in the same room together, you know they’ll eventually wind up facing off. But they also seem meant for each other, since opposites attract and repel in equal measure.
Mad-scientist movies always give us protagonists who grow to belatedly regret what they have created and/or become. In Morbius’s case, he first freaks out over the fact that his experiments have turned him into, you know, a bloodsucking monster, though he soon devises a way of keeping the transformations in check. But guess who else gets their hands on Morbius’s experimental vampire potion? (You don’t need to guess; there are only like four other people in the movie.) Milo isn’t perturbed by his transformation. He’s delighted. He even dances a little jig after slaughtering a couple of cops on the subway.
Morbius was directed by Daniel Espinosa, a Swedish journeyman who has made what I consider to be some of the most dreadful mainstream movies of our time, so my expectations going into this thing were probably lower than anybody else’s. But somehow, Espinosa manages to bring an engaging, dreamy sense of style to this film’s bleak, nocturnal world. The action scenes seem to be shot more for beauty than coherence, a trade-off I’m happy with. Once transformed, Morbius leaps, sprints, and even flies through the city trailing ribbons of color and light. Is this to convey the batlike radar his brain can now access, or to hint at his wispy, impermanent state of being, or just to make him look a bit more like those cool Death Eaters in the Harry Potter movies? I have no idea, but it looks tremendous.
Morbius was supposed to be released a couple of years ago, and it has reportedly been tampered with while sitting on the shelf, which has probably added to a preconception (among both critics and audiences, I suspect) that the film is doomed, an aesthetic and financial write-off. But see if you can watch it with an open mind. In a world where the cultural terraforming of our cinema by comic-book movies is mostly complete, it actually feels like a welcome little stray, a movie that pays lip service to its corporate aims while delivering something sad, suspenseful, and unexpectedly heartfelt.
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