‘Morbius’ drains all joy from the vampire story

One can only hope that this was intended as an April Fools joke

Photo+Courtesy+of+Sony+Pictures

Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures

It is rather astonishing how Sony manages to devise unexpected new ways to sink to desperate new lows. With “Spider-Man: No Way Home”, the studio’s creative bankruptcy was laid bare as it sacrificed genuinely effecting narrative drama at the altar of indolent intertextuality, crafting a movie whose most eminent virtue is reminding you of the far superior movies it is incessantly referencing. After “Uncharted”, the last piece of soulless blockbuster schlock that they sadistically attempted to force down the moviegoing public’s collective throat, I foolishly believed that Sony had reached the nadir of its cinematic offerings for the coming year. It was “Morbius”, their latest attempt to turn a Spider-Man adjacent character into a bonafide box office hit, that promptly relieved me of this notion.

To understand how theaters across were saddled with this misconceived debacle of a superhero movie, we must wind the clock back to 1999. The comic book industry had been threatened with extinction in the mid-1990s as speculators realized that the back issues they were planning to sell at a later date for a tidy profit at were not, in fact, going to increase in value as time progressed, causing a market crash of truly epic proportions. In a frantic bid to save itself, Marvel Comics filed for bankruptcy and began auctioning off the film rights to many of its major characters, with Sony snatching up the rights to Spider-Man, his allies, and his adversaries. After the Marvel Cinematic Universe evolved into a pop cultural behemoth the likes of which the film industry had not seen since George Lucas’ “Star Wars”, Sony scrambled to replicate their unprecedented success by hastily green lighting a Spider-Verse, scraping the bottom of the barrel of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, and emerging with Morbius, an obscure vampiric antihero scarcely worthy of headlining a comic book series, let alone a blockbuster film.

Crucially, the concept of antihero is one that is pushed to its breaking point here, as Michael Morbius, a biochemist who inadvertently turns himself into a living vampire while attempting to cure his rare blood disease, teeters on the precipice of super-villainy, causing a great many problems and solving exceptionally few. The idea of a vampire grappling with their longing for human blood is centuries old and hopelessly overdone, with screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpness leaving what little dramatic potential remains in this premise unrealized. The titular character is a crotchety, dispassionate CGI-dependent brute whose struggles are almost entirely external in nature, tied up in wearisome plot mechanics and sorely lacking in the psychological depth that traditionally made vampires such riveting figures. It is certainly no help that the overall tone of the piece works against Jared Leto’s signature acting style. He is infamous for the manner in which he overcommits to the roles he is given, delivering performances so excessive that the films that contain them struggle to reach the same degree of maximalism that he brings.

Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures

But here, Leto chooses to subdue his vivacious tendencies in order to match the dreary tone of the film, and the result is an uninspiring lead performance that does little to breath life into this vacant husk of an origin story. Then again, Matt Smith’s portrayal of Morbius’ surrogate brother Milo serves as a grim omen of what would have been had Leto approached his role with his usual eccentricities. Smith nobly endeavors to imbue his character with a sense of fun, swaggering around in tailored suits and conjuring up his customary charm, but his performance flounders spectacularly amid the corporatized sullenness of the film’s mood. And, while it incorporates far fewer visual effects shots than its contemporaries, the computer generated imagery that is present is remarkably substandard. I found the echolocation effect to be particularly distracting and the moment in which Morbius first takes flight, which is framed as downright triumphant by the narrative, comes off as bizarre. These lackluster visual gimmicks are so essential to the action sequences haphazardly placed throughout the runtime that they inevitably doom them to monotony.

When viewed in the broader context of modern studio filmmaking, “Morbius” is exceptional by virtue of it being so horrid. Modern blockbusters are not developed in the manner in which they were in the past, but are instead engineered. Many tentpole films being made today are influenced just as much by box office algorithms as they are the creative instincts of the filmmakers, creating an endless feedback loop in which the elements that audiences responded to in previous films in franchises are thoughtlessly recycled into new installments, resulting in films that are predictably, relentlessly mediocre. But, “Morbius” is a step beyond this pervasive unoriginality: It is a joyless, frighteningly dull effort to capitalize on the decade-long superhero movie boom that is far too self-serious to even derive ironic pleasure from it.