Monday, April 4, 2022

This Anti-Hero Sucks: MORBIUS

People were down on Morbius since it was first announced, as if the idea of making a mid-tier Spider-Man villain the star of his own debut, disconnected solo movie was patently ridiculous. When superhero comics are strip-mined for every part that might make a movie or TV show, because they’re currently the only projects making huge bucks at the box office or drawing big audiences to streamers at a reliable rate (or so they say), one can’t exactly be surprised that a Marvel character who’s a living vampire wouldn’t make some executives’ pocketbooks perk up. This has to be especially true of the folks at Sony, who are riding high off the success of two Venom movies, which also spun non-Spidey stories out of that comic’s web of side characters. When fanboys scoff and meme about this particular movie, as if other Marvel movies aren't commercially minded brand decisions, well, they certainly are capable of massive cognitive dissonance.  

So here we are with Morbius. Shrug off the negative hype and see it for what it is: a decent little programmer, an unfussy little monster movie that plugs into the woe-is-me, tortured-creature thing that works well enough for it, even if it’s drowning in overfamiliar plot moves. Director Daniel Espinosa knows a thing or two about making derivative B-grade studio fare classed up with some fine casting and cleanly-cut action. His space-station-set sci-fi chiller Life is a cramped little Alien riff, and his Safe House lets Denzel Washington run circles around Ryan Reynolds in shaky bruising violence. Are they cliche genre pictures? Certainly. But they go down easy because Espinosa makes the elements play like well-oiled machines. So he knows how to make Morbius bubble to life with some attention to component parts—the tragic backstory, the fatal flaws, the dogged detectives, the arch-rival, the doomed lover—and casts well enough. The picture crawls to sufficient life, ambulating the cliches into something like minor popcorn pleasures.

The film finds Dr. Michael Morbius, genius inventor of cool blue synthetic blood, hard at work on a cure for his rare blood disease. One thing leads to another and, whoops, he’s a vampire now, sucking down his own invention until he sniffs out the superpowered benefits of the real thing. Jared Leto is awfully convincing as an aloof creep, who sometimes does good work, but also has everyone who is aware of him side-eying his decisions. His monster posture and pained expressions are a perfect camp match to his lunging for his blood bags and sucking them down like a Capri-Sun. The supporting cast includes Jared Harris as a conflicted older doctor, Matt Smith as a friend and fellow patient who turns villainous, and Al Madrigal and Tyrese Gibson as FBI agents hot on the trail of a rash of vampire attacks. Gee, who could that be? All involved elevate their stock material ever so slightly through sheer will, screen presence, and knowing how to sell the silliness.

The whole thing is too small to build to any real spectacle., but that’s almost refreshing in its dim, short, simple way. The basic story beats are hit with a steady plunk, and build to a reasonable one-on-one vampire fight. Along the way, effects like rippling sound waves and tendrils of supernatural senses pop in neat-enough comic book poses. And in the end, I did sorta care to find out if Morbius would get to save his love interest (Adria Arjona) from a fate worse than death and stop the villain from giving vampires a bad name. There’s some genuine poignancy to his dilemmas, and you can feel the better monster movie straining to get out. 

The screenplay may be a pileup on the trope highway, but there’s some actual feeling and imagination in its creaky premise. It’s worse the more it tries to be a standard modern superhero movie—never more so than its dire end-credits scenes nonsensically teasing surreally forced connections. And yet that’s what the people say they want? (Leave before you can see them unless you have morbid curiosity.) It’s better when it’s own little thriller, leaning into its own preoccupations, doodling in its own world. And it’s certainly a better bit of junk cinema than so many others of its ilk that mistake a traffic jam of cameos and references to a story. You know the ones.

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