From August 2017 – January 2020, Keith R.A. DeCandido took a weekly look at every live-action movie based on a superhero comic that had been made to date in the weekly Superhero Movie Rewatch. In this latest revisit we’ve covered some older movies—It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman!, Mandrake, and the two Timecop movies—and three more recent releases—Spider-Man: No Way Home, The King’s Man, and The Batman. Now we look at Morbius.
Michael Morbius was created during a particularly entertaining run of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1971 by Roy Thomas & Gil Kane. Peter Parker had created a serum that was intended to remove his spider-powers, but instead it gave him four extra arms, so he now had eight limbs just like a spider. While searching for a cure, he comes across a creature with white skin named Morbius, who appears to be a vampire.
Morbius was an attempt to create a “scientific” vampire. Dr. Michael Morbius suffered from a rare blood disease, and his attempt to cure himself resulted him becoming a mutated creature who subsists on blood.
Over the years, he’s been both villain and vigilante. He’s headlined his own series in 1992 (by Len Kaminski, Gregory Wright, Lisa Trusiani, Ron Wagner, Isaac Cordova, Nick Napolitano, Craig Gilmore, & Fabio Laguna) and 2013 (by Joe Keatinge, Richard Elson, & Valentine De Landro), and continued to be a supporting character in Spider-Man’s titles for five decades.
Originally the character was intended to appear in Wesley Snipes’ Blade trilogy at the turn of the century, but the part was cut. Morbius was considered by Jon Watts to be in Spider-Man: Far From Home, but they wound up going with Mysterio instead.
While Sony’s plans for a “Spider-Man Cinematic Universe” were torpedoed by the poor performance of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 at the box office and the subsequent renting of the character to Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony has continued to develop “Spider-adjacent” films, with two Venom movies, this, and planned Silver Sable and Sinister Six films.
Sony originally approached Antoine Fuqua to direct, but he turned it down, as did F. Gary Gray. Daniel Espinosa eventually got the gig. Production was delayed while the studio waited to see how Venom performed in 2018, and then once the film was done, its release was, like so many movies, delayed by the apocalypse of 2020, finally hitting theatres in spring 2022.
Jared Leto, previously seen in this rewatch in Suicide Squad, was the first person cast in the title role, and he had a say in who would direct. He’s joined by the Eleventh Doctor his own self, Matt Smith, as a version of another “scientific vampire,” Hunger, here recast as Morbius’ childhood friend Milo; Adria Arjona as Martine Bancroft, Morbius’ fiancée and assistant in the comics, just the latter here, though they do smooch a few times; Jared Harris as Emil Nicholas, a version of Emil Niklos from the comics, changed from Morbius’ childhood friend (a role given to Smith’s Milo in the movie) to his mentor; and Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal as a couple of FBI agents chasing after Morbius. (Gibson’s Simon Stroud is loosely based on a comics character of the same name who is a mercenary.) Back from Spider-Man: Homecoming is Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, who shifts from the MCU to the Sony universe thanks to the shenanigans in Spider-Man: No Way Home during the credits.
The movie did not do well at the box office, and an attempt to bring it back to theatres was an abject failure, as it did even worse the second time. Sony was trying to cash in on the Internet memes that were proliferating about the movie, perhaps not realizing that those memes were almost entirely negative toward the film…
“You don’t wanna see me when I’m hungry”
Written by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Produced by Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach, Lucas Foster
Original release date: April 1, 2022
In Costa Rica, Dr. Michael Morbius, who is suffering from a blood disease that leaves him pale, thin, and barely able to walk, sets a trap for a cave full of vampire bats in order to capture them and bring them back to his lab in New York.
We then flash back to twenty-five years earlier. Morbius is a patient at a special hospital run by Dr. Emil Nicholas. Morbius’ blood disease requires a transfusion three times a day. His latest bedmate—all of whom Morbius has renamed “Milo” regardless of their given name—is Lucien, a young man from a wealthy family. Morbius saves Milo’s life at one point when one of the machines he’s plugged into fails.
Nicholas sends Morbius to a school for gifted youngsters in New York (no indication as to whether or not the headmaster is a bald guy in a wheelchair…). Morbius eventually becomes a famous scientist for his development of artificial blood. He actually turns down a Nobel Prize because the point of the artificial blood was to cure his own condition, at which it failed, and he didn’t feel right accepting a prize for a failure. His colleague, Dr. Martine Bancroft, gives him all manner of shit for that, as people like to write checks to Nobel laureates.
Morbius is trying to use the DNA of vampire bats to cure his and Milo’s condition. Milo has been underwriting the research, which is probably what paid for the trip to Costa Rica—which Morbius didn’t tell Bancroft about initially. Once tests succeed on a mouse, he is ready to move on to human subjects—specifically himself.
Because the experiment he’s going to perform isn’t entirely legal, he uses Milo’s money to hire a boat, filled with mercenaries, to test the treatment on himself. Once they’re in international waters, Morbius gives himself the treatment.
While it does give him robustness and strength and stuff, as hoped, it also gives him an insatiable desire to feed on blood, a mutated physical form (including sharp teeth), super-strength, incredible speed, and echolocation. The mercenaries are not happy about this transformation, and go to attack him (rendering Bancroft unconscious when she tries to stop them). Morbius kills all of the mercs, then comes back to himself after draining all of them of blood. He has no memory of what happened, and when he views the surveillance footage, he is appalled, and wipes out the footage and abandons ship.
He continues to work in secret in his lab, and also sneaks into the hospital to check on one of his patients. One of the nurses is found exsanguinated, and Morbius is stopped by the FBI and arrested. (Agent Rodriguez comments that this is the craziest thing they’ve seen since San Francisco.)
Morbius has no memory of killing the nurse, and indeed she was his friend and colleague.
Milo visits Morbius under the guise of being his lawyer, but when he departs, he leaves behind some of the treatment—and also his cane. To Morbius’ horror, he realizes that Milo has also taken the treatment. Morbius drinks from the bag Milo left behind, which increases his strength enough to break out. He catches up to Milo, who admits to being the one who killed the nurse. Unwilling to fight his best friend, Morbius runs away and seeks out Bancroft.
Bancroft has recovered from her coma and told the FBI that she doesn’t remember what happened on the boat. Morbius intimidates some counterfeiters into giving him their lab and he continues his work. (How a counterfeiting lab can be repurposed to a biochemical lab is left as an exercise for the viewer.)
He synthesizes a cure that he intends to use on both Milo and himself. For his part, Milo is still going around killing people, including some jerks in a bar parking lot, which is captured on camera. The FBI agents realize that there’s another vampire around, and they release the footage to the media. Nicholas sees this on the news and immediately goes to see Milo, who slices open his guts and leaves him to bleed out. Nicholas calls Morbius to warn him, and while Morbius tries (and fails) to save Nicholas, Milo goes to Morbius’ lab and wounds Bancroft.
When Morbius makes it back home to a dying Bancroft, she offers her own blood to power him up, which he reluctantly accepts, draining her. He then goes after Milo, and they have a big-ass fight, ending with Morbius giving him the cure, killing him. But instead of giving it to himself, he flies off with a bunch of vampire bats, er, somehow.
While Morbius buggers off to be a fugitive, Bancroft wakes up with red eyes…
The skies go all purple, and then Adrian Toomes appears in an empty cell. He’s released, and later manages to cobble together his Vulture outfit, er, somehow, despite having no resources or identity in this universe, and then finds Morbius, er, somehow and suggests they team up.
“You’re right—I’m up to something”
This movie came under fire for being terrible, and that’s honestly giving it too much credit. I went into it expecting it to be a trash fire or a so-bad-it’s-good goof-fest, but it’s not even able to manage that. It’s just kinda, y’know, there.
I suppose I shouldn’t have had high expectations from the guy who gave us the least interesting Joker ever, but even those expectations were not met. Leto is spectacularly dull in this movie, giving us absolutely nothing to hang onto.
Well, okay, not absolutely nothing. His banter with Matt Smith’s Milo is fun in the early parts of the movie, before the plot kicks in, and if the movie was just Leto and Smith limping through Manchester-disguised-as-New York and snarking at each other, it would’ve been a lot more fun. But that’s dispensed with in fairly short order, and most of the movie is a desultory checking off of all the boxes of an action-adventure movie, and doing so in as sodden a manner as possible. For instance, I knew Milo was going to kill Nicholas pretty much from the nanosecond it was established that Nicholas was the adult Milo’s caretaker, which was less than an hour into the film, and since neither Jared Harris nor the script bothered to imbue him with any kind of personality, it was hard to give a damn when the inevitable finally happened.
I will give Smith credit for trying his best. He chows down on every piece of scenery he can get his hands on as Milo, and I particularly like his awkward white-guy dancing, showing us how Milo is reveling in being able-bodied for the first time in his life. And at least we know where he stands. Leto’s Morbius winds up being neither fish nor fowl. He’s not edgy enough to be the rebel the script tries to portray him as, he’s not noble enough to be the hero the plot keeps trying to maneuver him toward (in particular his mass murder of a boat full of mercenaries is kicked under the bed in the hopes that we’ll forget it ever happened), and he’s not evil enough to be a bad guy (Milo gets to do all the cool bad-guy stuff).
And then the part I was seriously looking forward to, the appearance of Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, turns out to be a whole lot of nothing. The tie-in to No Way Home is not convincing (wasn’t everyone supposed to be restored to their own universe at the end?), and the attempt to tease a Sinister Six movie falls incredibly flat.
After all the internet memes and the twice-bombing theatrical runs, I was hoping at least for a movie I could enjoy ripping apart, but Morbius can’t even get that right…
Next week we conclude this rewatch revival with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Keith R.A. DeCandido urges everyone to support the Kickstarter for Thrilling Adventure Yarns 2022, an anthology of pulp-style stories edited by Robert Greenberger. Keith will have a story in it called “Ticonderoga Beck and the Stalwart Squad.” Among the other contributors are Greg Cox (who wrote a Morbius story in The Ultimate Spider-Man anthology in 1994) and comics writers Peter David, Geoffrey Thorne, Alex Segura, Paul Kupperberg, Bart Sears & Michelle Sears, Mark Verheiden, Will Murray, and Deadpool co-creator Fabian Nicieza. There’s also a new story by Lester Dent, the creator of Doc Savage, plus tales by Raymond Benson, Jody Lynn Nye, Jean Rabe, Michael Jan Friedman, and tons more! Check it out and please consider supporting it!