The Spider-Verse was already growing unwieldy long before the concept of the multiverse was so forcefully (and, to be clear, cleverly) injected into the adventures of Peter Parker (and Peter Parker and Peter Parker) in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (a Sony film). Before that, it was bandied about in the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe (a Disney franchise), hinted at in “Into the Spider-Verse” (Sony), nodded to in the “Venom” films (Sony), and mined for still more material in the various Marvel television series (again, Disney). It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin, and that’s even with the generous help of the internet itself, rife with Wikipedia pages and explainers and timelines galore.
Now the Spider-Verse again expands, thanks to Sony’s long-delayed “Morbius,” ostensibly a Spidey spin-off set in a universe where (for now at least, and one of the few things that seems clear in a film muddled by a series of baffling choices and unkind edits) Spider-Man doesn’t exist, but human-created vampirism does. Sure! DC may have long ago laid claim to the concept of a bat/man, but Marvel — not an institution to shy away from putting their own spin on comic book ideas — has spent decades building its own man/bat, this one a villain (maybe?) who leans into the bloodier side of associating with literal bloodsuckers.
Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) has plenty going for him — a journey to the character’s Wikipedia page is a joy in itself, billing the Marvel baddie as “Morbius, aka the Living Vampire, aka Dr. Michael Morbius, Ph.D., M.D.” — but you’ll forgive him for being obsessed with the one thing his big brain can’t cure: a rare blood disease that’s been slowly killing him his entire life. When we first meet Dr. Morbius — and, just to be clear, one of the first things we hear him say is, “I am a doctor,” thank you for that — he’s somewhere in Costa Rica, attempting to capture a pack of vampire bats. Is this an idea that has ever worked out for anybody?
Flashback: child Michael (Charlie Shotwell), tucked up in some fancy clinic in Greece, lives out his days either a) hobbling around the joint on braces or b) getting blood transfusions to keep him alive. He’s grown accustomed to losing people, so when a new pal is put in the bed next to him, he can barely even acknowledge the kid’s name (Lucien), instead opting to call him “Milo,” just like the first kid who died next to him, just like he’s called every other potential friend who entered (and exited) his life. Daniel Espinosa’s film moves reasonably fast in its opening moments, and while we may never learn much more about Michael (like, does he have parents?), “Morbius” at least makes an early claim to what ails the youngster and what’s clearly going to impact the rest of his life. (And, yes, it is somewhat refreshing to meet a batty super-dude who isn’t entirely driven by his pain over his dead family.)
A tech whiz to boot, when kindly Dr. Emil Nikols (Jared Harris), his sole caretaker, offers to get him admittance to a school for gifted children in New York, Michael goes for it, even if it means leaving his newest pal behind. He’s got big plans, like curing the disease that has afflicted both of them, and while this is hardly an original idea, it’s one that makes sense. That clarity will soon dissipate, but screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless have to be commended for even briefly injecting anything grounded into what becomes a weirder story by the minute.
Twenty-five years later, Michael is a genius doctor (financed by the very rich adult Milo, now played by Matt Smith, who somehow still goes by “Milo“) who has spent his career attempting to cure vicious blood diseases. There have been some strides, like his invention of fake blood — which we’re soon told has cured more people than penicillin — but while the world has wanted to fete Michael for this gift, he’s reacted by doing bonkers stuff, like rejecting a Nobel Prize. Worse, he’s still miles away from solving his own personal puzzle. Maybe, he hopes, blood-sucking bats can help him. His alluring professional partner, Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), is certainly game to try!
This sounds dark and gritty, and Oliver Wood’s murky cinematography and Jon Ekstrand’s “Dark Knight” lite score sure seem to want viewers to associate it with other, much better bat-adjacent joints, but the film is too disjointed to feel much like, well, anything. Mostly, the film occupies a strange no-mans-land of the sprawling Spider-Verse, not charming like the “Spider-Man” films, not funny like the “Venom” films, and certainly not technically impressive like the animated “Into the Spider-Verse.”
Even the most basic elements of the film are incomprehensible. Michael has all the trappings of a bad guy — this is the kind of guy who has a massive chamber of bats in the middle of his lab, both for decor and research — but by the time he gifts yet another origami animal to someone he cares about, you’ll have to wonder, this dude is a villain? (Leto, who notoriously immerses himself in his work, could seemingly find little here, his Michael is somehow both confounding and very boring. ) Even after he injects himself with bat blood serum and murders a literal boat full of people, the extent of his powers remain a mystery. Something about really good hearing?
It should come as little surprise then that the film’s scattered action sequences are just as confused, mostly relying on characters falling from tall heights, smashing into things, and unfurling more streaks of powdered color than a gender reveal party (does this not make sense to you? good, it doesn’t make sense in the context of the film either). Espinosa has directed some great actioners over the years, from “Snabba Cash” to “Safe House,” but not of that skill is on display here.
Elsewhere, the CGI that transforms Leto into an uneasy bloodsucker is ugly and unappealing. The film’s timeline is hazy, basic common sense never enters the picture, and a villain arrives on the scene because somehow “Morbius” needs to move forward. Most of the film feels unforgivably chopped up, as if key scenes were snipped at random, an inscrutable introduction to a character who probably could have stayed safely hidden in the shadows.
There are moments of perhaps accidental levity, like the chyron that pops up to explain we’re in “international waters” after Michael has announced that they can only conduct an early experiment in…international waters (what, did the sea not give it away?) or Leto’s straight-faced assertion that the bats “welcome him like a brother.”
That amusement runs dry, however, and “Morbius” mostly surprises because of how very dull it is. (How do you make a Jared Leto vampire superhero movie dull? In this economy?) Case in point: After Michael’s bad deeds become publicized, local news teams term him “the Vampire Murderer,” an uninspired nickname that serves as a microcosm of everything “Morbius” is: mostly unnecessary, oddly unoriginal, and soon quite forgettable indeed.
A Sony release, “Morbius” will be released in theaters on Friday, April 1.