Not every comic character needs a movie–Marvel’s Morbius arrives on Netflix

Review by C.J. Bunce

Although Stan Lee didn’t design or write the character Morbius, it was his idea, and that’s no surprise, as Netflix viewers will find this weekend now that Sony’s big screen flick Morbius arrives on the streaming service.  Stan’s quick quasi-science works at some level for cinema’s Spider-Man and the Hulk, good storytelling made it work for Luke Cage on TV, and humor made it work in Deadpool and Venom.  Without Kevin Feige and Disney’s Marvel backing, Marvel fans still may think Sony’s latest could land like Spider-Man, or even Venom.  Unfortunately it’s a movie closer to The Fantastic Four (the one with Miles Teller).  What’s the problem?  Either the decision to make a movie at all from this singularly derivative character, or the choice of writers.  We’re in a world where good writers and filmmakers have created spectacular movies and TV about B-level superhero types.  Like Ant-Man or Moon Knight, or Sony’s own Venom and Deadpool.  As you may guess, Morbius falls into the spectacularly bad category.

You may already know Morbius is another man-bat, a Batman knockoff.  With a subject like that, it’s even more important to give audiences something clever, imaginative, or unique.  Writers Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama, under the direction of Daniel Espinosa, avoid all of that.  The movie is an insult to comic books–an assumption that you can throw anything on the screen and fans will buy it, that comic stories are infantile, that comics are devoid of all science.  Add some pseudo-science and fight scenes and audiences will cheer!  But that’s never been true.  Comic fans are smarter than that.  They demand more and they deserve more.

Other Marvel movies have demonstrated goofy Stan Lee origin stories and characters can be adapted into something enjoyable, something fun (like Deadpool, like Hulk, like She-Hulk, like Venom).  Morbius breaks the rule.  It has no surprises.  The characters aren’t likable.  Two good friends grow up with problems, one is successful, the other isn’t.  So when one gets superpowers, obviously the other will be the villain.  Snore.  How difficult is it to write about people with a serious health condition and not make them sympathetic?

Sharpless and Sazama’s script reflects a lack of understanding of words.  It’s like they never read a book or watched a TV drama.  They botch hospital scenes (have you ever seen a hospital that was dark inside? Why did they intubate patient when all that happened is she fell down?).  Their characters stumble over basic science, and the very subject the audience is here for: the concept of vampire bats related to a super-powered man.  Yes, this is some kind of mish-mash of sci-fi and fantasy, but good fiction has minimal requirements.  The writers think when they swap “vampire” for “bats” we won’t notice.  They’ll assume bats are vampires!  They vont to suck your blood! (maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh).  But guess what?  Bats are real.  They are mammals with known scientific properties.  They are important to the environment, other life here, and critical to this planet.  Just because a sub-family of bats is referred to as “vampire” bats does not mean that species actually possesses all the lore of Dracula and Nosferatu.  Do adults (ahem, the writers) need to be told that?

It’s not just the vampire bats they get wrong.  They didn’t run their script past actual scientists or doctors–or even average grade school kids.  Who was charged with telling the actors that the Nobel Prize is pronounced “no-bell,” not like “noble”?  How do you make it to adulthood and not know that?  It’s reminiscent of the mispronunciation of “symbiote” in Sony’s earlier one-off/super-powered flick Venom.  These things are rudimentary errors, nothing that should make it to a movie’s final cut.

Academy Award winner Jared Leto (Suicide Squad, Blade Runner 2049) has nothing to bring to Dr. Michael Morbius in this flat script.  The best part could have been Doctor Who star Matt Smith, as bat-pal Milo (or is it Lucien? what?), but no.  Leto, Smith, and co-star Adria Arjona (as a doctor who knows them both) should find better agents after this project.

An hour of the movie is dedicated to origin story.  The rest is Morbius vs. Milo/Lucien.  It’s accompanied by CGI visual effects that make them both look like rat-faced zombies, and something that seems like it’s supposed to be related to echolocation and make them fly.  Forgettable (and annoying) supporting characters are tucked into corners (presumably because stories have supporting characters and no other story purpose).  Yes, Morbius is in the realm of I, Frankenstein.  It’s that much of a mess.

It has some Easter eggs, but it’s not lighthearted enough for any of them to land in any way to care about.  Michael Keaton has a cameo as Adrian Toomes, the mechano-winged guy Vulture from the MCU way back in Sony’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (also Venom).  But you need to wait for the two codas to see him, and you’re not missing anything if you don’t.  It’s a set-up for a crossover, but it’s really just a too-obvious Easter egg–LOOK it’s DC’s Batman and Marvel’s bat-man together!  Everyone will go for that sequel, right?  Right?  I’m pretty sure we’d all rather watch Keaton’s scenes from either the canceled Batgirl movie or the doomed Flash movie.

BAFTA Award-winning actor Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Fringe, The Expanse) is Emil Nikols, a doctor caring for Morbius and Milo.  The movie also stars Fast & Furious’s Tyrese Gibson, who also needs to have a talk with his agent.

Morbius was supposed to be released in advance of the fun and funny Venom: Let There Be Carnage (reviewed here).  Have we arrived at the last movie that was supposed to be released in 2020 but got delayed?  Morbius, which we previewed with a first trailer in January 2020 here at borg, just wasn’t worth the wait.

For those who need some catching up, this is not about Dr. Morbius of Forbidden Planet, this is the sci-fi/Dracula hybrid–the “living vampire”–created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in the pages of Marvel Comics in 1971.  Comic greats like Don McGregor and the late Rich Buckler and Steve Gerber worked on the Morbius stories over the years–a doomed hero specifically drawn to look like actor Jack Palance.  Over the years the character would rub shoulders with Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Doctor Strange, and Blade, but most notably Spider-Man.

Because of Netflix, more viewers will be watching Morbius Take my advice and skip it, and if you do give it a try you can’t say I didn’t warn you.  Morbius is streaming now.

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