24 Lies a Second: The What Man?

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The What Man?

When a film opens with a bunch of characters arriving at a place called the Hill of Death, you can be quite sure that one of two things is on the cards: a film with a potentially smug sense of its own ridiculousness, or something which is going to be painfully on the nose from start to finish. When the main character, a sickly-looking Jared Leto, is told 'Maybe you should see a doctor!' and responds 'I am one,' any hope that we may be in for Option One quickly fades.

For yes, this is Daniel Espinosa's Morbius, here to tide over anyone who objects to having to wait four-and-a-half months between proper Marvel comic-book movies. Leto is playing Morbius, whom we quickly learn is a polymathic genius afflicted with a genetic disorder causing agglutination of the blood cells (or something like that, anyway). We even see him getting a Nobel prize for his work on artificial blood. It is also established, without a great deal of subtlety, that he is largely motivated in his studies by his desire to save his best friend (Matt Smith), and that the pair of them have been mentored by the doctor who's been looking after them since childhood (Jared Harris – this is a good movie if you drew 'Jared' in the name sweepstakes).

Well, this being a Marvel movie (even an 'in association with' Marvel movie), Morbius's plan is to pop off to the Hill of Death and capture a load of vampire bats, which in the world of this movie are apparently savage, pack-hunting apex predators, not the mostly-harmless and actually quite altruistic little creatures you and I share a biosphere with. He then decides to inject his own body with vampire bat DNA in the hope it will cure him. What could possibly go wrong?

I mean, it's not the dumbest superhero origin story in history, but still. Even the fact that the human tests have to take place in secret, on a freighter in international waters, does not lead the brilliant brain of Morbius to clock that this is a bad idea. On the other hand, this does enable a bit of early mayhem as we are invited to assume the freighter crew are all despicable bad guys whom Morbius, now afflicted with the curse of blood-lust (not to mention the curse of being followed around by intrusive CGI swirls), can off with a relatively clear conscience.

Yes, Morbius now has superhuman speed and strength and some of the powers of a bat, though IP law means the film tiptoes very carefully around what the obvious code-name for him would be. He has bigger issues than plagiarism to worry about, however, as the synthetic blood he is using to keep his hunger at bay is losing its efficacy, while his best friend has got his hands on the serum as well, and quite fancies all the superpowers and CGI too…

So, just to recap, Morbius has speed and strength and can (somehow) fly, and he has sonar, which soon develops into full-blown super-hearing. I imagine that for most of the film the main thing his super-hearing is picking up is the sound of Sony frantically grabbing at every Marvel character they still have the rights to and shoe-horning them into this film.

For the uninitiated: Marvel Studios (the makers of the 'official', and generally pretty good Marvel films) have managed to reclaim the rights to most of their characters, in some cases by simply buying the companies that had previously held them. However, Sony have managed to hang onto the Spider-Man characters, and Spider-Man's appearances in MCU films have been the result of finicky horse-trading between the two companies. Hence the two Venom films with Tom Hardy, and now this vehicle for Morbius, a character declared by one website to be no less than the nineteenth-best Spider-Man villain.

Needless to say, they crowbar a reference to Venom into this movie, from which I suppose we are invited to assume that this is set in the same world as they are. There is also some multiversal madness with a late showing by Michael Keaton, well-known for playing another kind of bat man, but here reprising his role as the Vulture from an MCU movie a few years back. It all feels rather contrived and put me much in mind of Amazing Spider-Man 2, which seemed so obsessed with setting up spin-offs and cross-overs it almost forgot about the movie in hand. It is clear that linking to the massively popular MCU films is very important to Sony's plans, but also that they're quite prepared to abandon sense and logic in order to do so.

It's not like Morbius doesn't have its own problems, not least that he isn't an especially interesting character to begin with. He laments his fate and broods on rooftops, and frankly it's been done before, a lot. He gets the line 'Don't make me hungry, you won't like me when I'm hungry,' which made me laugh if only for its sheer impudence, but apart from that this is a fairly earnest film populated by dull characters who never do or say anything unexpected, saddled with borderline-inept storytelling: great chunks of exposition are handled by more on-the-nose voice-overs.

The biggest problem is that the film's script serves its structure, rather than vice versa. Stuff happens for no real reason other than to progress the very thin plot – the disposable mercenaries on the freighter is one example of this, Matt Smith's character deciding to go all in on being evil is another. Police check the surveillance cameras in a car park, but apparently not the ones in a hospital. Even the structure itself is not that great – it vaguely reminded me of Josh Trank's reviled Fantastic Four movie, in that watching it I had the odd sense of having missed a big chunk of the story – it seems to have part of the second act missing. Suddenly we were in the final battle of the film and I was genuinely wrong-footed, but not entirely ungrateful.

It probably sounds masochistic of me to say this, but sometimes it's nice when a really bad superhero movie comes along, because it surely makes one appreciate how solidly entertaining the Marvel films usually are just that little bit more. This has a silly story, thin characters that even a good cast can't do much with, too much intrusively garish CGI, and a general refusal to acknowledge its own daftness. Morbius is definitely not of the first rank, and is comfortably quite as bad as the last couple of X-Men movies. The degree to which it succeeds or fails should tell us something interesting about quite how far the magic touch of the Marvel marque extends.

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