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Morbius sucks the fun out of the vampire story

Jared Leto’s latest asks, “What if vampires just wanted to study all the time?”

Jared Leto as the character Morbius in a chemistry lab.
Jared Leto is a vampire in STEM, in Morbius.
Courtesy of Sony
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Over the last two very long years, nothing has been made more clear than the fact that the world we live in is devoid of constants. We know that the reality we say good night to when we go to bed could look drastically different — war, disease, climate change, death — by morning.

Yet somehow, against all odds, the Morbius trailer has endured.

Lurking before movies we actually pay to see in theaters, in between our favorite television shows, on our computers and in our phones pressed up against the YouTube videos we procrastinate with, the Morbius trailer has become an inevitability in many of our lives. This state of eternally “coming soon” was due to the numerous delays the movie has faced.

Originally, Morbius was supposed to premiere in July of 2020, but was moved to March 2021, and then to October 2021, and finally April 2022. If Morbius was a person you were supposed to have a date with who kept postponing, at this point you’d both agree to just forget the other existed.

But Morbius is not a person, it is a superhero movie about a “living vampire” from the Marvel comic books, currently owned and heavily invested in by Sony Pictures — the studio behind the current Spider-Man and Venom movies. And because of film rights and intellectual property, it’s much more difficult and expensive to disappear Morbius.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa and starring Jared Leto and his ageless face, Morbius asks the question: What if vampires weren’t fun? After 144 minutes of Morbius dimming the spark of my life force, I found the soulless answer.

From its very first moment, Morbius seems a lot more fun than it will ever turn out to be. Michael Morbius is a genius doctor who has assembled a team of unnamed characters to travel, by helicopter, to Costa Rica’s Cerro de la Muerte, which translates into English as “The Mountain of Death.” We do not get much more information on how much killing the mountain has done. However, we do learn that Morbius is trying to capture a bunch of vampire bats to take home with him to New York City. He slices his palm open, blood drips down, and thousands of bats come shooting out of the cave trying to lick his pale little hand.

It’s all egregiously silly when you start to realize that this is a never-ending stream of bats and that there’s no logical way that the swarm will all fit into Morbius’s tiny suitcase. Also, do vampire bats really swarm and frenzy like piranha? How is Morbius going to get through customs with literally tens of thousands of winged piranha? Does he have a plan to feed them? And if Morbius is apparently wealthy enough to go to Murder Mountain, Costa Rica, via private helicopter, why isn’t he outsourcing his bat problems? Doing things yourself is not a very smart or rich person thing to do.

Jared Leto gets a little batty in Morbius.
Courtesy of Sony

The actual explanation of his intentions with all these bats is a lot less entertaining — a letdown when you consider how campy this adventure is and how fun its cinematic cousins are.

After his bat procurement trip, Morbius’s fellow doctor and potential love interest Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona) wants to know why he’s shunned the King of Sweden and the Nobel Prize, and why and how he managed to install a large glass pillar full of bats in the middle of their office.

With exposition, flashbacks, and monologue masquerading as a conversation, Morbius explains to her that he has a terminal blood disease (something she presumably knows since she has been working with him for a very long time) and that he’s turned down the highest medical prize in the world and snubbed Sweden’s king because he needs to do secret, presumably illegal bat research. He’s hoping to find a cure for his own blood disease, not only for himself but his childhood best friend Milo (Matt Smith).

Morbius thinks he can cure his condition by sequencing vampire bat DNA. He explains this by spending an extremely inappropriate length of time repeating the word “coagulants.” This monologue was presumably written to prove the character is Very Smart, but the overall effect is not unlike listening to someone try to get you to invest in cryptocurrency.

Bancroft, mind you, just wanted to scold her coworker for rejecting the Nobel Prize, but after the scintillating dissertation on coagulants, she seems really convinced that rejecting the once-in-a-lifetime prize was the right thing to do. She doesn’t follow up with any questions about who installed the giant bat-quarium in their office.

With the insinuation that human-bat DNA splicing is illegal in the US, Morbius explains to Milo and Bancroft, separately, that the experiment must be done in secrecy and in international waters. The international waters in question end up being a Panamanian cargo ship 12 miles off the coast of Long Island.

One would think that a man who has just brought tens of thousands of blood-sucking bats into the US and installed a bat sanctuary without his coworker noticing would be competent enough at keeping secrets, but maybe Morbius just wants to be extra careful. Obviously, one doesn’t win a Nobel Prize by being careless. Compared to the great lengths that Morbius went to to reach Costa Rica’s Cerro de la Muerte, a jaunty sprint to the waters just beyond Fire Island seems a little silly, comical even.

But the movie finds no humor in it.

In the bowels of the Panamanian cargo vessel, the experiment goes too well! The bat juice cures Morbius’s illness and somehow also gives him muscles and a tan. For a fleeting moment, Morbius looks like a sexy Jesus. Unfortunately, the bat potion also turns Morbius into a bloodthirsty bat-man, gnarling his fingers into huge claws, sharpening his face and nose into a snout, and twisting his mouth into a howling maw of fangs. In this form, he murders and exsanguinates his hired mercenaries on the rented Panamanian cargo ship.

No doubt, turning oneself into an horrendous-looking bat person who must consume fresh human blood is arguably the biggest oopsie that a Nobel Prize-winning doctor genius has ever committed.

Morbius’s gimmick is that Morbius is now essentially a vampire, but without any tether to existing mythology. He’s not bothered by daylight or garlic, nor does he have aversions to Catholic iconography. But he is biologically bound to blood-drinking.

If Morbius consumes blood, he can maintain his hot and sexy human form and possess superhuman strength and speed. Morbius also says the bat-juice has given him echolocation, which is depicted as being able to hear conversations from miles away. If he doesn’t consume blood, he turns into the uncontrollable, screeching creature, and becomes a danger to everyone around him.

I’m not sure I would attribute super strength or speed to bats, nor am I fully convinced that echolocation means being a really good eavesdropper (traditionally, it’s being able to use sound to identify the location of objects). That said, I’m not a chiropterologist, i.e., a scientist who studies bats, a term I had to Google. If the movie takes some generous liberties when it comes to bat physiology, sure, fine.

Jared Leto’s Michael Morbius isn’t a real vampire because he can do things like get coffee in the daytime.
Courtesy of Sony

Morbius’s greater fault is that it cleaves away the vampire mythology without replacing that mythology with anything fun, new, or particularly interesting.

Vampire stories are compelling in part because they try to examine the wrinkles of human life — power, rage, horniness, sadness, nostalgia, love — to anchor the relatively abstract idea of eternity. The appeal of being sexy, rich, or powerful fades when you’re doing it all forever. A lot of vampire tales complicate the problem of taking on a fairly reprehensible form of being by ensuring their bloodsuckers are intoxicatingly charismatic. Without all his charm, Dracula would just be kind of gross and boring, a bigger, more annoying mosquito — not unlike Morbius.

Instead of using his new muscles to take thirst traps, bench press cars, or even fight crime, Morbius piously uses these gifts to study aggressively. Imagine being so scorchingly beautiful and strong, and just wanting to research for all eternity. Couldn’t be me.

He dictates all his symptoms into a recording device. He writes all of his findings into a notebook. He uses a stopwatch to time how long he can last before needing to consume blood — the artificial blood Morbius invented keeps him sustained, but organic, free-range human blood makes him stronger. Without any explanation, Morbius’s preferred method of blood consumption is shotgunning bags of blood like someone intent on obliterating their brain cells with cheap beer, another moment that would be funny in any movie other than Morbius.

At the same time, Milo sees his bestie’s glow-up and bat-fueled fitness journey and wants in.

Milo doesn’t want to die. Milo also wants to be hot. Milo, furthermore, wants to drink tequila and live deliciously. Milo is honestly a lot more fun, if rooted in impulsiveness, which results in the murders of finance bros and cops (if the movie were the slightest bit aware of who it was skewering, I would call this satire). Milo’s rising body count puts the city on alert for a “vampire murderer” which seems hilariously redundant, but nonetheless puts Morbius in the uncomfortable position of asserting his innocence and dispatching his fanged friend.

With a lack of humor and deadly exposition, Morbius propels itself into an absolutely wild third act, perhaps the unintentionally silliest finish I’ve seen this year.

Because the movie squanders so much time setting up coagulants, international waters, and bat DNA, Morbius must defeat his childhood best friend and share an erotically violent kiss with his doctor lover in rapid succession to wrap this entire thing up. The five minutes or so in which this all happens borders on psychotic; I found myself hollering an obscene and inhuman hoot — a gurgling death rattle from the last vestiges of my sanity.

Primed by the culmination of two years of Morbius trailers or spending the better part of an hour and a half watching Jared Leto slurp down blood bags like a college freshman, I could not believe Morbius was really all wrapping up like this. But deep down I knew this couldn’t actually be the end of Morbius because superhero franchises, like vampires, never really die. It dawned on me that there’s probably going to be a sequel, or some tie-in; that this horrendous thing was maybe just really the beginning. Soon enough, we may find ourselves haunted by another trailer.