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'Morbius' underwhelms

Jared Leto injects himself with actual bat DNA in 'Morbius.' Photo credit: Sony Pictures

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All those movie Batmen have the impressive costumery, and in some cases the cool, bat-based toys, and those pricey Batcave living quarters, and sometimes there are even some actual bats hovering about - but as far as I can recall, none of 'em has ever injected himself with actual bat DNA like Dr. Michael Morbius. I mean, talk about a guy who has earned the twisted right to call himself Batman! 

But he's not The Batman, he's the titular character of Morbius, a second-tier MCU movie with some interesting performances and a few flashes of inspiration that unfortunately never go deeper than superficial storytelling and grow increasingly tiresome over the relatively brief running time (1 hour, 48 minutes) before it reaches a predictable, underwhelming conclusion. (Even the two brief mid-credits scenes teasing the further adventures of Morbius are less than stirring.) 

Jared Leto, who has never met an accent, a wig, a prosthetic, a dramatic weight loss or a Method role he couldn't sink his teeth into, actually plays it somewhat straightforward and grounded as Michael Morbius, a brilliant scientist who invented an artificial blood "that has saved more lives than penicillin," or so we're told at a Nobel Prize ceremony.

Looking like he's been pounding at death's door since last winter, Michael is suffering from a rare and fatal blood disease, and despite the financial backing of his lifelong friend, Milo (Matt Smith), who has the same condition, Michael has been unable to come up with a cure - and time is running out for the both of them.

Cue the bats! As Michael explains to his longtime associate and potential love interest, Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), certain types of bats are the only creatures that can survive by consuming only blood, so if Morbius injects himself with vampire bat DNA, maybe that'll fix him up real good! (Man, I don't know. Even the likes of Seth Brundle from The Fly and Dr. Norman Osborn aka Green Goblin might think that was a bat-bleep crazy idea.) 

With Milo's backing, Michael builds a lab on a tanker that will sail international waters off the East Coast (what with this process being illegal and all), with Martine on board to aid with the experiment and a bunch of armed henchmen along for the ride in case things go awry. 

Spoiler alert: Things go awry. 

Within moments of receiving the injection, Michael is transformed into a howling, fanged, clawed, bloodthirsty beast who wreaks havoc before jumping off the ship and returning to New York City. (The Northern Quarter in Manchester, England, doubles for New York, but there's never a certain sense of place and time about this film. It seems self-contained and smallish. We never get the sense the good people of New York are truly interconnected with "The Vampire Murderer," the lackluster term assigned to Michael by the tabloid press.) 

Michael's transformation and subsequent periodical returns to normal human form seem more wolfmanlike than vampiric, as he doesn't have the usual aversion to sunlight, fear of garlic or holy water, etc., etc. For the time being, Michael is able to sustain himself on artificial blood, but the window in which he remains human is tightening, meaning it's only a matter of time before he'll have to resort to guzzling the real deal. 

Ah, but Michael's old friend Milo has no such moral qualms. Against Michael's warnings, Milo has injected himself with the vampire bat DNA - and he immediately turns into a killing machine who embraces his role as a super-sucking super-villain. Dancing about with a hairdo and wardrobe that conjures up images of David Bowie in his "Let's Dance" period, bellowing statements such as "I am resurrected," Smith as Milo gives a terrifically over-the-top performance - but there's never any explanation for why Michael would be so conflicted and torn about his transformation, whereas Milo would suddenly turn into a psychopath. He seemed like a really good guy before he, you know, shot up bat DNA. 

The great Jared Harris does what he can with an underwritten role as Emil Nikols, the obligatory Kindly Mentor to both Milo and Michael, while Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal are stuck playing cynical, bantering NYPD detectives who ask questions straight out of the Law & Order playbook and are always showing up at the scene of the crime and shaking their heads at the carnage. 

As for the action sequences: When Morbius flies around the city, he often leaves a smoky trail of blue or orange in his wake, like a gender reveal where they ordered the wrong colors, and the big finale is shot in dizzying close-ups, edited in headache-inducing fashion and is often murky. It looks like Morbius might soon cross paths with Spider-Man in one universe or another, but that would be a big step up for him, because his introductory vehicle feels more like a just-average 1990s vampire movie.


Two stars

Jared Leto, Adria Arjona and Jared Harris

Daniel Espinosa

PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, some frightening images, and brief strong language

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