Step aside, Bruce Wayne. Make way for the real batman.
He revels in the companionship of bats. Stands ecstatically amid them as they swarm.
He flies. He goes forth at night and uses echolocation, bat radar, to locate his prey. Then he attacks with razor-sharp fangs.
His connection to the creatures is more than skin deep. It’s vein deep, DNA deep. They’re in his blood.
And unlike the Batman, he kills people. And drinks their blood.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Michael Morbius, the so-called Living Vampire.
In a sense, he’s the Marvel Comics answer to DC’s Batman. He’s been fluttering through the Marvel universe since 1971 when he was introduced in a Spider-Man comic book, joining Venom, Carnage, Doc Ock and the Green Goblin in the web-slinger rogue’s gallery of formidable foes.
Spidey is not in “Morbius,” though he’s alluded to in this movie origin story that’s got Jared Leto in the central role.
Leto has some background in playing in the comic-book sandbox, for DC as it happens, having portrayed the Joker in 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” He’s the main event this time around, oozing menace if not charisma as he agonizes through director Daniel Espinosa’s noisy, dreary exploration of the dark side of a very conflicted character.
You think Bruce Wayne has personal issues that make him such a brooding crime fighter? Ha! They’re nothing compared to the demons dogging Morbius. Suffering from a blood disease that’s slowly killing him, he’s a brilliant research scientist (won a Nobel, but then declined it) whose desperate search for a cure has led him to combine human blood with the blood of vampire bats in a powerful serum. And hey, it works. For a while anyway.
Pallid, skeletal and hobbling about on crutches, he’s injected with his lab-derived juice and instantly fills out, muscles up, walks tall and steady. Walks on ceilings. Flies. A miracle! But the serum effect is temporary and quickly reversible, so he needs more and bigger hits. What works even better is the real red stuff walking around in original containers.
It’s a problem because he’s really a good guy who wants to cure people suffering from his ailment. People like his best boyhood pal Milo (Matt Smith, of “Doctor Who” fame). He doesn’t want to do bad, but when the serum is in him he can hardly control himself. And people die. And then he feels just terrible about that. Conflicted!
Milo, on the other hand, steals the serum, and in its thrall gleefully goes on rampages through a frightened Manhattan. Demonic!
Working from a script by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, director Espinosa brings little that’s new to vampire lore. The core dichotomy of the ostensible hero fighting the evil within (the serum) and the evil without (Milo) causes a lot of gnashing of those razor fangs, but it’s oddly uninvolving.
And as is generally the case in Marvel-derived movies, the picture eventually descends into extravagantly overblown special-effects scenes, in this case featuring plenty of airborne vampire-on-vampire violence with Morbius swooping through Manhattan nightscapes trailing computer-generated contrails of lavender and orange in a manner reminiscent of bullet time.
There is a romantic element in all this, with Morbius having fond feelings for his colleague and co-researcher Martine (Adria Arjona). We have to take the movie’s word for that as there is little detectable chemistry between the two.
There’s also little spark in Leto’s performance. It’s the special effects, which hollow his cheeks, lengthen and sharpen his incisors and turn his eyes scarlet, that are the most impressive thing about him. Smith, on the other hand, throws himself avidly into his work, communicating a, uh, biting malevolence and sick glee in his portrayal. The picture only truly comes alive when he’s masticating his scenes. Otherwise, “Morbius” is dead at its center.
By the end, it feels like a teaser-trailer to the inevitable sequel, which features a character from the Spider-Man pictures and promises, perhaps, a livelier ride.