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The triumph of intellectual property over storytelling

In the land of mass entertainment, intellectual property is king. Audiences flock to the familiar, and studios give name brands the highest priority. Franchises dominate multiplex screens, with writers reporting that studios aren’t even interested in hearing pitches that don’t involve existing IP. Disney has made IP exploitation into a science, dropping reliably okay entertainment at a rapid clip via Marvel, Star Wars, and the rest. Other studios, like Warner Brothers with DC Comics, produce higher highs and lower lows, but they’re all chasing the same, reliable profit stream. 

Sitting in a weird place is Sony Pictures. Outside of a few wannabe franchises of diminishing returns, Sony doesn’t have much to call its own. Its biggest brand, James Bond, was only at Sony, for a time, through a now-expired deal with MGM. But the studio also has the Spider-Man movie rights, through a similar deal with Marvel (subsequently purchased by Disney) made before the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a juggernaut. Thus, Sony is desperately clinging to its slice of the most popular pie in the world. In order to prevent Disney from reclaiming those rights, it must keep making films using them. And shared universes are in right now.

This is the practice that gave us Morbius, a film far more interested in perpetuating intellectual property rights than in telling a story.

Sony’s pickle is that Spider-Man, as a solo hero, doesn’t have the sidekick roster of a Batman or rotating teammates of the X-Men: so in order to keep producing content, it must dive into the rogues gallery and make movies about villains. This worked, perhaps improbably, with 2018’s Venom, based on one of the few Spider-Man villains to ever successfully go solo. Michael Morbius, aka the Living Vampire, is a character so far down the villain totem pole that the very announcement of the project garnered snickers from fans instead of excitement.

Morbius is a blood guy: a blood scientist with a blood disease who won a Nobel Prize for inventing synthetic blood. Attempting to cure his illness, he takes a serum derived from vampire bat DNA, which does cure him—and grants him all the powers of a bat, speaking extremely loosely—at the cost (as ominously foreshadowed by his sole colleague) of needing to feed on blood every six hours or so. A vampire origin story sieved through a superhero origin story.

What’s unique about the Venom films is the bizarre, infectious passion with which star and co-writer Tom Hardy approaches the role. Hardy leans into the silliness, to the point that the sequel plays like an ‘80s body-switch rom-com. Morbius is just as silly, but without an ounce of intent. Its lead character is inherently less original or unique, and this incarnation is self-serious to a fault. Hiring Jared Leto—an actor so groaningly ‘Method’ he reportedly slowed down production due to hobbling around as his chronically ill character even on bathroom breaks—doesn’t help. At least Matt Smith as Milo, Morbius’ friend, funder, and ultimately foe, preens and prances delightfully once he becomes a vampire; at least Smith is having fun. Jared Leto is physiologically incapable of having fun, and the resultant film feels more drained of life than Morbius’ own victims.

That is, if Morbius had any victims to speak of. Sony wants to build out its universe of Spider-Man villains, and definitely wants them to team up against Spider-Man in the future, but it also wants a slate of sub-franchises in their own right. These characters can’t be too heroic, as we’ll need to cheer against them in their inevitable Spider-Man face-off, and can’t be too villainous, lest we fail to cheer for them in their own sequels. Venom is weird enough to make this work, and even makes this dilemma part of the text by literally fusing a mild-mannered reporter with a flesh-eating alien. Morbius tries to have its blood and suck it too, but ends up doing neither.

Morbius does kill a handful of people upon his initial transformation, causing a freighter to arrive in port as a ghost ship (in the film’s sole nod to Dracula, which extends to naming the boat after Nosferatu director FW Murnau). However, the film insists that these victims were mercenaries and thugs who basically deserved it. After that, Morbius drinks not a single drop of human blood. Very odd behaviour for a vampire, and extremely odd for a character who is traditionally a villain. Yet the film must remain dark and gritty, so Morbius constantly warns of his desire to kill, screaming melodramatically that he ‘can’t control’ his thirst, when all he needs to do is slurp down a juice box of fake blood every few hours. This extends to a ridiculous extreme when a mid-film murder is pinned on Morbius, and he tells the cops he can’t tell them ‘why he did it’—in spite of the fact he straight-up didn’t do it. The film simply needs us to believe he might have, so as to sell a twist a few minutes later. Absolutely nothing about it makes sense.

Morbius represents a triumph of plot and IP over story and drama. There’s too much to contain in a single review. Constantly taking the dumbest, shortest, most blatant path to its next plot point, the film creates the illusion of entertainment through incomprehensible action and overused CGI makeup and particle effects, while choppy editing drains the suspense, like blood, from any attempt made at horror. Storylines disappear midway through. Scenes play out seemingly out of order. Internal logic evaporates on a regular basis. Insane happenings are treated as matter-of-fact by characters, and montage covers far too many story beats not to arise suspicion. To make an educated guess, Morbius was hacked to pieces in post-production. To make another, it’s all due to putting the franchise cart before the character horse. Daniel Espinosa is not a bad director—his sci-fi thriller Life was effectively suspenseful—but the director is never in charge of a film like this. It’s all about the IP.

Morbius is built entirely off the back of other movies—and not just in its borderline legally actionable rehashes of Batman Begins. It ceaselessly winks to the audience about its place in the Marvel universe—there’s a Daily Bugle, references to Venom (though without the punchline shown in trailers that makes the joke even work), a riff on the Hulk’s catchphrase, and plenty of vague references to superheroics being normal. It also wants to build more movies: the lurching, abrupt ending threatens a sequel with yet another vampire (this one’s a girl!), not to mention the inevitable villain team-up against Spider-Man, who is brought up exclusively in desperate and baffling post-credit scenes—likely the products of an extremely hasty reshoot.

The truly depressing thing about Morbius is that all the pieces are there for a solid movie, if not a particularly original one. Vampirism as addiction metaphor isn’t anything new, but Morbius could easily have become a film specifically about the opioid crisis and Big Pharma. Perhaps it was intended that way at some point: Morbius can subsist on the synthetic blood, but its potency period shortens over time, turning his disease into a kind of withdrawal symptom—only pure, uncut human blood can give him the high he craves. Throughout the film, there are signs of storylines cut, ideas abandoned. This was never going to be a masterpiece, but had the studio concentrated on telling a story rather than shuffling around pieces on a release-schedule chessboard, it could’ve been at least a little interesting.

Morbius’ final gambit—injecting the villain with a toxin that ‘to bats, is lethal; to humans, deadly’—is set up with the promise that he’ll use a second vial on himself, preventing any further civilian deaths at his hands. But Morbius hasn’t caused any civilian deaths, because he needs to carry a sequel. And he’s sure as shit not gonna die, because he needs to carry a sequel. But rather than giving him some kind of moral about-face, that entire thread is simply dropped. The toxin is forgotten about, and Morbius remains alive to digitally grimace another day. 

Pity.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Andrew Todd is a multidisciplinary creator and consultant from New Zealand, with a long history of work for stage, screen, and the internet. His debut feature film was Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws; his next one will be better.

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