“We have to push the boundaries,” the scientist who looks like a street conjurer cackles. “We have to take risks.”
Now, if I have learnt anything from Frankenstein, The Fly, The Island of Dr Moreau and Re-Animator it is that nothing ever goes wrong when a man in a white coat ventures this sort of hubris. Everything is going to be fine. Jared Leto is going to cure his stubborn blood disease, win over Adria Arjona and settle down quietly in a house by the sea.
Argh! What’s that eating my arm?
Speaking of diabolical plans, there are few so unlikely as Sony’s scheme to build world-conquering franchises from the bits of the Spider-Man Universe that fell out of his suitcase when he ran away from home to become Tom Holland. It would require a top-flight legal boffin to explain who gets to monkey with which characters (a viewing of the current film raises more questions than it answers), but it seems as if Venom, a sort of id-forward Spider-Man, and Morbius, the world’s second most popular bat-related comic-book character, are allowed to exist outside the formal Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The plan is working surprisingly well so far. Neither of the first two Venom films were any good, but they both made mighty fortunes. It may not matter a tad that the incessantly delayed Morbius plays as if it were written with a crayon and edited with a chainsaw. Finally arriving on, by my count, its sixth scheduled release date — suspiciously high even for a Covid-era project — the film need only occupy adjacent Spider-Space to turn a profit.
After an odd prologue that fits awkwardly into the main body, the film takes us back to two ill young boys in a Greek hospital. Dr Jared Harris (always welcome) enters and offers confirmation that their shared complaint is not going anywhere. Michael Morbius is sent to a school for the gifted in New York and gradually becomes Jared Leto. Milo grows up to be rich Matt Smith.
The opening act of this mercifully brief film feels chopped down from a more lucid, but almost certainly more boring first cut. Morbius, now a gifted doctor, reckons doing something with bat blood may lead to a cure. He persuades Milo (I think) to pay for a trial on a big boat named — pay attention, Nosferatu fans – the Murnau and for the hire of various supporting hoodlums. The bat-blood infusion causes our antihero to develop a vampiric split personality. Formerly wan and phlegmy, he now looks as buff, coiffed and primped as that dubious tennis instructor your recently widowed aunt ran off with after the estate cleared. But if he doesn’t get his daily feed of plasma, his cheeks hollow, his teeth sharpen and waves of CG vapour spread round him like the sketched fumes around Johnny Fartpants in Viz.
Where to begin with the issues? Adria Arjona, apparent romantic interest, looks to be going through some of the traumas that Geena Davis’s character endured in The Fly, but the scenes are so sketchy it is hard to say for sure. Maybe she just has a cold. The rapid shift from pre-origin story to full-on vampire wars is nauseatingly jarring. The computer graphics, though undoubtedly expensive, seem no more impressive than those in the average painkiller commercial.
Most ruinously, there is too much Jared and not enough Matt. No harm to Leto, who wears less makeup as a vampire here than he did as a human in House of Gucci, but he appears to be taking the silly role absurdly seriously. It’s not Willy Loman, dude. In contrast Smith, whose character inevitably becomes the baddie, hams and twirls as if preparing for an infinitely more entertaining camp musical. Have at it, man.