Thanks to the wonders of computer-generated imagery, filmmakers have finally been able to capture on film what was once confined to the pages of Marvel comics. Movie audiences can now convincingly see Spiderman crawl up walls or swing from dizzying heights, and when the Hulk smashes whatever is in his path, viewers not only see it, but feel it.
The Marvel films have been successful in transporting viewers into a physically plausible superhero world because the CGI was anchored to a solid and compelling script. Such is not the case in “Morbius,” Marvel’s latest cinematic entry. The special effects are impressive and the character is convincing as a vampire. But the story is an incomprehensible mess. It is neither a good horror nor good superhero movie.
Because of actor Bela Lugosi’s tuxedoed turn as Dracula in the 1931 film, the still popular image of the vampire is a very human-looking, cultured gentleman whose eyes only turn hypnotic and fangs only protrude when it is feeding time.
Max Schreck’s vampiric turn in the German silent film “Nosferatu” (1922), the first adaption of the Bram Stoker novel, is less well-known, but equally good (with some reviewers even saying it is the best vampire film). The film works because Schreck looks like someone who feeds on human blood, hides from the light, and can shape-shift into a bat.
Indeed, Schreck looks like he brought some bat characteristics with him when he tried to shape-shift back. Rodent-fanged, completely bald, rail-thin, and clawed, with horrifying as opposed to hypnotic eyes, Nosferatu still holds the title of the most terrifying vampire thus far on screen.
Marvel’s Vampire Morbius
Marvel’s contribution to the horror boom of the early 1970s (the comic book publishers have always, in a somehow charming and endearing way, shamelessly capitalized on trends) paid homage to the idea that a vampire would look monstrous by avoiding Lugosi and embracing Schreck with the character Morbius.
Morbius looked like a vampire, not a James Bond with fangs, with his pushed-in, bat-like nose, permanently protruding fangs, hateful red eyes, and chalk-white skin. The only thing that marred the appearance was the typical Marvel spandex costume.
But Marvel did some interesting things with the character. Unlike the typical vampire, Morbius, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist specializing in and suffering from, of course, a blood disorder, willingly became a vampire, but through scientific means (ingesting vampire bat DNA), not from the bite of another vampire.
Morbius’ tragic backstory — he cured his human affliction but is cursed by the cure — generated complexity for readers because he didn’t want to go back to being a diseased human, yet he occasionally hated what he did to survive. Nevertheless, when the fangs hit the throat, Morbius reveled in the feasting.
New Movie Has Good Acting and CGI
Sadly, whatever is interesting about the character hasn’t translated onto screen with Marvel’s latest film, “Morbius.” The interesting actor Jared Leto does his best, letting himself “go” in the vampire scenes. He acts like someone who views human beings as simply “food.” In several key scenes, Leto even rolls his eyes up like a shark digesting a human being, and he afterward looks properly satiated for the moment.
As with the comic, the makers of “Morbius” don’t afflict the vampire with the usual weaknesses. Morbius doesn’t hiss and recoil from the sight of a cross because, unlike other vampires, he doesn’t worship Satan and fear his opposite number.
Cleverly, the film follows this train of thought. As a human, Moribius’ “God” is science, and he has used it to play “God” with himself, with god-like strength and speed as a result. Hence he is a truly powerful, almost impervious vampire.
With the wonders of CGI, the filmmakers convincingly show the powers of a vampire. Leto bolts back and forth with superhuman speed, crushes bones with enhanced strength, merges with vampire bats, and slurps, rather than simply drinks, blood.
But Leto is defeated by the story. Instead of focusing on the key character, the filmmakers, Tim Burton-like, shift attention to the villain. Morbius’s “surrogate brother,” Milo, suffers from the same blood disorder. All that is interesting about Morbius in the comics — the writers’ refusal to pretty up the character — has been transferred over to actor Matt Smith. Smith, as with Leto, does his best, but it isn’t enough to save a soggy script.
The biggest problem is that the filmmakers try to shoehorn what is essentially a tragic horror movie into your standard Marvel movie, with clearly identified heroes and villains. What made the Marvel comic characters and their adaptations on screen unique was they were treated as humans wracked with inhibitions (pre-“Winter Soldier,” Captain America had “survivor’s guilt” about him making it through the war and not Bucky) and weaknesses (Tony Stark’s alcoholism) but did the right thing anyway. Marvel zeroed in what was most appealing about superheroes and what made them super: instead of lining their pockets with their powers, they selflessly fought evil.
But the vampire film, even when it tries to attach a tragic backstory, never has been able to present a character that lives on human blood as any kind of hero. This was a problem not even the “Blade” movies could solve.
Thus the writers are clearly confused about what kind of film they are trying to make. The story zigs and zags, with too many characters and a reliance on too many whiz-bang fight scenes (by now, characters flying into each other is beyond cliché). As a result — pardon the expression — the movie has no heart. One is left to wonder if the filmmakers knew they had a bad story and thought CGI would save the film.
Typically, the film is set up to be a sequel, or an insertion into the Marvel Universe, as Morbius was first introduced in a Spiderman comic. If so, the filmmakers need to go back to the drawing board and realize that for a film, even a vampire one, to work, it has to have a solid, comprehensible story.