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Jared Leto is Marvel's bat-man in the vampiric 'Morbius'

Dr. Michael Morbius aims to cure himself of a debilitating illness, but ends up infecting himself with vampirism.
Sony Pictures
Dr. Michael Morbius aims to cure himself of a debilitating illness, but ends up infecting himself with vampirism.

Marvel's latest onscreen superhero is not, in the conventional sense, either "super" or a "hero," but he does have an unorthodox ailment and a weird skill-set to separate him from mere mortals. His name is Morbius, and while watching his origin story, you may get the feeling that somewhere in the cinematic multiverse, wires got crossed.

The film begins with a helicopter, transporting a cage to the sort of mist-shrouded isle you half expect King Kong to be inhabiting. But Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) is looking to capture smaller game as he approaches the mouth of a cave, hobbling with difficulty on two crutch-like canes.

Positioning himself behind the wires of the cage, he slices open the palm of his hand and, as a roar of batwings echoes from inside the cave, murmurs to the copter pilot "if you're gonna run, do it now."

A rare blood disease treated with a bit o' bat

It's tempting to say "consider yourself warned," but the film's first hour or so, while unremarkable, is decently crafted.

Born with a rare blood disease, Michael Morbius has spent his entire life working on two things — a cure, and origami paper-folding. Natch, it occurs to him to fold together bat and human DNA.

Because the FDA would be unlikely to approve human trials, he and his beautiful co-researcher Martine (Adria Arjona) head in a cargo ship for international waters off the coast of Long Island in the company of eight thuggish mercenaries — think bloodbags — and once Morbius has been injected with bat DNA, it's just a matter of time before things go vampiric.

Let it be said that some side-effects from dabbling in "chiropter-y" are less ghastly than others. Bat DNA evidently gives you great cheekbones and abs to go with increased strength and speed.

Less salutary effects include new fangs that sprout from his gums with decades of decay baked in, and claws that erupt from his fingers pre-filthed. I mean, sure...why not? Except this is a man whose hair has the kind of sheen that comes from brushing it three times a day.

One other thing: he now needs to drink human blood every six hours. Happily, on his way to declining a Nobel Prize, Dr. Morbius invented "artificial blood," though that only fools his system for a while.

Color coded smoke effects for a Jekyll and his Hyde

If you're expecting a conventional Marvel movie, you should be aware going in that what Director Daniel Espinoza and his writers have come up with is more a horror flick with Marvel bells and whistles.

That means Leto's Morbius gets purplish smoke effects to go with those fang-baring snarls as he's riding air currents in subway tunnels, while the similarly afflicted Hyde to his Jekyll – a schoolboy chum played as an adult by an amusingly hopped-up Matt Smith, gets blue-ish vapor trails and snappier lines.

But there isn't much tension to their story. Or logic. At one point, Morbius overhears some counterfeiters passing fake $100s, and commandeers their printing press to make what appears to be an artificial-blood machine — because the technologies for fake-bills and fake-blood match up? Maybe that works better in a comic book.

Bat guys everywhere you look

Speaking of which, when the DC Extended Universe first announced that Twilight star Robert Pattinson would play the lead in The Batman in their corner of the superhero multiverse, it seemed like a nice inside joke — from Vampire-teen to Bat-man. But now that the Marvelverse has Leto going full Dracula, it seems as if the casting maybe could've gone the other way 'round.

Leto is as persuasively haunted by the dark side of vigilantism as Pattinson was, and as a result of corporate positioning, is maybe more determined to avoid being a villain. Not unlike Venom, Morbius was a bad guy when he first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man comics, back in the 1970's. He needs to be at least an anti-hero now, if a franchise is to be built around him.

But bad guy/bat guy...who's to say? As the trailers reveal, another DC bat-guy, Michael Keaton, shows up in his non-batty baddie Marvel persona Adrian Toomes, just to mess with the heads of anyone trying to keep cinematic universes straight.

But bloodlines will have to be clarified in more robust "Morbius" episodes to come, this origin story being merely adequate, and by Marvel standards, slightly anemic.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 30, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
An earlier version of the story said Morbius belongs to Marvel's Cinematic Universe. In fact, it belongs to Sony.
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.