Morbius has happened now. It has commenced. It seems to more-or-less fit the legal definition of a movie, and even the basic structure. We all thought it was a fake movie because of its marketing, but it’s real (again, by the strictest legal definition). Where Sony’s Venom films reflect an early-2000s superhero sensibility—leaning into the wackiness with Tom Hardy spending two hours every couple of years arguing with a CGI alien version of himself—Morbius has some of that same vibe, but self-seriously. This might not be a problem on its own if the film didn’t crumble in our hands like a comic book kept in a basement, damaged in a flood and left in the backyard to be destroyed by the ravages of nature. Morbius represents Sony’s ongoing attempt to make a shared film universe with Spider-Man side characters, an edgy exercise in waste and futility that’s greatest merit is that it is artistically distinct from the MCU.
Because of the complicated corporate rights around Spider-Man, Sony gets to make movies with the character and his rogues gallery. Besides the Disney collaborations which see Tom Holland’s Spider-Man swing through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these include the universe-jumping cartoon Into the Spider-Verse—which is quite possibly the best superhero film ever made—and its upcoming sequel Across the Spider-Verse (Part One). Separate from both is the recent push to turn a group of Spider-Man villains (where a group of crows is a “murder,” a group of six Spider-Man villains is a “Sinister Six”) into antiheroes. This works well with Venom; sweaty ‘90s edgelord villain that he was, he’s an icon that people are interested in. You could conceivably bring in a character like Kraven the Hunter or Vulture (more on him in a minute) because they’ve got name recognition brought about through some combination of comics, cartoons and games for people to be interested. You can also include Morbius, who I mostly know as a Blade villain that showed up in the ‘90s Spider-Man cartoon for a crossover episode but who, by all accounts, nobody cares about.
As of right now, I have no reason to believe Morbius has fans. Morbius is so unimportant that he doesn’t have a brigade of people supporting the movie just because he’s in it, which almost always happens in the world of corporate fandom. It appears to be the rare instance where the disparate impulses of critical Film Twitter, MCU stan Twitter and DCEU stan Twitter have coalesced to celebrate a failure. Morbius might not have been a great choice for a solo movie based around name recognition, he’s surely a fine choice based on premise. “Mad scientist fighting a terminal disease becomes a vampire” is engaging enough. It’s all about execution, and the execution failed.
While you can read the specifics of Morbius’s failures in Paste’s review, I’m more interested in how this critical panning bodes for Sony’s Spider-Man-adjacent universe. The film has two credit scenes explaining that Michael Keaton’s Vulture (the villain of Spider-Man: Homecoming) arrived in this world from the MCU through the realities-spanning central event of the Spider-Man: No Way Home plot. He appears to ask Morbius to start a team with some other guys, to “do some good.” It is unclear from this film, the Venom movies and Spider-Man: Homecoming what shared interest or goals these characters might have, but that will likely be explored in the team-up movie…if it happens.
This would-be team-up isn’t helped by the fact that Morbius and the character’s future hangs on the performance of self-proclaimed cult leader and alleged sex pest Jared Leto, who won an Oscar for portraying a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club and most recently pulled off the rare “Is this racist against Italians?” performance in House of Gucci. The Method acting devotee (“a particularly American disease,” in the words of Brian Cox) gifted Margot Robbie a live rat on the set of Suicide Squad, and now he’s starred in what might be the worst Marvel movie of the 21st century, which feels really specific until you realize there are more than 30 between no less than four studios. Would you believe that Leto’s acting style also caused problems for the production itself? Of course you would.
According to director Daniel Espinosa—who has made good films and was very gracious about both studio involvement and Leto’s method—Leto would limp around on crutches to fully embody his character’s disabilities…even during bathroom breaks. They subsequently took forever and slowed down production. While Leto’s reputation makes this unsurprising, it is nonetheless disturbing; the star of the film is holding up the making of said film to make a scene. Espinosa doesn’t outright judge what brings out performances for his actors, but it reads like immature antics that are insensitive to actual people with disabilities for the sake of appearing dedicated. Having people wheel you around as a compromise to save time isn’t showing dedication, it’s demanding that others take extra steps to accommodate a misunderstanding of Method acting. This might be easier to swallow if it resulted in a captivating performance or a good movie. Because it does neither, we end up confronted with the stereotypical prima donna self-importance of actors thrust in our faces without anything behind it. Leto is expressing his commitment to his work and his willingness to suffer (or pretend to suffer) for it, but he comes across—as in House of Gucci and Suicide Squad—as a hack.
The response to Morbius inspires questions of where this leaves the larger “Sinister Six” project. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (formerly Pietro Maximoff in Age of Ultron) is set to star in a standalone movie as Kraven the Hunter next year. Venom made eight times its budget and its sequel made five times its budget during the pandemic, so it seems likely that Tom Hardy is safe to return at some point. Perhaps in this case, it’s a matter of the whole film feeling stapled together, including the credits scenes that tie Michael Keaton into the story. Besides his appearances after the movie has already ended, the only indication of a relationship between these Spidey stories was in the marketing, and in Al Madrigal’s Agent Rodriguez vaguely referencing something happening in San Francisco (the setting of Venom). I can understand why Disney’s rivals think they need to put together a multifilm connected continuity to compete, but besides the fact that the process further serializes a medium more fit to standalone stories, they keep desperately rushing the process instead of building it. Universal’s monster-movie Dark Universe died after the unsuccessful Mummy, Zach Snyder’s vision is no longer part of DC’s plans (though they paid him to reshoot and recut Justice League rather than going forward with a pair of Ava DuVernay and James Wan films), and it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s happening with this version of the Sony Spider-Man Universe.
Picking Jared Leto as a pillar of this would-be crossover franchise was a mistake because he engenders controversy that makes a film potentially polarizing without necessarily delivering the sort of remarkable performance he’s just assumed to produce. I’ve heard very little about last year’s The Little Things and 2018’s The Outsider was widely panned. Maybe Leto was simply chosen in the first place because he’s weird. His creepy performance as Niander Wallace in Blade Runner 2049 and the associated short film are some of his best recent work. It seems strange that you have to go back four to nine years to find the last performance by him that people remember fondly, but he got an Oscar for one of those, so I guess the fact that he’s handsome with weird energy means he’ll keep showing up, being weird on set for the cause of bad-to-middling movies forever—or at least until someone produces the cure for Leto fever, which hopefully doesn’t involve any ethically questionable genetic experimentation.
Although Leto is replaceable if Sony wants to hold onto the character—like Disney did by swapping Ed Norton’s Hulk out for Mark Ruffalo—his selection in the first place exemplifies the thinking surrounding this multiverse concept. The acknowledged reality is that calling something a superhero movie and tying it to a more popular IP (like Spider-Man) means it is likely to make money. However, if the actual product under-delivers on financial projections after being critically panned because of bad writing and editing that looks like the result of producer notes, the shared universe will collapse. In just a short time, we already have multiple examples of this.
After the success of The Batman, Warner Bros has made the startling decision with their DC comics adaptations to trust filmmakers to tell stories first and foremost. WB President and CCO Tony Emmerich cited “quality” as more important than shared continuity in superhero films, which he said, “don’t have to all have the same tone, or interlock […] or have an Easter egg that sets up another film.” [Editor’s note: The Batman sadly does have an annoying cameo that sets up another film.] Perhaps these are things Sony should consider. Whatever the collective audience impact of superhero fatigue, Hollywood is a copycat league and companies try to replicate one another’s successes. If Sony-Marvel intends to act as a counter to Disney-Marvel, they had better start by making a good movie, and not assume audiences will like something because it’s related to something else.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.