Studio executives don’t understand memes, and they really ought to accept as much. 2006’s Snakes on a Plane was a long-winded lesson in why things the internet thought were funny can still translate into weary slogs long before they hit the 100-minute-mark. Yes, fans lobbied successfully for Samuel L. Jackson to exclaim his weariness of the matriarch-loving serpents aboard an ill-fated flight into LAX. No, it didn’t make the film any less mother-fucking tedious.
Snakes on a Plane never lived up to its promises of campy absurdity because it was ultimately a piece of risk-averse cinema by committee. Chucking in a line birthed from internet message boards was only a cynical attempt to have it appeal to a wider audience without addressing that.
Almost two decades later, the ‘minds’ behind Marvel’s hulking summer stinker, Morbius, thought they’d try a similar tack. The film had deservingly tanked in cinemas earlier in 2022, but it had seemingly captured the imagination of one absurdist corner of the internet.
With hordes of sarcastic trolls labelling the coming months the “Summer of Morbius” (as if this summer weren’t disastrous enough), a pastiche catchphrase soon caught on in the world of memes. Ripping off The Thing’s famous line from Fantastic Four, the popularity of this seemed to convince distributor Sony that it was indeed, “Morbin’ time.”
Sony decided to push Morbius back into theatres to cash in on the ‘so bad, it’s good’ infamy. Launching into full How Do You Do, Fellow Kids? mode, the company rolled out a ‘teaser video’ for a sequel to Morbius, in which backwards-cap-wearing 50-year-old Jared Leto is caught reading a script. Its name? Morbius 2: It’s Morbin Time.
The only aspect of the stunt to actually favour Sony was that Leto’s performance in the film itself seemed more energetic and believable by comparison. Not that anyone who saw the meme would have found that out. According to Forbes, while Morbius re-released in 1,037 theatres for the first weekend of June, it only took $300,000 over the weekend. That’s roughly $289 per theatre. It is safe to say the dozens of viewers per cinema were not the masses Sony had hoped would be Morbin’ along with the joke.
Not only did the film manage to bomb a second time, though, it managed to add another casualty to its body count. Sadly, this was not Leto’s career. No, instead, the global internet declared the Morbin’ time meme to be officially dead. By interfering with the process, trying to engineer its own cult status (something which usually takes decades for a trash-fire production to achieve organically) it had destroyed any chance of it. Cult movie cults don’t work if their producers are in on it, lazily claiming a perverse kind of plaudit for their shoddy creative output.
Hollywood executives live in an untouchable, air-conditioned bubble – funded entirely by the rest of us, who occasionally scrape together enough for admission while we aren’t starving in obscurity. Schadenfreude is a precious commodity in that regard, because it gives us a rare opportunity to enjoy something at their expense. But Sony insisting on being in on it and trying to market it was a perceivably cynical move that snuffed out the chance of laughing at their shortcomings.
Not that I believe Morbius would have become a cult hit anyway, even in decades to come. Lovers of the B-movie know full well that the most enjoyable trash is the stuff that has ideas beyond its station. In contrast, Morbius doesn’t seem to have any ideas at all.
A plot-by-the-numbers story rolls out a quickfire procession of clichés to get us where we need to be for an action set-piece to ensue. While this might describe a number of more successful action films, there are so many clichés, which contradict and convolute each other, that the run-time seemingly slows to a crawl. Meanwhile, the ‘action’ such as it is, consists largely of two angry blurs mashing into each other, while bellowing about how much they love or hate eating people. It’s all the sensory, motor and verbal disturbance a migraine aura might bring; but in place of the throbbing pain that at least reminds you that you’re still alive, there’s instead an alarming numbness suggestive of some worse malady.
Just so you don’t need to subject yourself to the film, here’s what happens
Michael Morbius is a gravely ill, maverick scientist, who has invented synthetic blood. While that helps a lot of people, it does nothing for his rare condition. A young girl in his care also has this disease, and her need inspires him to go above and beyond the call of duty, until she vanishes from the film when her plot strand becomes a nuisance.
Aware he is running out of time for both of them, he sources some vampire bats, and in true Marvel-science style, decides the best course of action is to fuse their DNA with his. As such, he becomes the latest in a long line of Spider-man ‘villains’ to have gone ‘bad’ by trying to improve life for disabled people. The bastard…
Infused with bat-blood, Morbius is transformed into a living vampire. Which seems to mean that his bone-structure is made of a liquid that means he can transform into some monstrous bat-creature at will. In the comics, it seems that Morbius’ transformation was permanent – meaning his pointy teeth and upturned nose did not morph back to ‘normal’ when he wanted to romance a lab technician over a cup of coffee. But presumably the filmmakers were so convinced by Jared Leto’s desirability to audiences that they had to change this, to gift us his usual appearance.
Fortunately, Morbius is able to sate his bestial thirst by drinking the synthetic blood he conveniently invented. Unfortunately, Milo, his childhood friend who happens to have the same degenerative disorder, finds out about the ‘cure’. He steals it and becomes unstoppable, because it turns out that drinking the real McCoy makes for more powerful vampirism. Until that plot strand becomes a nuisance, and the movie realises it needs to end, so Morbius summons the entire world’s population of bats to form a gigantic fist, and punch his old friend into submission.
Along the way, my mind fleetingly wonders what might have been, if some moderately more interesting options had been explored on the way to this pedestrian conclusion. Morbius’ initial transformation takes place on board a criminal ship in international waters – the only place his experiments could be allowed. It harks back to Dracula, and his eventual arrival on a deserted ship in Whitby. What if after Morbius’ first transformation, the film became a survival horror? What if the remainder of the film saw us attached to one of the goons trapped on the vessel as his colleagues are picked off one by one?
What if the film did not begin there at all? What if instead, the camera is embedded with the two detectives trying to discern what happened? And what if, rather than being absurdly ready to assume a real vampire was attacking New York after one body turned up, because the movie’s ridiculous rate of exposition can’t allow them time to process the situation like a normal person, the detectives had to work through several layers of disbelief?
What if the film covered an industrial accident? Morbius is keeping hundreds of trafficked vampire bats without permits (which is extremely illegal) in his lab – but seemingly everyone at his hospital can just wander in and out as they please. He warns his main assistant not to get too close to them. But every other man and his dog traipsing through the premises is never made aware – so what if this film became a courtroom drama about a negligent employer and the fate of his poor medical Renfields?
Its hard to imagine any of those options would have been less entertaining than the tedious going-through-the-motions that Morbius actually supplies. Indeed, if someone were to view a pirated download of this film, there might be various points at which a Turkish crypto-currency fraudster would insert adverts for its products into the film. These might include scenes of a bank robbery, and armed thugs threatening to cut someone in two with a buzzsaw. And that person, whoever they are, would probably have found those snippets of insanity significantly more engaging than the film itself.
Not that I advocate piracy, obviously. It’s not a victimless crime – especially when it inflicts a film this poorly made on somebody.
To conclude: when in 10 years you consider whether you might make Morbius the next film your crap movie club watches, I pray you remember the movie so dull it killed its own meme. Do not resuscitate.