You know what I'd like to see? I'd like to see a movie where Jared Leto turns into a better actor.
Meantime there's "Morbius," where Leto plays not Batman but a man who turns into a bat man, vampire blood coursing through veins that manage to over- and under-act simultaneously.
In the space between those words "bat" and "man" lies every indulgent, go-nowhere, unmotivated pause favored by Leto, who won an Academy Award for "Dallas Buyers Club." Leto is not untalented. He has talent. But he favors a peculiarly enervating brand of intensity, deserving of its own two-word variation. It's intense. In an itty way.
And "Morbius" is an itty sort of Marvel movie, from Sony and Columbia, a little "Doctor Strange" drenched with gallons of "Venom." Early in the movie the character of Dr. Michael Morbius, introduced originally in a 1971 "Amazing Spider-Man" comic story line, turns down his Nobel Prize for inventing artificial blood and saving countless lives. The discovery was accidental, he reasons. The film, just this side of an R-rated melee, is one big fake blood squib.
Struggling with a rare blood disorder, Dr. M copters into Costa Rica to subject himself to a caveful of vampire bats. His research suggests a blend of human and bat DNA will cure him, and he'll be able to save his similarly afflicted childhood friend nicknamed "Milo" (played by Matt Smith of "Doctor Who") as he promised him years earlier.
Aided by his research colleague and sort-of love interest Dr. Bancroft (Adria Arjona, the best thing in the picture), Dr. M sees his radical experiment through to the end. It does not go well, though transforming into a vampire has its perks: "bat radar," aka supersensitive hearing, along with being able to fly like a bat. Here, with the most generic digital effects a medium-sized big budget can buy, the flying scenes have been rendered to look like Morbius is wearing a flight suit decorated with colored crepe paper.
Much of "Morbius" sticks to a small circle of animosity and bloodletting and bloodsucking between Dr. M, Milo and Dr. Bancroft, plus a couple of NYPD detectives played by Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal.
Director Daniel Espinosa, a filmmaker of Chilean roots based in Sweden, has made some passable-to-proficient action vehicles, among them "Easy Money" (2012), "Safe House" (2012) and "Life" (2017). The "Morbius" script by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless runs about 100 minutes without credits, but it feels like 150. Espinosa can do only so much, though now and then something happens visually, such as a simple hospital hallway sequence where flashes of motion detector lighting juice the suspense.
An awful lot of the movie depends on the chemistry between Leto and Smith, playing old friends and new enemies. I don't relish pinning blame, or a tail, or horns, or anything on a particular star/executive producer, in this case Leto, since so much in corporate franchise commerce has a chance to go wrong before a single performer gets in front of a camera. But my bafflement regarding Leto is becoming chronic, and I'm still recovering from his opera buffa turn and Chico Marx dialect in "House of Gucci."
In "Morbius" the actor's willful disinterest in figuring out the rhythm of a scene, what's important in it and how to bounce off his scene partners — well, it's acting in a vacuum. What he needs is a director who can steer him away from his favorite scene partner, i.e., Jared Leto, long enough to activate the material at hand, even if it's just a third-tier Marvel franchise hopeful.
1.5 stars out of 4
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, some frightening images and brief strong language.
Where: Area theaters.