March 30, 2022 9:00 PM EDT

Forget the Dark Knight. In Morbius, Jared Leto is the Pale Knight, a serious-minded, soft-spoken biochemist in a ponytail who wants only one thing: To find a cure for the rare blood disorder from which he and a few others suffer, a disease which renders him too weak to walk without crutches and requires multiple transfusions a day. Leto’s Michael Morbius thinks the secret to a cure may lie in blood-sucking bats, who gorge themselves on the red stuff and somehow manage to process it just fine. He develops a serum drawn from their innards and allows himself to be used as a guinea pig, but the experiment goes awry: Though the secret formula grants him powers of superhuman speed and strength, it has also turned him into a vampire of sorts, a drawn, noseless creature with pointy teeth and talonlike fingernails. He must drink blood to function, and though artificial blood—which he happened to also invent—does the trick for a while, only that of actual humans may provide a long-term solution. And does sweet Dr. Ponytail really want to be that guy?

How you feel about Morbius will probably depend on how much you have invested in the Sony-Marvel pie slice, and on your feelings about Leto, who perhaps isn’t so much a serious actor as one who takes himself very seriously. Still, his performance here has a quietly vibrating vulnerability; he seems to have made at least a small emotional investment in this film, as if to keep it from sliding into total special-effects-laden soullessness.

Jared Leto in 'Morbius' (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)
Jared Leto in 'Morbius'
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

His efforts pay off, nominally: Michael Morbius doesn’t want to be a baddie, though his ungodly urges keep pulling him in that direction. It doesn’t help that his closest friend from childhood, reclusive rich guy Milo (Matt Smith), who suffers from the same disorder, wonders why he can’t be healed as Morbius has. Leto is capable of portraying believable anguish and cautious tenderness, particularly in his scenes with the fellow doctor for whom he has “feelings,” Adria Arjona’s Dr. Martine Bancroft.

Leto probably generates more facsimiles of real emotion than this slender yet clumsily extravagant movie needs. The director is Daniel Espinosa, and he, too, is probably a better director than this material warrants. (His previous films include the elegantly tense space thriller Life and the chilly child-killer mystery Child 44.) Some of the effects here are nifty: Morbius, with his special bat powers (which include extra-sensitive hearing—his ears have sprouted delicate mushroom-like gills) doesn’t so much fly around as flash through space, and when he does, he leaves feathery wisps of color in his wake. If the action sequences feel numbingly generic, at least they’re not noisy or assaultive. And for Nosferatu fans, there’s a sly F.W. Murnau joke.

But if Morbius doesn’t drag, it doesn’t exactly whiz by, either. Espinosa may have been trying to distinguish his film from the dozens—are we into the hundreds yet?—of other movies spawned from the comic books of various universes, and his efforts do give Morbius a vaguely noble air. But in the end, we may not feel we need to know much more about Michael Morbius than this movie has already told us, even though a stinger alerts us that we’re due to see more of him in the future. This is a movie that feels like one big windup for something else, even if we walk out feeling we’ve already seen plenty.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

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