Morbius – An Enigmatic Antihero

“Michael Morbius is one of the most altruistic characters of the Marvel Universe,” says director Daniel Espinosa, who bills himself as Sweden’s second-biggest comic book fan. “It’s the character’s inner humanity, his duality between virtuous man and brutal creature, that makes him so compelling. He’s one of the few that really believes in good. This good man has a horrible disease, and in his trials to save himself and the people that he cares for, he turns into a monster.”

In most superhero movies, there’s a classic sequence as the hero discovers his or her newfound powers. Not so for Michael Morbius. “When Morbius discovers his inner beast, he becomes afraid of it – and because he’s afraid, he’s also afraid of his powers. He’s afraid that they will take over and change him, so he’s constantly resisting them,” says Espinosa. “To become the hero, he has to accept his fate: Morbius’s journey is to accept that he will still remain the person that he is, but he has to harness these powers.”

As a man who has spent countless hours reading and thinking about comic books, Espinosa says that it isn’t so surprising that Morbius’s duality has earned him a following. “Most great heroes are antiheroes,” he says. “Most of us are resistant to accept that we are the chosen one, and Morbius is the same. The most interesting characters in the Marvel universe have always been those that have had one foot on each side: Magneto, Rogue, Wolverine, in his own way, Venom. All of these characters are the ones that are fundamentally the most fascinating for us as moviegoers and comic book readers.”

Espinosa graduated from the director’s program at the National Film School of Denmark in 2003, with his acclaimed and award-winning student final film, the dramatic short The Fighter. He is a filmmaker whose edgy, visceral approach to his work brings his films to life in a way that captivates audiences and takes them on a journey into his characters’ aesthetically chaotic world. Born in Chile, raised in Africa, and educated in Sweden, Espinosa’s international upbringing has given him an unaffected approach to his filmmaking, providing both him and his actors with a raw, kinetic energy that brings their stories to life.  Most recently, Espinosa released the sci-fi thriller Life for Columbia Pictures, grossing over $100 million worldwide at the box office. He also helmed the hit action-thriller Safe House for Universal

Espinosa directed Morbius from a screen story and screenplay by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless. Based on the MARVEL Comics. Matt Sazama grew up making live-action and animated Super 8 movies in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, trying to replicate the magic of 80s science fiction and fantasy films. Together with his writing partner Burk Sharpless, he wrote the original script Dracula Untold, which was on the Black List of best unproduced screenplays before it was made by Universal Pictures. Since then, they wrote the script for Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt and co-wrote The Last Witch Hunter and Power Rangers. Along with Sazama, Sharpless created and executive produced Netflix’s reimagining of the classic sci-fi family adventure “Lost In Space.” 

Jared Leto transforms into the enigmatic antihero Michael Morbius

“I’m attracted to roles where there’s an opportunity to transform – physical transformation, but also mental, emotional, any and all,” says Jared Leto, who is indeed renowned for his transformations. From his Academy Award®-winning performance as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club to his portrayal of Paolo Gucci in House of Gucci, Leto disappears into his roles, bringing characters to life in ways that can be moving, or terrifying, or enigmatic, but always unforgettable.

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In his new film Morbius, based on the Marvel antihero, Leto brings all of these together for his performance as Dr. Michael Morbius, a brilliant doctor with a rare and fatal blood disease, determined to find the cure. Morbius’s genius finds a way not only to cure the illness but to give him unimaginable strength and powers, but at a terrible cost: an uncontrollable thirst for human blood.

“I played Dr. Michael Morbius from his most frail, to his most powerful, to his most monstrous,” Leto continues. “There’s a lot of range in there, so that was really fun to tackle. Not only does the movie have action, stunts, and fighting, but the role itself was taxing. Whenever he is fighting the affliction, he is caught in a crossroads between different parts of the character. It’s like a withdrawal process, a full body experience.”

“Jared Leto was the only actor that could really play the part of Morbius. That wasn’t really a choice – it was predestination,” says Daniel Espinosa, who directs the film.

“Michael Morbius goes through several transformations in this movie,” says producer Lucas Foster. “He starts off as someone who has little hope of survival. Over the course of his experiments and pushing the boundaries, making decisions that are on the edge of medical ethics, he does fix what he set out to fix – in fact, not only does he cure his disease, the treatment also brings him to the peak of physical health. But it also results in a transformation that he didn’t intend – he becomes a monster, having abilities and cravings that are impossible to control.”

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“Morbius is searching for goodness – the cure for a disease. He’s going to find it, disregarding the cost on himself or on society,” adds Espinosa. “And in his search for goodness, he transforms into something he detests. He has to accept the ugliness he has within him, and that there’s something beautiful about it. It will be his strength, what makes him unique.”

Morbius’s increasingly desperate research leads him to combine human DNA with that of the vampire bat – the only mammal that survives solely on blood – which has evolved to develop anticoagulants… a genetic mutation that Morbius is convinced will cure him and others with his disease. Not only does the treatment cure him, but gives him superhuman strength, the agility of an Olympic athlete, even the echolocation powers of the bat – to “see” objects in space by harnessing the sounds around him. But the cure also transforms Morbius into a (literally) bloodthirsty monster – a hideous creature with cravings that he is only somewhat able to control.

“It’s a fearsome creature,” says Foster. “It has all kinds of urges that are not human urges and Dr. Morbius has to deal with the consequences of the monster coming out.”

Leto is famously selective about the parts he chooses to play. Espinosa says that he has to be, because his preparation for each role is so intense.

“Jared is a beautiful actor to work with – he comes to set fully prepared, completely immersed in his character,” says the director. “He’s become known for his approach to his characters, but it was truly surprising to see how much emotionality he could wrest out of Dr. Michael Morbius. He has a strong dedication, beginning to end, and more than just an actor. He’s a colleague, a partner.”

“We were so thrilled to be in Jared’s presence as he performed his craft,” says Foster. “He’s really committed and works extremely hard. It was interesting to watch him develop the character – he prepares and spends a lot of time thinking through how this character got to this place, workshopping the words that we had crafted, developing his thoughts on the look of the character and how the character would move and pass through the world, first as a sick character, and later as a character who had gotten a sudden second chance at life. He breaks that down into small increments and watch those evolve. It’s fascinating.”

“I was excited about taking on the challenge of putting a character on screen that had never been on screen before,” says Leto. “It gets harder and harder to find, and that was unique about this – a Marvel character that had never been portrayed outside of a couple of episodes of a Spider-Man cartoon.”

Leto was drawn to the character by the idea that the audience would discover the character as he transforms, and by the challenge of portraying those unusual transformations. “I liked that he had this lofty goal while being frail. But then, he finds the cure and becomes incredibly powerful and strong – he succeeds in that mission only to have everything go wrong,” he says. “There’s a lot to discover about this character. It was fun to explore his increased strength and speed. And he can use echolocation – how to do you translate that into a performance, the ability to see using your sense of hearing?”

Morbius’s lifelong best friend is Milo – a friendship that runs so deep that Morbius gave him his name. Born with the name Lucien and the same blood disease that Morbius has, the young Morbius renamed the boy Milo when they met as children. Their shared affliction led to a lifelong bond as brothers.

The scion of a very, very, very rich family, Milo has grown into a man determined to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life while he can – mostly by spending his money to live the high life in New York. “He’s a bon vivant, bigger than life, a delight,” says Foster. “He’s a lot of fun – even when he’s sick, he’s still trying to live life to its fullest, squeeze every moment he can every enjoyment possible out of his last time on earth.”

“Michael has always been driven by science. Milo has always been driven by sensation and art,” says Matt Smith, who plays the role. “Where Michael was studying atomic structure and the elements of life, Milo was drinking the finest whisky, watching Bergman films, and eating at the Ivy. He’s all about living in the moment.”

When Morbius conducts his dangerous experiments, it is through the Milo’s largesse. When he discovers the cure/curse, Morbius’s natural reaction is to shield his dying friend – a reaction Milo does not understand or appreciate. Milo steals the serum, transforming himself into the same monster that Morbius is.

But where Morbius is afraid of his powers, Milo embraces them. “They both get the same power – one goes one way, and one goes the other way,” says Smith. “For one of the first times in his life, Milo feels alive and free, physically electric. You’re given the keys to the kingdom – how do you react? Particularly for a person who’s suffered so much and now has powers.”

Espinosa says that when Morbius and Milo’s inner beasts are unleashed, it’s a revelation of who they really are – and the contrast between them tears them apart. “Milo decides to take revenge on everybody that has always haunted him,” says the director. “He explores his powers with a kind of animal power – he never becomes as refined as Morbius. Morbius has a much more meditative perception of his powers – he will truly understand what he can do, while Milo just sees what’s right in front of him.”

Leto says that ultimately, it will be Morbius’s true inner self that will determine his fate. “At the end of the day, he’s a very good person,” he says. “He’s using his talent, his skills, his education, his brains, in search of noble pursuits. He’s not without his faults – he’s breaking some rules – but he’s doing it to find the cure and help people like himself.”

As a supervillain, the character of Morbius first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #101 and fought the famous web-slinger, and would continue to do so over the next several years. Like Blade, another Marvel comic featuring the lives of vampires, Morbius is a comic steeped in blood. Morbius may be a sympathetic antagonist, but as he becomes more deeply entrenched in his status as a “living vampire,” he’s driven more and more by his insatiable need for blood. As a living vampire, he isn’t actually “undead.” Blood still runs through his veins, and he is technically mortal in the sense that he can die if overpowered by an entity stronger than himself.  Morbius may be a “pseudo-vampire,” but he isn’t a vampire in the mystical sense of the term. The vampires of global folklore, which are spurned by holy water and the sign of the cross, are only inspirations for the legendary Morbius, who isn’t affected by religious iconography.

Creating The Monster And Visualizing The Powers Of The Bat

When Morbius fuses his DNA with that of a vampire bat, he gains superhuman powers – but also transforms into a hideous monster. Not only does he have increased strength and agility, but also the power to use echolocation – bats’ ability to “see” in the dark by relying on the sound waves around them. However, he also develops a bat’s snub nose, sunken cheeks, and a mouth full of razor-sharp fangs.

All of these challenges – the look of the creature and the expression of his powers – would be in the hands of visual effects supervisor Matthew E. Butler. Working with Espinosa, Butler would create a cinematic language that would bring the audience into Morbius’ sensory perceptions. It was a challenge that Butler was uniquely suited to meet. “When Daniel first came over to see us, one of the things he was particularly interested in doing is visualizing some of Morbius’s unusual special powers, one of which is his ability to visualize wind vectors to echolocate, like a bat would,” says Butler. “Since my previous background was in aerospace and I’ve focused on computational fluid mixes and visualizing the flow of fluid, that particularly appealed to me. It’s something I could see a way to visualize in a cool, non-gratuitous fashion. We found a visually exciting way to show his ability, the same as his ability to be hypersensitive to wind vectors.”

For the character himself, Leto and Espinosa agreed that the look would come from visual effects, rather than prosthetics and makeup. “When you put a character on the screen for the first time, you have a big opportunity to create something. I was adamant from the beginning that we use technology to enhance and help with the transformation, especially of Morbius himself, because I thought that that’s where we would have fewest limitations,” says Leto. “There’s limitless potential using some of these new technologies, so it’s interesting to be part of that and to push the envelope.”

“Visual effects is never a single answer to anything – we try to use the right tool for the job, and each job is slightly different,” says Butler, who, as part of the team at Digital Domain that created the visual effects for Avengers: Endgame, is well-versed in bringing digital Marvel characters to full life. “On Morbius, the vampires perform, deliver dialogue and expression, and they need to look and feel and smell like that the actor. Jared Leto and Matt Smith need to come through in their vampiric forms. We tried to keep as many of his features as we could, so you could look at this creature and think, yeah, that’s Jared – yet we depart from a good-looking man to make this horrific character.”

The solution would also depend on the needs of the film’s storytelling. “Morbius can ‘bloom’ from his human version into the vampiric version and back again, so he’s not continually in that phase. He can go in and out – typically through anger,” Butler explains. “He needed to be able to morph into different expressions.

“One solution is to film them as they are and manipulate the face,” Butler continues. “That can work, but at times, we depart quite massively, and we still need to capture all the idiosyncrasies, the subtleties, the familiar telltales of who that person is and their characteristics, even though the creature is quite different in geometry. We decided that the actors would perform on stage and we would recapture that performance with a marked-up array of dots on their faces and helmet cameras that can capture all of those subtleties. The software can translate that performance into the performance of a creature that is completely different. That’s something we achieved quite well with Thanos.”

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