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“If you’re going to run, do it now…” In the depths of a South American rainforest, an unusually frail-looking Jared Leto stands at the towering mouth of a sinister-looking cave, propped up by two walking sticks, his long, stringy hair draped over a green overcoat that swallows his frame. A small group of mercenaries look on nervously, edging back towards the helicopter behind them. He takes a large knife and draws it across his palm, before holding his hand up towards the hi-tech cage positioned in front of him. Something is stirring from within the darkness. But there’s a problem…
“The blood didn’t come out,” Leto says, looking off to the side. “Wanna go again?”
On any other production, that little practical-FX slip-up might have been ripe for the post-release blooper reel. But while Leto briefly breaks character to acknowledge the error, there’s no corpsing here – he remains focused, shuffling around on his crutches while the unit quickly sets up for another take. The second run-out is more successful; this time, the knife opens up a big, bloody, creature-baiting gash.
As you might have guessed, this isn’t actually a South American rainforest. Den of Geek is currently on a soundstage at the old Fountain Studios in Wembley, North London – although the set design is so impressive, it feels like it could be the real thing (giant, 360-degree greenscreen notwithstanding). Crew members with water-tank backpacks spray mist over the rocky terrain and fake flora in between set-ups, maintaining the tropical illusion.
The bloodless blunder we’ve just witnessed is funny, given that the movie currently being shot boasts the working title Plasma and has a plot that revolves around the red stuff… This is Morbius, the Covid-delayed third chapter in Sony’s Spider-Man Universe (after 2018’s Venom and its sequel, Let There Be Carnage), starring Leto as the eponymous antihero. Leto’s Michael Morbius is a genius physician suffering from a rare blood disease, whose search for a cure leads him to self-experimentation – turning him into a “living vampire” with supernatural abilities and a thirst for human blood.
“The cave sequence that we’re shooting today is the one that opens the film,” explains producer Lucas Foster, as he shows us concept art and models that reveal the vast scale of the scene – much of which will be filled in with CGI during post-production. “Inside the cave are hundreds of thousands of a particular kind of bat, which Morbius is looking to collect and bring back to his lab. It’s a really cool sequence.”
Morbius may be a high-concept comic book adaptation, but that doesn’t mean Leto is taking it any less seriously than his more grounded roles. He is famed for taking the immersive “Method” approach when it comes to embodying characters, and Morbius is no exception (hence why Den of Geek has been invited only to “observe” his work). This is the final week of principal photography and yet, when we ask Leto’s co-star Adria Arjona about what he’s like to work with, she responds: “I’ve never met Jared… I’ve only met Michael Morbius.”
Arjona is playing Martine Bancroft, a fellow scientist who has a “symbiotic” relationship with Morbius. “It was a challenge for me [at first] because it made me adapt to this new form of working,” she continues. “But it has been really special.”
The film’s director, Daniel Espinosa, agrees. “It was truly astounding to see the amount of work he puts in to physically transform to become this character,” he says. “It’s something I haven’t really seen before, this Method approach. It’s like when he’s using the crutches – sometimes it takes him a long time to come to the set…” He laughs. “But it’s been great.”
You can see why Leto was attracted to the role–Morbius is a character with a lot of complexities to mine. Created by writer Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, Morbius first appeared as an enemy of Spider-Man in 1971, and later featured in his own comic series–developing into more of a brooding, tragically flawed antihero. Following in the great traditions of Spidey villains such as The Lizard, Morbius’ actions might not always be agreeable, but there is an understandable method to his madness.
“As the movie begins, he’s close to death,” explains Foster. “And so he gets increasingly desperate to figure out a solution. But as an expert in medicine, he’s right at the edge of that ethical boundary.”
And what of his vampiric bloodlust? “It’s a challenge for a guy who’s a doctor, someone who’s sworn to defend human life,” he says. “He resists it. In the comics, he comes to prey upon the guilty. But this is an origin story; we’re starting with the birth of the character, before he’s made that decision. We watch him wrestle with this dilemma.”
For Scandinavian filmmaker Espinosa (Safe House, Child 44)–a self-confessed Marvel super-fan who executive producer Louise Rosner reveals is the “second-biggest purchaser of comic books in Sweden”–the bad guys are often “more interesting” than the good guys.
“I’ve read almost everything that Marvel has published up until now, and I was always very close to this character,” the director explains of his personal connection to Morbius. “I liked the kind of the ’90s version, which spoke to me as a teenager in the postmodern era. You had the Berlin Wall coming down and you had this character who was like the Kurt Cobain of the Marvel Universe, who told people to fuck off, and I enjoyed that. So when this came to me, it was almost too good to be true.”
This might be Morbius’ film, but he isn’t the only fan-favorite character that Espinosa gets to develop on screen. There’s Martine, Morbius’ partner who, in the comics at least, has a complex arc of her own. “She’s pretty fierce,” says Arjona. “She’s strong and has her own will and has almost like a motherly quality to her, taking care of the people that she loves. And she’s extremely smart. She’s a head-to-head scientist with Morbius. He’s the genius behind this cure, but she’s striving to be just like him.”
The movie also introduces the Fast & Furious saga’s Tyrese Gibson as Simon Stroud–a special agent tasked with “pursuing superhero-type characters that have gone awry,” according to Foster–and Doctor Who’s Matt Smith as Loxias Crown, “kind of an amalgam of characters from the comics” and a childhood friend of Morbius’ who suffers from the same blood condition. “They have a complicated relationship,” says Foster, wary of giving away too many of the film’s secrets. “It gets more and more complicated as the movie goes on…”
Leto’s commitment to his characters often involves as much of a physical transformation as it does a mental one. To be truly convincing as Morbius, whose bat-cure gifts him superhuman speed and strength, the actor had to pack on some serious muscle.
“When he transitions, he’s super healthy,” explains Rosner. “Jared was working out like a fiend to get the bulk. And then for the scenes where he is shirtless, there’s a three- or four-day period where he really has to work at it. He goes on this incredibly difficult diet, where he can only drink distilled water and he has to eat so specifically at certain times. It becomes a whole other job for him, and that all has to be scheduled.”
Today’s sequence is actually an anomaly–most of Leto’s early, pre-vamp scenes were filmed first, so that he could maintain the bulk for his second- and third-act super-antics (the oversized waterproof coat he’s wearing today is no doubt helping to cover up his biceps). Morbius’ initial “sick look” is created through some clever make-up effects, while Rosner reveals that his frame will be altered via a “sort of shrinking effect” by VFX company Lola–the technical wizards who created a weedy-looking Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger–to “make him look even more fragile.”
There’s one more transformation, though, that Marvel fans are most eager to see–that is, Morbius’ change into his monstrous vampiric form. Principal photography on the film might be nearing its end, but Leto will be going straight into weeks of motion capture work, with even more detailed facial capture taking place later, once a rough cut has been assembled.
“I went through the comic book history of the character,” says Espinosa, recalling the process of recreating Morbius’ iconic visage. “He has been reinvented quite radically in the different books, so I just picked the one that I like best and that I hope fans will. It was purely an emotional, instinctual decision. I hope it’s going to be a big thrill to watch the transformation.”
“We have a design that’s really great,” adds Rosner. “We’ve had a lot of concept artists working on it. You can’t be scared by this character, but you also have to be scared by him, so it’s finding that happy medium.”
While the filmmakers are keen to stress that Morbius is very much a PG-13 take on the character (“We’re not trying to make some deeply dark movie,” says Foster), there’s no getting away from the fact that Marvel’s bloodsucking antihero is inspired by a much-loved creature from horror lore. There’s also the fact that Espinosa previously directed sci-fi horror Life (which some consider an unofficial Venom prequel thanks to its gooey black space invaders) and champions Alien director Ridley Scott as “the master.”
“I always thought it would be interesting to do a superhero movie that had all the enjoyment and wish fulfilment that you want,” he says, “but I wanted to add that layer that comes from the movies that I’ve done before, which are a bit edgier.”
Whatever the result, there will be blood–eventually…
Morbius opens on Jan. 28, 2022.