morbius as played by jared leto

‘Morbius’ Reveals How Bad Cinema Can Become a Cultural Phenomenon

Some bad things are too fun to hate, and this Sony flick proves it.

Most of the time, bad movies are swept under the rug, overshadowed by something more worthwhile. But from time to time there are those special outliers — movies so terrible they ironically become enjoyable. Take, for example, “The Room,” directed by Tommy Wiseau. Critics remorselessly panned it upon release, but today it has become something of a cultural phenomenon, spawning a dedicated fanbase that shares memes and continuously attends special screenings of the film. “The Room” even served as a source of inspiration for the Academy Award-nominated film “Disaster Artist,” starring James Franco as Wiseau. In more recent times, Sony Pictures’ “Morbius” has been panned by critics and spawned a culture of sarcastic praise, internet memes and infamy.

Starring Jared Leto as the titular character and Matt Smith as his friend Milo, “Morbius” is just another part of Sony’s Spider-Man Universe, which also includes “Venom” and its sequel, “Let There Be Carnage.” Directed by Daniel Espinosa, this movie tells the story of a scientist named Michael Morbius who, while experimenting with bats in the hopes of curing both his and his friend’s rare blood disease, accidentally gains incredible abilities: he can fly, lift heavy objects, use echolocation, and more. But these abilities come at a terrible cost: Morbius transforms into a vampire and harbors an insatiable craving for blood. He is desperate to keep his newfound abilities under wraps, but fate has other plans. Milo, who has also gained vampiric abilities, is wreaking havoc across New York, and Morbius must step out of the shadows to stop his rampage.

“Morbius” held its premiere in Mexico City on March 10 and was released to theaters on April 1 (which is quite the coincidence). Almost immediately, the film was met with a negative response from numerous publications, with one critic tweeting that it was “the worst superhero movie in a long, long time.” Likewise, the popular movie review website Rotten Tomatoes handed it a devastatingly low 17% rating, with the majority of critics deriding the film for its “uninspired effects,” “rote performances” and “borderline nonsensical story.” “Morbius” managed to make $39 million during its opening weekend, just barely surpassing expectations, before ultimately toppling at the box office in its second week. Responding to this frosty reception, Espinosa stated in an interview: “I have a lot of self-hatred, so I have a lot of criticism of my own work. I’m always trying to focus on being better, but I am also proud of what I do. There are parts in all of my movies that I’m really proud of.”

Although critics made every attempt to warn moviegoers off, “Morbius” garnered something of a fanbase. When “Venom” was released in 2018, critics were harsh toward the flick, but audiences were far more pleased with the results, enjoying Eddie Brock’s buddy dynamic with the extraterrestrial being who gives the movie its name. The same goes for “Morbius”: Although the film has a 17% average among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, its audience score is up in the low 70s. What makes “Morbius” so different from its predecessors is how exactly fans responded.

Due to its lackluster box office returns and critical condemnation, combined with the fact that Morbius is a rather obscure comic-book character, online humorists sarcastically declared that the movie was not only the highest-rated film of all time but also the highest-grossing, raking in over a “morbillion” dollars and earning impossibly high scores on Rotten Tomatoes. On Twitter, #MorbiusSweep trended for over a week, with social media users acting as though the movie was a global sensation. To top it all off, a user fooled Morbius” star Tyrese Gibson with a post falsely stating that Martin Scorsese rescinded his earlier negative comments about Marvel movies after seeing “Morbius.” Gibson praised the sentiment on Instagram and later backtracked once he realized it was fake.

The jokes only multiplied the moment that “Morbius” was released on Apple TV. A Twitch user who called themselves “Morbius247” decided to stream “Morbius” for, you guessed it, 24 hours. By the time they were banned from the platform for violating the terms of service, they had amassed an audience of over 2,000 people. Similarly, Twitter and Tumblr users began sharing the movie either in condensed GIF formats or in dozens of short, two-minute segments. The movie was even pirated on the official “Morbius” Discord server, where members, known as “Morbheads,” got “Morbed” by being sent the movie.

Like #MorbiusSweep, the catchphrase “It’s Morbin’ time,” a parody of the phrase “It’s morphin’ time” by the Power Rangers, began trending. As the movie does not actually contain the phrase, internet users began posting edited clips of the movie where Morbius does say the phrase, possibly tricking those who had not yet watched the real thing. Another clip posted for fans to make fun of is the scene where Matt Smith, as his character Milo, dances half-naked in his room to “EKSE” by Off The Meds while briefly turning into a vampire. People made sure to remind viewers of the verses “have sex” and “Bhuti ma Thenga thenga” (don’t ask why) in the comments. As a result of all the attention, users spread a fake CNN page announcing that Sony had decided to greenlight a sequel, much to the chagrin of critics and news publications.

Unfortunately, like all good things in the world, the fun has to come to an end. The “Morbius” craze started to decline when Jared Leto himself hopped on the bandwagon by posting a video of himself with a script titled “Morbius 2: It’s Morbin’ Time” on Twitter. While some responded positively to the actor getting in on the joke, others made it clear that they were not genuine fans of Leto, citing his history of alleged sexual harassment. Also, Sony, believing “Morbius” became more popular, recently made the choice to re-release the movie in 1,000 theaters across the country. The results were quite tragic: The movie only made a meager $83,000 at the box office and many people noted Sony’s apparent lack of understanding of the culture surrounding their product.

Today, “Morbius” is joked about by internet users to a lesser extent. Although it underperformed at the box office, the movie did not exactly fail, as it earned over $163 million against a $73-83 million budget. Sony will probably never touch the character again, but even so, the response to the film shows that sometimes, a terrible movie can bring together people from all walks of life. It’s a cheesy and cliché thing to say, but it’s true; movies like “The Room” and the Universal Pictures’ adaptation of “Cats” are further proof of this idea. There’s a strange fascination with bad movies among cinephiles and casual viewers alike. They want to hate these movies so much, yet they can’t turn away because deep down, a part of them has found a twisted sense of enjoyment in their awfulness. Of course, not every bad movie is enjoyable — for every enjoyable one, there are at least a hundred unwatchable ones — but some do such a good job at being bad they become ingrained in popular culture.

It’s not just bad movies that receive this attention. There are bad paintings, bad books, bad songs, bad sculptures, etc. — all of them can receive widespread backlash, but their awfulness is what makes them all the more alluring. You want to know more about them, understand how and why they were made, and try to dissect what makes them so bad in the first place.

Oftentimes, a bad movie becomes a sensation when the director is completely unaware of how bad it is. A good example of this is “Birdemic: Shock and Terror.” Directed by James Nguyen, “Birdemic” is about a group of people fending off flocks of killer birds. Yes, the movie’s plot sounds exactly like Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed film “The Birds,” mostly because it directly inspired Nguyen’s work. The movie was instantly panned for just about everything — acting, special effects and plot — yet even now people find themselves heavily researching this movie. They watch clips of it for a laugh. They mock it online or watch others do so. Nguyen was genuinely convinced that his movie was decent, which makes this story both sad and endearing.

On the other hand, intentionally bad movies often fall into obscurity. This is mainly due to the directors using the movie’s intentional badness as an excuse to be lazy. The ongoing “Sharknado” movie series is a great example — everyone, including the filmmakers themselves, knows the concept is dumb, yet they continuously release more sequels that are just plain bad. In contrast to the people behind “Sharknado,” Nguyen put his all into “Birdemic,” and that was what made his movie so famous. Likewise, Sony put their all into “Morbius” because they thought it had potential, and as a result, the movie built a wild reputation.

Braden Beck, California State Channel Islands

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Braden Beck

California State Channel Islands

I grew up in Bakersfield and moved to Ventura after I graduated high school in 2019. I got into writing during high school, and my goal is to one day write a book and hopefully get it published.

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