Are You Ready for the Summer of “Morbius”?
It may be Marvel's worst movie — but it's also the one everybody's talking (and memeing) about. What can Morbius teach us about the making of a cult classic?
Let’s just get this out of the way: Morbius is not good.
The newest addition to the MCU (via Sony) stars Jared Leto as Spider-Man villain Michael Morbius, a biochemist in search of a cure for his rare blood disease. As of this writing, it has a critics rating of a lowly 16% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the worst-reviewed Marvel movies ever made. Variety’s critic said that “You watch it and think, ‘This is what now passes for a new Marvel chapter?’ The film is nothing more than a flimsy time-killer, an early-April placeholder of a movie.” Another reviewer wrote “You know the saying, “What you see is what you get?” Well, Sony made sure you got NOTHING.”
To some, however, Morbius is great. It’s better than great; it’s the best movie ever made. It’s better than the best movie ever made — it’s the only movie that matters.
Unlike the critics’ score, audience favorability on Rotten Tomatoes is a robust 71%. And the reviews are filled with people writing insane things like: “This piece of art makes The Godfather II look like an episode of Peppa Pig.” Or, “They should just stop making movies right now because nothing can top this god damn masterpiece. When Jared Leto said it’s Morbin’ time, I got f**king goosebumps everywhere, a cinematic masterpiece (I also haven’t seen this movie).” Another five star review said that “It was a Movie! Hands down one of the movies of all time!”
It goes beyond humorous reviews — there’s an entire Morbius community that’s dominated online spaces since the movie came out on April 1. There’s a Discord channel with over 46,000 “Morb Head” members who post “Morbius” or “it’s morbin’ time” or any number of Morbius-related puns over and over. The word “Morbin” trended on Twitter every day for a week. Hundreds of Morbius memes are circulating online. And someone on Twitch streamed the film all day, everyday, until it was shut down for copyright infringement.
In response to this strange but rabid fanbase, Marvel announced that Morbius would be returning to 1000 theaters nationwide on June 3, more than two months after the movies was originally released in theaters. But on its second “opening day,” it made a paltry $85,000. Was this what the Morb Heads wanted all along? They humiliated Sony and got a lot of good memes out of it. But the movement doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon. The new question is whether or not this will actually be “The Summer of Morbius” — and if this dud of a movie has what it takes to become a true cult classic.
I began my own venture down the Morbius rabbit hole by asking one of my best friends, Jack van Nostrand, a cult movie fanatic, about the film. He summed up its failings pretty simply. “Like, who the fuck is Morbius?” he says. “This dude is a C-lister, a D-lister, in the comic books. This isn’t an ‘oh it’s so bad it’s good’ movie. It’s so bad that it sucks.”
Cult classics are known for a couple of things: their campiness, a subculture the grows up around it, repeated viewings and mimicked dialogue from the audience.
According to Jack, Morbius has none of that.
“This is the least camp movie of all time. The most famous ‘line’ from the movie is ‘It’s Morbin’ Time,’ which isn’t even a line in the movie. No one is watching the stream of the movie on Twitch for any other reason than it’s someone pirating the movie in broad daylight, directly in front of Sony.” he says. “I’m telling you, 99% of the people making jokes have never seen the movie.”
Dakota Lopez, of the YouTube channel Geekritique, has a theory on the perfect storm that turned Morbius into a meme. “The actor in the leading role, the circumstances behind Sony not using Spider-man in a Spider-man villain origin story, and the fact that most people who are memeing about it haven’t even seen the movie. It’s almost like it’s a misinformation campaign.”
Sony re-releasing the movie in theaters is the studio “trying to capitalize on the fact that it is a meme with staying power,” explains Dakota. “As much as I don’t personally want this to happen, I do think eventually, we will see a sequel, where it will be more self-aware in the sense that it will use some of the memes — which were never present in the comics and which shouldn’t be present in a Morbius story — used in some capacity.”
This kind of self-awareness has been present in Marvel films for a while now, causing mixed reactions from fans. What is intended as an in-joke can come across at best cutesy-cheesy, and at worst cringy-cheesy. Forcing the joke is tantamount to killing the joke. Simply put, cult movies are born, not made.
In a BBC interview about cult movies, Michael Blyth, who programs the annual Cult strand at BFI’s London Film Festival, says that “We have to be careful not to overuse the word ‘cult’ so it loses all meaning…I think ‘cult’ should fundamentally exist in the original ways we understood it — a celebration of lowbrow culture, based around ideas of camp and irony, transgression and subversion.”
Marvel movies aren’t “subversive” by nature, and that was never the point of turning Morbius into a meme in the first place. As Jack and Dakota point out, all of the most popular memes don’t even have anything to do with the actual movie. But the memes are now commonplace on apps like Twitter and Discord, and Jared Leto himself even posted a “Morbin’ Time” joke, along with the official Twitter account of the movie. Whatever subversive impact the movie might have in the first place goes out the window when the studio gets in on the joke too.
“My worry, or perhaps my morbid curiosity,” says Dakota, “is whether Sony is going to learn the wrong lessons from these memes — which have long exceeded the life expectancy of your typical meme. I think Sony will see the memes not as the ridicule that they’re intended to elicit, but more as an enduring legacy of the film itself.”
Of course, bad movies that don’t become cult classics have existed for as long as movies have (2019’s Cats adaptation, or any of the Sharknado films, for example). And the appeal of a bad movie, like Morbius, is not new. In an interview with The New Statesman, psychologist Dr. Adam Galpin says that a bad movie “gives you a sense of superiority and a sense of mastery and competence because if you can recognize why it’s bad, you have expertise in this area of film consumption. It makes you feel like an expert film critic.” Galpin says that the appeal also comes from sharing that badness with others. “If something gives you an emotional experience, you have an innate drive to share that with people.” Even if Morbius doesn’t have some of central tenants of a cult movie in the making, no one can deny the community it has birthed online.
Whether or not Morbius will one day reach true cult classic status remains to be seen. In the future, perhaps crowds will scream “It’s Morbin’ Time” at the screen, or dress up as Milo in order to pretend to be a supervillain vampire. Or perhaps it will become yet another long-forgotten internet joke. But as Dakota explains, even if this is just a blip on the cultural radar, at least everyone is having a good time.
“It’s trending every single day, it seems, for no reason other than people just want to have a little fun.” he says, “I think people need an escape from the world around us. There’s so many things to worry about nowadays, and I think having a little stupid fun online is more important nowadays than it ever has been.”
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