Fangs for the laughs, Marvel: how Morbius became one big joke

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'It's Morbin' time!': Jared Leto's Morbius has been much mocked online
'It's Morbin' time!': Jared Leto's Morbius has been much mocked online

The evenings are lighter; the hedgerows ablaze with mayflower; the meadows clothed in campion, poppies and forget-me-nots. It’s all nature’s way of reminding us that the summer of Morbius is on its way. Morbius, you’ll recall, was the dismal Jared Leto vehicle-slash-vampire-based Spider-Man adjunct which opened in cinemas at the end of March and instantly became the cause of considerable online amusement.

One of the more popular memes involved doleful references to a much longed-for but now abandoned “summer of Morbius”: a reference to a 1997 episode of Seinfeld in which Jason Alexander’s George Costanza plans a three-month break from work, then falls downstairs and ends up in hospital. “This was supposed to be the summer of George,” he laments from his sickbed.

Other highlights included an alleged screen grab from Wikipedia showing that Morbius had already made $352.9 trillion, with an image of Leto contorted in triumph. Then there was the speculation that the entire film’s existence was an elaborate April Fool’s Day joke. And the photographs of empty auditoriums with captions like “Morbius fever has gripped the nation.”

There's celebrations, too, of Leto's delivery of the character’s supposed catchphrase, “It's Morbin’ time,” and speculation that he would appear in the Doctor Strange sequel to speak said catchphrase again, perhaps with world-altering consequences. (NB: Morbius does not have a catchphrase.) One Twitter user even offered a solemn warning that they had left two tickets for Morbius unattended in their car, “and someone broke in and left four more”.

Terrible reviews, underwhelming box office, an avalanche of internet mockery: it was the perfect storm of ignoble launches, as if the world had been waiting for permission to have a laugh at its expense. Yet the summer of Morbius may yet be salvaged. In advance of the film’s arrival on digital platforms on May 17, Sony Pictures has plumped for an interesting advertising strategy: actively court further ridicule.

“Flowers. Brunch. Morbius on Digital May 17th,” posted the studio’s official Twitter account on American Mother’s Day last week, along with the hashtag #MomsForMorbius, a brief video of Matt Smith’s character, Milo Morbius, dancing with his shirt off, and a link to purchase the film. Yes, thanks for everything you do, Mum: now let us take care of the housework while you put your feet up and watch Jared Leto play a doctor who kidnaps bats and can transform himself into a cloud of purple steam.

Yet at the time of writing, the #MomsForMorbius tweet has accrued 4,226 likes and has been shared more than 2,000 times. Compare that with the 272 likes and 29 shares received by the studio’s release-day tweet – “Enjoy the ride. #Morbius is NOW PLAYING exclusively in movie theatres” – and you can see the tactical sense here. As Oscar Wilde once almost said, there is only one thing in the world worse than everyone talking about Morbius, and that is no-one talking about Morbius. And over the next few days, the phrase #MomsForMorbius was organically adopted by thousands of Twitter users, many of whom posted it in conjunction with the already widespread #MorbiusSweep meme, in which the film is ironically celebrated as a cultural and commercial phenomenon.

Marketing a film as an object of universal contempt is – as far as I’m aware – a new one. Even the official Twitter account for Tom Hooper’s Cats fell eerily silent for 24 hours after the first reviews were published, despite it having previously embraced the mounting hysteria around how it was going to turn out.

But distributors have occasionally been known to call attention to bad reviews, either to try to galvanise support or simply lure in ghouls. A 1997 newspaper advert for David Lynch’s Lost Highway led with the quote “Two thumbs down!” – the verdict handed down by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on their TV show – and suggested this constituted “Two more great reasons to see Lost Highway.”

And when Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! was met with polarising reviews in 2017, an American poster made a virtue of the split, pitting the Los Angeles Times’s “darkly exhilarating” against the New York Observer’s “a circus of grotesque debauchery”, and others. (Both were commercial failures, which suggests this is primarily a damage limitation exercise.)

More recently, the makers of the environmental satire Don’t Look Up suggested its mediocre reviews were an insidious manifestation of climate change denial, while in 2017, The Greatest Showman successfully repositioned itself as the People’s Musical after being critically panned, played in cinemas for seven months.

Memes are different – and in this respect, far more useful – because their appeal is unconnected to the quality of their source material. Dreadful films can yield beloved viral images and catchphrases every bit as easily as classics: a short, looping clip of Orson Welles sternly applauding in Citizen Kane has the same cultural capital as one of Nicolas Cage shrieking “not the bees” in the Wicker Man remake, and there’s an equal appeal to experiencing either in its natural habitat. Say it in your best trailer basso profondo: you’ve seen the gif, now watch the movie.

Never mind accidentally inventing vampirism. Michael Morbius may have just hatched his most dastardly scheme yet.

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