The relationship between film/TV and internet culture takes many shapes as fandoms popularize and manipulate their favorite characters or moments from the big screen. In the case of Marvel’s Morbius, the trajectory between critic reviews and audience perception created a bizarre outlier that has taken over the memesphere since the movie was first released on April 1st and subsequently re-released in select theaters last Friday, June 3rd.
The third movie set in the Sony Spiderman-Universe starred Jared Leto as a scientist who, along with his surrogate brother, suffers from a rare, debilitating blood condition. The original release earned $163 million worldwide, including just $74 million domestic, on a $75 million budget. The writing and visual effects were panned by critics who were particularly unimpressed with Leto’s performance. Critics gave Morbius a C+ from Cinemascore and a grisly 1.88x multiplier from its subpar $39 million opening weekend.
Critics’ low scores and detailed analysis of the movie’s pitfalls combined with its subpar box office performance on opening weekend set the stage for #MorbiusSweep, the first of many memes from the film. #MorbiusSweep became a series of parody memes ironically celebrating the film as a massive commercial and critical success despite the movie being largely panned. Originating from the /r/moviecirclejerk subreddit, the trend gained a massive presence on Twitter in early April 2022 following the film’s negative critic and audience reviews, as well as the It’s Morbin’ Time catchphrase shortly after. The fictional catchphrase attributed to Leto’s character, Michael Morbius, became part of the ongoing joke surrounding the film of inventing aspects of the movie. The line is a play on the Power Rangers’ catchphrase “It’s Morphin’ Time”. On April 2nd, following the release of the film and viral popularity of the Morbius Sweep memes Twitter user @Rank10YGO posted, “the best part of Morbius was when he said ‘IT’S MORBIN’ TIME’ and morbed all over those guys,” gaining over 11,000 retweets and 121,000 likes in one month and spawning the meme.
The first time “MorbiusSweep” was used was before the movie came out, dating back to October 25th, 2021. Inside the Marvel Studios official Discord server, there was a conversation taking place about the new Dune movie that had just come out, inciting user Slayr to say “DUNESWEEP,” as many others around that time were hyping the movie up and saying it would sweep the Oscars. This caused the progenitor, nicknamed ISupportGaysBuyMyMerch, to then create the phrase “morbiussweep” as a response, and causing morbiussweep to be used whenever conversations about the Oscars took place.
As is typical of a big movie, there were critic and press screenings that took place beforehand to help the company create advertisement material. After a few early critic reviews took place, on March 22nd, Redditor Supercalumrex posted an edited image of the Rotten Tomatoes review score, edited to look as if the film exceeded 100 percent, the highest possible score, both with critics and audiences. The post, titled “The cultural reset,” received over 4,500 upvotes in two weeks. On the same day, Twitter user @SkeeBallKnees tweeted the image with the hashtag #MorbiusSweep. The post received over 330 retweets and 3,600 likes in two weeks.
In late March and early April, the trend spread from the subreddit to Twitter through reposts, many of them with the #MorbiusSweep hashtag. On April 1st, 2022, the day of the U.S. premiere of the film, the hashtag achieved a viral presence on the platform. The hashtag trend continued on social media in early April, gaining a strong association with the earlier One Trillion Tickets / Cultural Reset meme spawned earlier by Venom: Let There Be Carnage.
Morbius ironically became a viral meme around its April Fools Day release in image macros and Twitter memes that were initially split between these two genres of inflated (or completely made up) box office stats that praised the movie and silly catchphrases that were never said. Combine this fake but nonetheless viral zeitgeist surrounding Morbius with the film’s slow viewership numbers and you get the underlying punchline for Morb memes — social media was hyping up a movie most of its users hadn’t seen. Even for those who had, the film’s actual plot had little to no impetus in the viral discussion that emerged on platforms like Reddit and Twitter. Over the next two months, these memes snowcloned and evolved with catchphrases like Morb and viral trends like Morbius Poster Parodies, where users photoshopped the movie poster for Morbius by replacing the human or vampire part of Michael Morbius’ face, with another character.
As a studio, Sony had a tough pill to swallow in only grossing $163 million worldwide on a $75 million budget movie. But as a brand, they received a free PR campaign that dominated the trending section of Twitter for nearly 8–10 weeks. In recent weeks, the Morb memes have shifted into jokes about an unlikely Morbius sequel that many think could come as a result of the viral phenomena surrounding the movie. Things reached a surreal fever pitch when Leto himself joined the fray, tweeting out a video of himself reading a script for the so far uncommissioned ‘Morbius 2: It’s Morbin Time’. The post racked up 14 million views since Friday and was shared by Leto only hours after he confirmed that Morbius was returning to theaters.
As Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson pointed out in yesterday’s piece about Why Sony Sent A Box Office Bomb Back To Theaters, it’s unlikely that Sony was simply rolling the dice and hoping for a better turnout at the box office after two months of memes kept the movie in the peripherals of internet culture and shitposters. More likely, Sony studio execs were adding fuel to the virality flame because there wasn’t much more for the studio to lose after two months of free advertising. If the meme discourse surrounding Morbius inspired more people to go see it, Sony gets win. When it didn’t, it’s not like Sony had spent much advertising the reissue. The reactions surrounding the re-release were likely more of the intended target for the studio than the movie’s second turnout at the box office. As Mendelson put it, re-releasing Morbius back into theaters knowing it might play in mostly empty auditoriums, is more about Sony keeping the character in the news cycle even if it meant embracing the failure and belittling their own branded IP. Putting Morbius back on the chopping block would qualify some added value element from a character who has otherwise been made value-less.
Entangled in the memeability of Morbius is Jared Leto, a celebrity who has become a meme in his own right over the years. Recall Jared Leto Hugging Things, a 2014 photoshop meme in which people take a photo the actor posted to his Instagram account featuring him hugging a tree and photoshop it so it appears Leto is hugging other things. Or 2016’s Green Jacket, a series of image macros and jokes made about the jacket Leto wore to the premiere of the Suicide Squad film, another Leto performance largely panned by critics. Regardless of what some may think about his acting, the actor has a knack for stirring viral headlines whether it’s on the red carpet at the Met Gala or as part of his longtime band now bordering on cult Thirty Seconds to Mars.
As a brand, Sony was smart to play into the memes that became far more memorable than Morbius as a movie. But perhaps Sony misread the impact of meme marketing when they relaunched the movie in theaters instead of re-releasing the movie on streaming platforms. Morbius became available to own on digital in mid-May for $20 on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu, but their decision to reopen the movie in select theaters across the US when majority of the discourse surrounding the film was already happening on mobile in conversation driven platforms like Twitter and Reddit, the likelihood of actually boosting viewership and by proxy, discussion, would likely have translated much better if the studio had given users the chance to stream the movie at home.