Matt Smith Deserved Better Than Morbius and Now Has It with House of the Dragon
Matt Smith is having a genre renaissance thanks to House of the Dragon. Which makes Morbius’ reemergence on Netflix all the more retrograde.
This article contains spoilers for Morbius and the first three episodes of House of the Dragon.
What the hell is he doing? That was certainly my first thought while witnessing Matt Smith strut his stuff and show off a new beach bod in Morbius. I wasn’t alone. In the months since that dubious attempt at a superhero-vampire hybrid bled out on the multiplex floor, the scene has become a legend among the terminally online.
Even before Morbius’ streaming release (and subsequent premiere on Netflix), watching Smith’s evil Milo the Vampire boogieing to “EKSE” was transformed into an instant meme. On Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and all other social media avenues where nerds gather to enjoy content “ironically,” there was bootleg iPhone footage of this dance scene. Along with the catchphrase “It’s Morbin’ Time!”—which, believe it or not, does not appear in the movie—Smith’s two-step became synonymous with a movie treated as “so bad, it’s good!”
In truth though, Morbius is no better or worse than the equally insipid Venom movies that fanboys conversely turned into genuine blockbusters. Morbius just doesn’t have as showy a camp performance as Tom Hardy’s mugging Eddie Brock in its lead role.
… But it does at least have Matt Smith. On paper, Smith’s Milo is so generic that under normal circumstances, it would be a mystery as to how he could carry a meme, never mind the antagonistic weight of a blockbuster movie. Yet onscreen, and when coupled with Smith’s little smirk as he shimmies across a walk-in closet, the reason it works is obvious: Smith is an immense character actor talent who, like many before him, has been wasted in the most dire of superhero movie drivel.
It wasn’t always this way, nor would it remain so as viewers of HBO’s new hit fantasy series, House of the Dragon, soon discovered. Once upon a time, Smith starred in one of the most popular genre properties on television: although one literal oceans away from Sony Pictures’ misbegotten attempt to build a shared Spider-Man universe without Spider-Man.
In 2010, Smith debuted to much fanfare and trepidation as “the Doctor” in BBC’s long-running sci-fi/fantasy series Doctor Who. As the eleventh actor to play the body-swapping alien in a time-traveling police box, aka the TARDIS, there was some initial skepticism toward Smith taking on the role. After all, at age 28 he was (and remains) the youngest actor to play the Doctor. Smith also was following the most popular thespian to inhabit the character (at least in the UK) since the show soft-rebooted in 2005: David Tennant.
Yet one look at how charmingly Smith’s Doctor connected with young Amelia Pond (Caitlin Blackwood) over fishsticks and custard, and most audiences were instantly smitten. Here was a performer who could slide into the Doctor role as comfortably as all those bowties. And whereas there was a forlorn romantic quality to Tennant’s Doctor, there was something irresistibly convivial about Smith’s version of the character: he’s the big kid who never grew up, or at least he pretends to be since it hides away the ghosts we only glimpse in moments of solitude.
Smith struck a nerve while leading Doctor Who for three series across four years, which included being the main Man in the Blue Box during the show’s 50th anniversary and its explosion in popularity in the U.S. Perhaps for that reason Smith was ready to move on to Hollywood.
Since arriving Stateside, the actor’s career has been on two tracks: that of an interesting, often jittery inscrutable presence in indie movies and television series—and the undeniable talent squandered on bland, soulless blockbusters that wish to tap into his comic con clout with genre fans.
Hence the casting of Smith as a shadowy, secondary robot-antagonist who was intended to set up a sequel that mercifully did not come in Terminator: Genisys (2015); he was also the weasel-y Parson Collins in the bizarre mash-up of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), a concept which worked far better on the page; and perhaps as a testament to how chaotic the filmmaking process was on the dire Star Wars: Episode IX, Smith was almost cast in a presumably villainous role that “became obsolete” as that unwieldy studio priority changed and changed again.
Which brings us to Morbius, a spectacularly misjudged attempt to reverse-engineer a Spider-Man villain (Jared Leto’s Morbius) into a bloodsucking superhero movie. The film has all the passion and inspiration of a shareholder’s quarterly report. It’s also about as much fun.
Hence why pop culture enthusiasts latch onto Smith’s dance routine in the movie. Prior to this sequence, Smith’s Milo is provided a potentially interesting if unoriginal setup for his dark descent: Like Leto’s Dr. Michael Morbius, Smith’s Milo suffers from a condition of the blood that is slowly killing him and which has left him disabled. He longs for a cure, and eventually comes to realize Morbius’ superpowered blood is the key (so Harry Osborn’s weak subplot in The Amazing Spider-Man 2).
Alas, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’ hackneyed screenplay does nothing with the concept. Milo turns into an evil sociopath after he becomes a vampire for reasons that are never explored or made clear. He’s a paper thin villain who exists merely to give Morbius a muddy CGI fight scene at the end. Still, in the margins where Smith injects doleful glances here, or a campy dance scene there, this undead carcass of a movie achieves something approaching a pulse.
Smith’s ability to shine, even in dim surroundings such as Morbius, shouldn’t be a surprise, however. While the actor’s career in blockbuster fare has been checkered, he’s enjoyed a genuinely dramatic and rewarding work in other Hollywood-funded projects.
On Netflix’s The Crown, Smith created an entirely separate fanbase who typically would never dream of watching nerdy family entertainment like Doctor Who. As Prince Philip, the husband and consort of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy during the early seasons of The Crown), Smith painted a complex and challenging portrait that neither fully romanticized or condemned the late Duke of Edinburgh. Smith also received an Emmy nomination for his time on the show before the character was aged up and recast.
Elsewhere Edgar Wright’s dangerously seductive flirtation with ‘60s nostalgia, Last Night in Soho, made great use of the actor’s charm and ability to menace as “Jack,” a playboy in swinging London circa 1965. He seems too good to be true. It was another villain role, and one in a distinctly British film (although Soho was produced by the NBC-Universal-owned Focus Features), but it left an impression, much like Smith’s turns as Martin Bright in Official Secrets (2019) or as Charles Manson in Charlie Says (2018).
Studios have sought Smith out for things like Morbius, in part, because of his name-recognition with genre fans. But they never bothered offering a franchise role worth sinking a quirky talent’s teeth into. That just changed with House of the Dragon.
The Game of Thrones spinoff arrived on HBO last month with much cautious excitement and trepidation (sounds familiar). Here was the long-forthcoming prequel to one of the most popular television shows in this century. There was expectation, but also weariness after how Game of Thrones’ ending divided fans. Smith was among the very first actors cast in the spinoff, but as Prince Daemon Targaryen, he would receive the most scrutiny from fans of George R.R. Martin’s source material novels upon which Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon are based.
On the show, Daemon iss “the Prince of the City,” a notorious scoundrel who is remembered in Westerosi history as thus: “In his day there was not a man so admired, so beloved, and so reviled in all Westeros. He was made of light and darkness in equal parts. To some he was a hero, to other the blackest of villains.”
Three episodes into House of the Dragon that duality comes shining through in a character who visibly loves his family, and a second son who remains unmistakably wounded whenever in the presence of his older brother and king, Viserys I (Paddy Considine). And yet, ambition and avarice twinkles in the eye whenever Viserys looks away. He may covet his brother’s attention, but he covets his throne even more.
In the most recent House of the Dragon episode, Daemon even foregoes waiting for relief from King Viserys’ army and navy after a three-year long war the prince has been fighting on a desolate collection of rocks has resulted in a stalemate. Instead Daemon courts death on a seeming suicide run against a pirate captain to win the war, and thereby all the glory, practically by himself.
This sequence, which begins with Daemon processing his brother’s offer of aid, his relief to find Viserys’ love again, and his wrathful need to reject it, is all done without any dialogue. Smith speaks nary a word between Daemon’s choice to go it alone and emerging from a cave drenched in the blood of his great prize.
This is the kind of larger-than-life showcase that Smith has been looking for since coming to Hollywood. Yet despite starring in Terminator and Spider-Man adjacent movies, he found the part on the small screen and in a character that combines a space-doctor’s hidden vulnerability with a Soho pimp’s manipulative scheming.
Morbin’ Time has come and gone, but Smith’s moment has just arrived.