Just in time for Halloween comes a comic book movie about becoming possessed by an entity that turns you into a monster! Venom, based on the popular Marvel antihero, comes to us with big plans. This isn’t just a movie, or at least it doesn’t want to be just a movie. It wants to be the start of a new franchise. It wants to stand proud and apart in style, and substance, from other comic book movies. It wants to be dark (but not too dark) and unfortunately, Venom doesn’t necessarily succeed on all those counts.
For the record, Venom, as a character, turns 30 years old this year. He was introduced in the lead-up to Amazing Spider-Man #300 as the creative team of the comic book looked for a way to have Spidey ditch that black costume he’d worn for four years, and get back into his classic blue and red duds. It was a fascinating twist, to create a dark reflection of Spider-Man as a new nemesis but in the years since, Venom has evolved to become an occasionally reluctant ally of the Wall-Crawler.
“Venom wants to follow in the footsteps of […] Deadpool and Logan, but it doesn’t seem to understand that those stories were personal.
Of course, there’s no Spider-Man in this Venom due to rights issues too complex to cover here. Instead of an alien costume, we have Carlton Drake played by Riz Ahmed, a billionaire industrialist who’s bringing “Symbiotes” to Earth from a passing comet to assist the human colonization of space…or so he says. One way you know your philanthropist hero is an evil megalomaniac is that their charity is called the Life Foundation. An agency as crassly cynical as this requires a reporter with the brains and brawn to ask the tough questions. Someone like Eddie Brock.
Brock (Tom Hardy), is a classic tabloid-type, a man on the street journo that’s burnt every bridge behind him. On his very last chance, Eddie’s given the opportunity to do a puff piece interview with Drake, but instead levies accusations about illegal human testing at the Life Foundation, accusations he makes after reading confidential emails sent to his lawyer fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams). So Eddie betrays his girl, and ticks off the richest, most powerful man in town. All that’s left is for him to become possessed by alien goop that gives him super-powers.
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What immediately sets Venom apart is that Eddie, is a loser. Sure, we’ve seen losers get super-powers before but unlike Captain America, Eddie is not a ball of good intentions. He’s Geraldo in the 80s, one desperate move away from opening Al Capone’s vault. He betrays his girl, and uses unsubstantiated information, gained illegally, to accuse a billionaire of high crimes. Sure, he’s right in the end, but there is still such a thing as journalistic ethics.
In other words, Brock’s perfect antihero material, which is the tone that director Ruben Fleischer is going for, but he falls into the same traps as every comic book movie. Venom wants to follow in the footsteps of Marvel’s darker ventures Deadpool and Logan, but it doesn’t seem to understand that those stories were personal. The cause for the protagonists in those movies had nothing to do with saving the world so much as saving themselves. Here Venom, and Eddie, are left to save the day from Symbiotes using Drake to bring their kind to Earth and feed on its ample supply of human snacks.
“…once Eddie and Venom become one, and the chase is on, Fleischer kicks things into overdrive.”
Those other films were also R-rated, which allowed for more graphic violence and blood-letting. Fleischer and the studio say they never promised an R-rated Venom, but there’s far too much talk about eating people to not eventually show the deed being done. It’s also fairly clear that Venom has no qualms about killing, so why is the film so antiseptic? Did the production have doubts about going full R-rated, or is it just a case of PG-13 being more profitable and malleable for franchise making?
Also not working in Venom’s favor is that it takes some time to get going. We have to trudge through Eddie’s fall from what he considers grace, and we have to endure Drake twirlling his moustache as he goes about finding suitable test subjects to bond with his captured Symbiotes. Venom picks up significantly when Eddie and Venom finally meet, becoming a kind of buddy cop movie with two partners inside one body. Venom has a fun time mocking Eddie for his trials, while Eddie struggles with being woefully behind the eight-ball in terms of what he’s now capable of and why.
Hardy deserves a lot of the credit for making Venom work on screen. Though Hardy puts on an atrocious approximation of a Brooklyn accent, he’s definitely fun to watch as he tries to cope with his Venom powers. Sadly, Williams is less impressive but mostly because she’s saddled with one of those thankless superhero girlfriend roles. Ahmed, meanwhile, seems to be working on a type of morally dubious industrialist. Drake seems like an extension of the part he played in Jason Bourne, but with a touch of Star Wars’ impetuous Kylo Ren.
That leaves a lot on Hardy, and on the film’s action sequences, to keep the pace up and the viewer interested. For the first 45 minutes that’s tough, but once Eddie and Venom become one, and the chase is on, Fleischer kicks things into overdrive. A slick motorcycle chase through the streets of San Francisco is thrilling enough, but it really seals the deal with a good mix of practical stunt work and CGI Venom powers. Later, a shoot out in the lobby of an office building give us a good sense of Venom’s powers and is very well shot in a fog of tear gas thanks to Darren Aronofsky’s frequent cinematographer Matthew Libatique.
“Venom succeeds at following the formula, but underneath is a film the desperately wants to break from it.”
But the whole thing ends predictably in a big set piece where Venom has to save the world. The film also teases us in the end about all the delightful places that a Venom sequel might go, including a midcredits scene that introduces another fan favourite from Venom lore. In other words, Venom succeeds at following the formula, but underneath is a film the desperately wants to break from it. It seems hard to believe that Fleischer and Hardy both didn’t want to achieve something greater with the film.
Despite that laundry list of misgivings here, it’s hard to deny that Venom’s got something to offer. Venom’s popularity as a character will see him through to box office success this round, but its clear that the audience is developing an expectation that comic book movies do something different every time. Venom’s got the tools and the talent, but can anything remarkable be built out of it? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…