Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writer: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel
Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott
As a big screen entity, Spider-Man has been through more ups and downs than most franchises go through in an entire lifetime. The first two Sam Raimi outings defined an entire generation of summer blockbuster cinema with the third acting as a harpoon through the very heart of the whole franchise. The Amazing Spider-Man reboot movies starring Andrew Garfield were largely uninspired duds with nothing of the spirit or finesse of Raimi’s work. The famed wallcrawler has made a substantive return through the ever-expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe on a rather shaky agreement between Disney and Sony, and now Sony plans to deliver on a film project that’s been bounced around for over 15 years with one of Spidey’s more iconic foes. A strange turn of events to be sure.
Violence/Scary Images: Intense comic book/fantasy violence. Little blood. Slicing/stabbing with Venom-made blades. Lots of punching, hitting, fighting, etc. Venom throws his victims around and bites off a few heads. Guns and shooting. Some onscreen deaths, many offscreen deaths. Car chases/crashes. Exploding rocket ships. Thug threatens a woman at gunpoint. Vomiting. Venom is very scary to look at, with his vicious fangs and overall menacing appearance.
Language/Crude Humor: The amount of language pushed the PG-13 rating even into an R-rating perhaps. Sh** is said frequently and there is one f-bomb.
Sexual Content: Frequent kissing. A couple falls into bed and is later shown sleeping together (sex is implied). They talk about getting married. Months later, the woman briefly kisses another man.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Main character drinks whiskey in a bar and a beer from his fridge. Glasses of wine are seen on table at dinner.
Spiritual Content: A secular post-modern take on the Binding of Isaac story is made.
Other Negative Themes: Few genuinely honorable characters are present, if at all.
Positive Content: Pretty minimal: The bad guys believe humans have ruined the world/environment and no longer have any right to live, and the good guys believe everyone has a right to live.
If you were a boy growing up in the 90s, your favorite superhero then was Spider-Man (or maybe the Ninja Turtles…I won’t judge), and your favorite villain from Spider-Man was Venom under penalty of…well not death, per se, but something close to it. We could easily grasp and resonate with the monster-faced evildoer because there really wasn’t much to him. Sure, the “bad-guy-version-of-the-good-guy” is a character trope at least as old as Bizarro or Reverse Flash, but Venom was a product of our time. Since Spider-Man himself was already plenty awesome with his gymnastic agility and clever quips, how much more awesome with he be with an all-black suit, a killer instinct, a menacing row of chompers, and a flippant attitude towards the law? Simply put, Venom was cool.
I’m not sure if it’s still cool to be cool, but it was in the 90s. And it was around the time when Marvel Studios CEO Avi Arad was actively gunning for Venom to have a solo film, which has been tossed around at least since Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie was released in 2002. After well over a decade of pass-offs, revisions, rewrites, and a bevy of screenwriters and directors coming and going in and out of the production even as early as last year, one has to stop and wonder if the project itself was still worthy of pursuit, let alone if it was still “cool” enough to register with the jaded summer blockbuster crowd of today. “Cool”, after all, has the expiration date of sour cream sitting on the windowsill in the spring, and if “cool” is all you have on offer, then so do you.
Is there some substance to the character of Venom beyond his superficial “cool” factor? Well, that’s up for debate. Characters of his sort rarely have much to them beyond first impressions. In his original incarnation, Venom is the unholy union of the unscrupulous news reporter Eddie Brock and a living sentient alien creature known as a symbiote, both with a personal vendetta against Peter Parker/Spider-Man. This proved to be one of the earliest conceptual obstacles to the very idea of a Venom solo film. As a character, Venom is the direct outgrowth of actions and missteps committed by Peter Parker, and thus his very essence is somewhat inextricably indigitated with the friendly neighborhood wallcrawler. In blunt terms: Without Spider-Man, there is no Venom.
With Sony having struck a deal with Disney and Marvel to have Spider-Man running about with the Avengers and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in recent years, and the Amazing Spider-Man reboot films having blown over like a lead balloon covered in lard, the path for Venom to take in a solo venture got more narrow with every passing moment and director. Against all odds and with countless shakers and movers having done their time with the project, Venom has finally come to us crawling and wounded from intellectual abuse of various sorts.
Considering the mire of rushed and ill-advised motivation that produced its release, it could be considered rather miraculous that Venom is even watchable at all. Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Gangster Squad) wasn’t even officially signed on until two years ago, and Tom Hardy was called out of the blue as a last minute resort to capitalize on a popular action movie talent. The most shocking marketing maneuver here is this version of Venom is completely detached from the hero of his source material. As far as this movie is concerned, Spider-Man doesn’t even exist as a basic idea. To solidify as vast a distance from the original incarnation as possible, Venom takes place in San Francisco as opposed to Peter Parker’s hometown of New York. “Drastic” is a fairly apt description of every choice that makes up this production.
With all that established, screenwriters Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel really had their work cut out for them to somehow embellish both Eddie Brock and the symbiote creature with a believable and somewhat honorable motive, since they’re taking the primary spotlight now. They also have to come up with a replacement for an opposing entity, since the typical guy isn’t present, and said antagonist has to be somehow palpably more menacing than a guy who eats people as a gag.
The answer to that challenge comes ready-made and package-sealed in the form of Riz Ahmed’s Carlton Drake, a multi-billionaire inventor who acts as the mastermind behind the Nostromo-esque campaign to retrieve an assortment of amorphous extraterrestrial creatures that may very well serve as the next step in the development of human civilization. Drake is pretty much like every other multi-billionaire supervillain with a god complex and no qualms about tossing the most vulnerable and disadvantaged to an early grave for sake of fulfilling his ambitions. If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking after that last sentence, dear reader, the writers were clearly thinking the same thing. Drake is even allowed to make reference to “fake news” at one point.
Whereas Eddie Brock was an unethical journalist with a penchant for twisting the facts in order to buttress his own job position in his original outing, here Tom Hardy performs as a headstrong, stubborn, and morally unfaltering investigator who won’t shy away from putting his own livelihood and those of his closest friends and loved ones at risk in order to score a big story or expose the true colors of local ne’er-do-wells. It’s a fine change of pace that still sits comfortably with the established mythos to be sure. It’s how this material is put to work that betrays the total lack of a soul and direction that’s on display here.
I can’t say I take issue with the idea of Eddie Brock being given a whole new arrangement of motivations completely distinct from what I’m used to. It’s when the combinations of motivations among all the players in this drama don’t really coalesce in any sensible – let alone meaningful – way that I wondered if my time at the theater would have been better spent elsewhere. Through a few bouts of infiltration and serendipity, Brock comes into contact with one of the symbiotes that takes him up as a fitting host and proceeds to drive him to the brink of insanity with newfound tastes for living flesh and haunting, thunderous, guttural voices lingering in his psyche.
Tom Hardy really gives his all in this role, twitching about and performing impressive feats of action choreography while the CGI symbiote makes quick work of assailants, dispatching with impalements, broken bones, PG-13 friendly dismemberments, and cheeky, comically misanthropic quips. Another major dispute over the course the film’s development was deciding whether or not to aim for an R rating in order to score some of that sweet Deadpool money. After seeing it played out screen, I can honestly say going full circle in that direction may have helped with the film’s integrity.
While the writers seem to have little to no care or respect for the more dramatic dimensions to Brock’s plight of being an involuntary host for an ostensibly malevolent alien entity, they show their strength in the comedic dimensions to that internal struggle. Comic book heroes (or anti-heroes in this case) engaging in argumentative banter with their suits and outfits is an established feature in the medium’s lore, found among characters like Iron Man or the Blue Beetle, and the trend gets a very satisfying exhibition here. In fact, the best moments in the film are when it’s only trying to get a laugh, and these moments are sadly far too short-lived.
A more minor concern I had was when the symbiote inhabiting Brock introduced itself as “Venom”. In the original canon, “Venom” is the name Brock and the symbiote take up to mark their new collective identity with each other. The symbiotes themselves are typically nameless on their own. Though with the original reason for that pathological moniker being absent, I can understand the rewrite. If only the script had been a bit more clever with the revision.
With all the tepid directing, phoned-in writing, and afterthought special effects composition, it should be noted there are some miniscule nuggets of achievement to be gathered from the rubble. One of the oft-acknowledged strengths of Sam Raimi’s productions was how alive and full of spirit even the side characters who were on screen for mere minutes could be. There’s some vestige of that here in Venom with store clerks, security personnel, the homeless, and janitors coming in and out with a moment of empathy to share. It helped the film to feel at least somewhat alive even if all else was nearly vacuous.
In fact, all actors on board are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given. Never let it be said Tom Hardy doesn’t know how to sell unhinged and mentally comprised mannerisms with striking aplomb. Michelle Williams appears as dysfunctional love interest Anne Weying, shifting with surprising confidence in her role as a character the film obviously has no idea what to do with. A personal favorite of mine was Jenny Slate’s turn as Dora Skirth, a research scientist in service to Drake who experiences a plot-turning crisis of consciousness and is sadly not given much time to develop.
Venom is largely not a very good movie. This is primarily because a Venom movie is not a very good idea. Despite this, what carries a film forward is box office success, and in that regard, Venom somehow managed to deliver. There’s an after credits scene giving clear hints of what’s to come next for this project and I nearly held back tears for the actor revealed there that they managed to hook in for this job. The guy’s way too good to be here. But hey, Sony’s gotta keep that license under their name somehow. Play on, Sony. Just know the Mouse is hungry…and those box office numbers over the weekend are looking mighty juicy.
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