We are currently in the midst of the longest hiatus between Marvel movies we’ve seen for quite some time. Thanks to the brutal cliffhanger left by Avengers: Infinity War, and little-to-no indication left by Ant-Man and the Wasp as to where things are headed, fan anticipation is becoming even more rabid as time goes by. With no X-Men movies in sight either, the timing has proven to be perfect for Sony to swoop in and launch what is planned to be a new comic universe with Venom, the popular anti-hero borne of a vicious alien symbiote bonded with reporter Eddie Brock.
Venom is one of those comic properties that Hollywood has been struggling to adapt to film for quite some time, this one as far back as the late 90’s when David S. Goyer drafted a script for New Line Cinema. That project never came to fruition, but Venom finally came to theaters in Sam Raimi’s controversial Spider-Man 3, in which the symbiote first appeared infecting Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, and later Topher Grace’s Eddie Brock. That film has long been maligned as jumbled and inconsistent, but the Venom character has easily endured as a fan favorite.
After the success of the Spider-Man trilogy, Sony revived prospects of giving Venom a solo film, but the Amazing Spider-Man reboots led to further delays. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was intended to kick off a wider franchise that would include a Venom spinoff, but low returns pulled the rug out from under that plan. Sony, however, has remained determined to launch their own “Marvel Universe,” and this year’s finally-realized Venom is set to kick that off. Having seen the end result, the film is not without its pleasures, but Sony would certainly be better off giving up on the idea.
Arriving during the glory days of Marvel Studios and post-The Dark Knight, Sony’s Venom feels like the product of a by-gone era. Rather than fitting in the comic renaissance with the likes of non-MCU properties such as Logan or Deadpool, the handicapped Venom reminds of the days when superhero releases were tailored by studios to court the widest audience as possible, and the genre was polluted with intellectually-bereft misfires such as Fantastic Four, or more appropriately, Ghost Rider. Like those films, Venom lands as just another missed opportunity.
Those like myself who enjoy observing a film’s reception should be aware by now that the response to Venom demonstrates a stark contrast between critics and fans. Many critics, I would argue, are rather harsh in this case, failing to take into account what the film seeks to offer to genre enthusiasts, as well as the casual filmgoer, while the general public, on the other hand, seems to place a low threshold on creativity. As to the question of who is right on this one, I would draw from both sides – Venom is painfully derivative and banal, and a delight all the same.
If for nothing else, the film might be worth your while just to witness Tom Hardy mixing it up with an acting style that is truly counter to his typical role. Rather than the weighty, rasping Bane or the world-worn Max Rockatansky, Hardy’s Eddie Brock here is a shifty, swaggering maverick. As we are introduced to him, Eddie has pretty good life. He has a devoted girlfriend, Anne (Michelle Williams), and a fairly successful career as a TV investigative journalist in San Francisco making a living by exposing corruption and toppling greedy power-mongers.
That all comes crashing down when Brock secretly uses documents from Anne’s law firm to take a shot at Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the CEO of the Life Foundation who has been accused of killing subjects in human trials. Brock’s reckless investigative approach causes him to lose his job, his girlfriend, and his apartment, sending him into a downward spiral. After Dora (Jenny Slate), a disgruntled former colleague of Drake’s, sneaks Brock into the Life Foundation to help him expose the abuse, Brock encounters a captured alien symbiote, and it conjoins with him.
The concept of a savage parasite infecting a person who is already feeling debased and unhinged packs enormous potential, a possible surfeit of ominous and infectious psychological material. To date, no Venom adaptation has been able to effectively make us of this. Whether it be the infamous sauntering, emo Peter Parker of Spider-Man 3, or the new twitching, erratic Eddie Brock of this year’s Venom, Sony has consistently managed to fumble the golden opportunity of allowing its directors to take viewers on what could be an unwavering descent into malevolence.
And that can be attributed in full to two central factors: recurring weakness in writing, and reluctance on the studio’s part to divorce its properties from heavy comic relief and camp. Where Spider-Man 3’s tangent into the black stemmed from flimsy relationship drama, Venom’s journey into the abyss relies on Eddie Brock making irresponsible choices that are far from sympathetic in context. In addition, Venom fails to make use of its premise, as well as its promise to viewers, by indulging in an onslaught of half-baked gags instead of embracing its grisly roots.
If failing to commit to an R rating isn’t enough, contributing to Sony’s cowardice from going full-throttle into the sinister is its hiring of director Ruben Fleischer, who was likely deemed appropriate due to his work on 2009’s Zombieland, but is primarily a comedy director by trade, and proves to be the wrong choice for this project. Worse, Venom doesn’t even adhere to its anti-hero selling point, thanks to an unimaginative script by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel that relies on tired tropes such as the mad scientist, and is rife with hokey dialogue.
But if you’re a comic fan and an admirer of the anti-hero, I wouldn’t duck out just yet. Like many who contributed to Venom’s $80 million box office take last weekend, you just may find there is still fun to be had in experiencing the film’s misguided, yet amusing disaster of combinations in tone. It’s an overall product that strikes as undeniably dysfunctional, but resonates as a mess that is an ironic pleasure. Hardy doesn’t disappoint, bodying the villain better than ever before, and despite spouting some stupid lines, Venom is still one of Marvel’s coolest characters.