If there’s one thing that Venom makes abundantly clear, it’s that in 2018, the corporations that produce superhero movies require them to be so much more than just movies. (And yes I will be referring to Venom as a “superhero movie” here for the sake of brevity, leaving aside that whole asinine debate). Years ago now — decades, probably — we were collectively dismayed by the realization that films had become products. Quaint revelations of a simpler time, now that superhero movies have to be teasers, prequels, synergy events, and corporate presentations guaranteeing future profits. Not just products, but entire business plans.
Venom, directed by Ruben Fleischer, hired by Sony to help kickstart their competitor to Marvel’s MCU, seems to start out wanting to be a movie, before appearing to realize about halfway through the full extent of its responsibilities. It first creaks under their weight then shatters, into a million tiny shards and one confusingly stunted CGI sequence involving a rocket. In that way, it’s relatable. It’s like watching 2003 crash into 2018 and realize how much it sucks here.
Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a shoe-leather San Francisco reporter known for wearing a motorcycle jacket and pissing off the powerful. He lives in a Victorian on Union Street with his lawyer fiancee, Anne Weying (confusingly not Chinese, because she’s played by Michelle Williams), who I assume covers most of their rent. He gets assigned a fluff piece on the pharmaceutical billionaire/rocket designer, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a barely veiled take on Elon Musk. Brock is supposed to fluff Drake’s rockets, but can’t help trying to do an exposé.
Drake not only gets Brock fired, he gets Brock’s fiancee fired, leaving Brock both unemployed and dumped (and yet still in a much nicer apartment than any of mine when I lived in San Francisco). Drake continues doing evil stuff, experimenting on the poor in his drive to colonize other planets. The conscientious objectors in Drake’s company, notably scientist Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) — who I initially thought was named “Doris Girth,” which I think we can all agree is much better — come to Brock for help. But he’s out. He’s seen what trying to speak truth to power gets you; nothing but trouble.
As bad as it eventually gets, Venom does a lot right at first. In Marvel movies, the archetype of the 2018 superhero movie, the heroes’ motives for doing good rarely require much exploration. There’s an evil guy who’s trying to destroy the universe, so of course you have to try to stop him. In Venom, Brock is forced to realize that doing good is hard, that the reward for personal integrity is exclusively internal.
Which makes Venom, who is still a Sony character as well as a Spider-Man character, even though Spider-Man is no longer a Sony character since he joined the Marvel MCU (phew!), a welcome throwback to the old Sony superhero movies. I missed those — Spider-Man 2 was and still is my favorite — because they were about people, with problems. Whereas Marvel movies tend to be about the fate of the planet, or the universe. In Sam Raimi’s superhero movies, morality was an open question, whereas for Marvel it’s usually taken as a given.
Through a series of events, buppa da buppa da buh, Brock gets infected — possessed, really — by an alien life-form that one of Drake’s private astronauts scraped off a comet. This alien amoeba thingy (the symbiote!), which can manifest stringy appendages with no apparent rules, gives Brock superpowers, makes him impervious to bullets, and even talks to him. “You’re kind of a loser, aren’t you,” the alien growls, sounding like James Earl Jones meets the Carl’s Jr. burger guy.
Where does an alien even learn to talk like that? Pretty sassy for a space invertebrate. This is where the movie gets goofy, but also fun. It’s essentially superhero Drop Dead Fred, where Brock is the guy who can’t help doing right even when it gets him nothing but poverty and failure, who suddenly has an evil alien alter ego to level the playing field for him. The alien also makes him act insane, like jumping in the lobster tank at a restaurant to chow on live lobsters.
God give me the movie that’s only this. It’s a fun premise and Tom Hardy is the perfect actor for it, reacting with dog-like surprise every time his voice and body do something unexpected. Does he do a baby voice and speak in a weird unplaceable accent the entire movie? Absolutely, and I forgive all of it for his magnificent “zoinks!” face. The man is a human Scooby Doo.
At some point, Venom, with a screenplay by Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinker, realizes that it actually does need to be about world domination. In modern superhero movies, this seems to be a commercial decision. It’s much easier to write expanded universes with lots of different characters and merchandizing opportunities when the characters have to team up to stop… something… than it was in the old “person with a problem” superhero model.
So Venom crams in a big CGI set piece that’s both visually and narratively confusing — you can barely tell what’s happening, let alone why — and manages to combine all the worst parts of a “fighting-your-evil-doppleganger-in-the-third-act” aughts superhero movie with a “destroying-the-portal-and-saving-the-universe-in-the-third-act” 20teens superhero movie. Everything about it feels rushed, though I’m partly thankful, because the alternative probably would’ve involved 25 more minutes of running time.
After the curiously stunted fight, Venom tacks on a teaser scene, with Eddie Brock and his symbiote living happily ever after, the symbiote giving Brock love advice, Hitch style, and Brock transforming every time he needs a little muscle. It’s actually… a good teaser, and makes you wonder if they should’ve just made that movie and skipped the origin part.
It was perhaps inevitable that Venom was going to feel confused, connected to the MCU but not part of it, a 2003 superhero forced to try to be a 2018 superhero movie against its will. It’s a dad trying to be hip for his kids, exemplified perfectly by the Eminem theme song playing over the credits. He’s still rappin’ fast, you guys! (Venomonemonoemonem!)
You don’t beat Marvel trying to be Marvel. Venom showed glimpses, and would’ve been much better off, being the anti-Marvel; the franchise, that’s okay with being a little dumb and silly and doesn’t feel like it has a five-year plan.