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.