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Non-Review Review: Venom

Transformative trauma is a cornerstone of the superhero genre.

Sometimes that trauma is emotional; the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne, the loss of Uncle Ben, the explosion of Krypton. Sometimes that trauma is physical; having piping hot metal coated over your bones as your memory is wiped, physically mutating into something unrecognisable as human, having your entire body turn to trauma. To misquote Stan Lee, “with great power comes great responsibility.” More often than not, it also comes with great suffering.

Back in black.

In its best moments, Venom seems to realise this. At the core of Venom is the traumatised character of Eddie Brock, who has watched his entire life fall apart and who suddenly finds himself sharing his body with a murderous alien entity with monstrous appetites. Brock is played by Tom Hardy, one of those rare actors with both immense physical presence and incredibly vulnerability. Unshaved and scruffy looking, with faded tattoos and wearing clothes that look like they haven’t been washed, Eddie looks like he’s been through hell even before his transformative experience.

There are moments when Venom almost plays as a weird psychological thriller about a character experiencing a real-time break from reality, a reporter who is losing his fragile grip on reality after suffering one too many personal and professional setbacks. As the situation gets worse, Eddie starts hearing voices in his head and losing control of his body. He finds himself in a situation where terrible things happen, but he is able to disassociate himself from the brutality and violence. Venom never quite commits to this idea, but it simmers through the story.

Wall’s well that ends well.

The first two acts of Venom are ropey and uneven, suffering from a fuzzy lack of detail and no strong focus on any of the film’s central ideas. Nevertheless, the film survives largely on the strength of Tom Hardy’s performance and the weirdness of the concept. However, things fall to pieces in the third act. Part of this is because Venom feels the need to transform into a regular superhero movie as it reaches its conclusion. Part of this is because Ruben Fleischer cannot direct action. Part of this is because of collision of clumsy exposition and muddled computer-generated imagery.

Venom loses what little control it has of itself as it reaches its climax.

MRI are we here?

The third act of Venom is a disaster, one of the worst third acts of any big-budget blockbuster in recent memory. Some of these issues are purely conceptual, down to the fact that Venom feels the need to deliver the sort of scale and spectacle that people expect from a modern blockbuster; this means high stakes, complicated special effects, and a showdown driven by computer-generated animation. None of this is pretty, and it leaves a very sour taste.

The climax of Venom feels the need to put the fate of the world in the balance, as is the default setting for modern superhero blockbusters; think of the nihilistic antagonists of films like Thor: The Dark World or Doctor Strange, villains who want to destroy the world because modern blockbusters believe that audiences want that level of threat. There is an argument to be had about the effectiveness of this approach, about whether movies need that sense of scale, or whether modern audiences can invest in more intimate stakes like those of Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Of two minds about it.

Venom never stops to ask these sorts of questions, and so the film needs to escalate its scale rather dramatically heading into its third act in a way that feels completely inorganic with everything that happened to that point. The third act of Venom is a go-kart course, filled with twists and turns but without enough room to build up any momentum. The third act reveals, in incredibly quick succession, what the eponymous monster was planning to do on Earth, why he’s not doing it anymore now that the audience knows what it is, and who else is planning something similar.

On a level of pure plot it is dizzying, whiplash-inducing. The audience is asked over the course of thirty seconds of exposition to completely reframe their understanding of the relationship between Eddie Brock and the parasite living inside his body no fewer than three times. As a result, none of this has any impact. No reveal has time to sink in before it is replaced with a newer piece of information that recontextualises their whole arrangement.

The script could use some punching up.

This plotting carnage is reflected in the direction. Ruben Fleischer is not an action director, certainly not at the scale that a film like this needs. It is always difficult to create any tangible tension out of two computer-generated blobs hitting one another, but the editing and rhythm of the climactic action sequence do not help. Two superpowered entities throwdown on top of a rocket at the climax of Venom, repeatedly enveloped in fire and tossing and turning over one another, but none of it is visually interesting. Very little of it is even visually clear.

All of this is a shame, because there is a lot of interesting material leading into this disastrous third-act throwdown. The first seventy minutes of Venom are far from perfect, but they are at least engaging. They have a variety of underdeveloped ideas that are at least intriguing, and the whole thing is elevated by a charming central performance from Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock. It would be too much to say that Venom consistently works even during its opening two acts, but it works just enough to keep things moving along.

A lot of this is down to Tom Hardy. It may be too much to describe Hardy as especially good in the role, but his performance is certainly committed. There is seldom a scene without an interesting choice from Hardy that enlivens even the most perfunctory or mundane of takes. Even his early exposition is full of strangely strong performance choices. During the introductory montage establishing him as a reporter, he pauses in the middle of a sentence to check his notes. “The homeless problem is…” He checks his notes, looks back at the camera. “… increasing.”

In some ways, Venom feels like a superhero holdover, a strange relic of a time before the current superhero boom. It feels very much like the kind of movie that might have been rushed into production in the early years of the twenty-first century, following the success of X-Men or Spider-Man, but by people who didn’t recognise the heroes in question. Venom is very much of a piece with films like Daredevil, Elektra, Ghost Rider or even The Punisher.

Motoring along.

This early twenty-first century vibe is reinforced in a number of different ways. The title track from Eminem feels like a cultural marker of an earlier time in film production, and not just because Eminem feels like a turn-of-the-millennium artist. The tie-in single is a long-lost art, something largely overlooked and forgotten outside of exceptional cases like The Greatest Showman or A Star is Born.

This soundtrack choice recalls the inclusion of Nickelback’s Hero on the Spider-Man soundtrack or Evanescence’s Bring Me To Life or My Immortal from Daredevil. It arguably extends back even further, to the point when big-name artists would even build releases and music videos around blockbusters, like Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me or Kiss from a Rose (on the Grave) from Batman Forever. The concept of a superhero rap tune is so outdated that the original Deadpool even affectionately spoofed the idea.

A mess of big ideas.

However, there are other aspects of Venom that evoke those earlier pre-Batman Begins and pre-Iron Man superhero films. Most notably, the fact that the character features on the screen has very little to do with the intellectual property that provided the basis for the movie beyond a superficial resemblance and the use of a few key words; think of misbegotten films like Catwoman or Steel. There is very little in Venom that has any firm roots in the character’s core identity, beyond his name and the fact that he is a “symbiote.”

There are reasons for this of course. Most obviously, the difficulty in making a Venom movie without Spider-Man involved. After all, the character of Venom is defined by his relationship to Spider-Man. Brushing aside any continuity or shared history, Venom is the archetypal “obvious evil doppelganger” to Spider-Man. His character simply does not work without Spider-Man as a point of inspiration or contrast. Visually speaking, Venom makes no sense outside the context of “what if Spider-Man, but dark?”

Ol’ white eyes is back…

The prospect of a Venom movie without Spider-Man is inherently absurd. The punchline here might be to suggest it’s like making two Joker movies without Batman, but that’s not entirely accurate. Despite their long association, there’s nothing about “killer clown” that requires “man dressed as a bat” in order to work. Trying to make a Venom movie without Spider-Man is like trying to make a Sabretooth movie without Wolverine, a Man-Bat movie without Batman, a Bizarro movie with Superman, an Abomination movie without the Hulk. It doesn’t make sense.

Removing Spider-Man from Venom’s origin story essentially removes the spine of the character, in a way that creates an appreciable absence. Even audience members without any appreciation of the long-standing association between the two characters might wonder why Venom’s eyes look like that or why he swings around like that or why he climbs up walls. Venom cannot possibly answer these questions with anything more than because he does. As a result, the film requires that sort of loose approach to the intellectual property that recalls an older breed of superhero film.

To be fair, there are aspects of this approach that work reasonably well. Modern superhero movies have largely abandoned the idea of the superhero as a personal metaphor, the idea that these characters represent something specific and unique rather than serving as a launching pad for grand themes about the modern world. This is perhaps reflected in the way that modern superhero movies have largely moved away from character arcs, but even in the fact that modern superhero films don’t do metaphors as simple as “have you tried not being a mutant?” from X-Men II.

Venom toys repeatedly with the idea of its central character as a metaphor for intense personal experience, of a literal transformative trauma, as a stand-in for the kind of life-changing event that profoundly changes a person. It just so happens that Eddie Brock is changed in a manner more physical than psychological. In the first ten minutes of the movie, Eddie hits rock bottom. He loses his cushy job and his beautiful fiancé. He finds himself in massive debt and unable to work. His reputation is in tatters, and his self-esteem isn’t much higher.

Getting into his own head.

Tom Hardy does a lot of the heavy-lifting here. The comic book version of Eddie Brock was transparently a villain and obviously monstrous. He was a bad journalist who faked news coverage in order to get paid. Venom shies away from so rough a portrayal. Instead, Eddie has a single moment of weakness that winds up costing him very dearly. The film has another character suggest through dialogue that Eddie’s fall from grace is a result of arrogance and hubris, but the script never belabours the point for fear of alienating the audience.

As a result, it is up to Tom Hardy to give the character the rough edges necessary for the audience to believe that he is falling apart. Hardy has the wonderful blend of machismo and empathy that does the necessary work. Eddie looks like he is barely holding it together as it is. At the top of his game, Eddie looks like he rarely shaves and struggles to maintain eye contact with the people around him. Once everything falls apart, Hardy’s performance suggests a man for whom even clearly articulating himself is an uphill struggle.

Getting ahold of himself.

The most interesting sequences in Venom suggest that the film might be read as something equivalent to a superheroic take on The Fisher King, that Eddie Brock’s mind has finally snapped after one weird experience too many and that he has retreated into fantasy to make sense of the world. “I’m out of control,” Eddie desperately explains to his former fiancée, who finds him rambling and barely coherent. “It’s in my head.” When she finally sees the creature in its hulking form, standing over a mass of bodies, Eddie desperately tries to reassure her, “That wasn’t me.”

This is the sort of broad pop psychology approach to superhero storytelling that is largely absent from contemporary superhero blockbusters, perhaps because these films are wary of veering into camp absurdity. Venom is undeniably absurd at points, featuring the kind of goofy plot beats that have largely been filtered out of modern self-serious superhero films in favour of a clean and standardised approach. There is a moment in Venom that recalls the long-lost eccentricity of Ang Lee’s Hulk, when the symbiont hides inside an adorable little dog for a few minutes.

Having a gas time.

Venom works best when it leans into the ridiculousness of its premise, including the heavy-handed psychology of it all. At several points, Eddie and Venom converse with one another, as if wrestling for control of the same body. At another point, Eddie and Venom make out with one another. Towards the end of the film, Eddie seems to ruminate on the power that this grotesque transformation gives him. “It’s not entirely awful,” he concedes, having reconciled with the monster inside himself.

Of course, the issue is that Venom pushes itself closer and closer to the standard superhero template as the climax approaches, and so falls into the familiar rhythms. The film never quite explores the breach of trust between Eddie and his fiancée, and never quite holds him to account for what happened. Although other characters suggest his failure is rooted in his character, he never actually overcomes any of the flaws that they identify as the movie rushes to its climax. Indeed, the film stresses how nice a guy Eddie is; even broke, he gives twenty dollars to a homeless person.

The same is true of the plot itself, which involves an obvious riff on Silicon Valley tech company billionaires as capitalist villains. Riz Ahmed plays Carlton Drake, a figure very obviously inspired by figures like Elon Musk. He is obsessed with space travel as a means of self-preservation, and has little concern for limitations like health and safety. The film vaguely gestures towards the awkward relationship between these tech companies and the press, but never really engages.

Ahmed’s performance is interestingly largely for how smooth it is, how consciously lifeless. Ahmed plays Drake in contrast to Hardy as Brock. Hardy is constantly doing things, whereas Drake seems singularly disinterested, like a pre-programmed robot with no real interest in anything happening around him outside of academic curiosity and an abiding love for sound of his own voice. Drake arguably works in the finer details rather than the big picture; his trendy sneakers the most wryly well-observed aspect of his character.

What the tech is wrong with you?

Ahmed plays Drake as a character who completely lacks self-awareness. He praises a young child for asking questions right before shutting down an interview. He positions himself as God in a retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which he tries to argue that Isaac is the real hero despite his complete lack of agency. Ahmed plays Drake as the kind of figure who is used to people clapping at the end of his sentences, and so no longer feels the need to put any effort in. It’s not an especially memorable performance or character, but it’s a decent approach.

Again, the film falls off the deep end when it rushes towards the climax, requiring Drake to fill the role of primary threatening antagonist to Eddie Brock. This requires dumping a huge amount of exposition very quickly, and obscuring a whole host of motivations. Venom is the kind of film where a tech billionaire can decide to launch himself into space with literally five minutes notice; he even starts the countdown while he is standing in the control room, obviously counting on a short walk to the rocket.

Venom disintegrates in its action-packed climax, which is a shame. There was some interesting material in the first two-thirds, even if it struggled to cohere even before everything collapses into itself.

 

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10 Responses

  1. The way to make a Venom movie without Spider-Man work… is to make a Spider-Man movie.

    Go back to the commonly seen original version of the Symbiote (Which I think is more from the 90s cartoon show that the actual comics).
    Have Eddie Brock at his lowest etc. Getting the Symbiote, then follow the story of him doing good with it, slowly noticing things are a bit off, he’s tired, getting more aggressive and brutal because of it’s influence so he has to find it’s weakness and fight it off, the climax being him putting himself through some suffering in order to drive it off, the image and use of sound in a climax where he’s going towards a bell tower while his own body fights him has a ton of potential.

    That’s the first Venom story, from there if it works, you can bring in a big threat that makes him re-bond even though he knows it’s a bad idea. Have the classic “good guy teams with Villain” plot but all the banter, betrayals etc. are in the same body which is at least a little bit of a twist on it.

    • That could work, actually. Although I can see the fans and critics whining about having to watch another Spider-Man origin story, this one without Spider-Man actually in it.

      • True, but I’d say there are enough differences you can throw in. Eddie is more of an asshole, he might not even be that upset at killing, just the amount, or there’s lines being crossed like going after murderers is fine, but then it starts turning into anyone that annoys him, or the fact he’s being forced and not choosing etc.

        Taking advantage of the R rating with some real body horror of the symbiote almost consuming him as it bonds, there’s enough to make it not just another Spider-Man origin.

        Honestly, there is actual mileage in Venom on it’s own and the symbiote concept, you just need a strong idea of what you want to do and sticking to it which they fail to do.

  2. Tom Hardy was the best part of the movie, he and the symbiote have surprisingly decent chemistry and my favorite scenes are with them. They really could have cut out the prologue that showed Eddie’s fall to grace though, it felt kinda tacked on especially when the movie repeats that information a little bit later.

    Venom felt like a lot of stuff was missing. It feels like a lifeless bag floating… like a turd… in the wind…

  3. Great review! I had fun with ‘Venom,’ but it wasn’t really a good movie.

  4. “Venom” the really a good Hollywood movie to watch in 2018. I have seen it no. of time and every time I enjoy a lot. So, I greatly recommend everyone to watch this movie at least once.

  5. I hope the sequel has better action. If that isn’t the director’s strong point he can always hire someone else to handle those scenes, which other films have done.

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