OPINION | Venom, or the hyped Prometheus
There are times when a film’s poster clearly talks about its own development hell… and, of course, there’s Venom | Source: Empire
Sixteen years ago, Sony Pictures Entertainment released Spider-Man (2002) in cinemas and theaters worldwide. With Sam Raimi in the director's chair and a cast consisting of Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Willem Dafoe and J.K. Simmons, among others, the film, distributed by Columbia Pictures – owned by Sony since 1989 – singlehandedly revived the summer blockbuster. The movie laid down the foundations for a multi-million dollar franchise well received by critics and audiences, with net profits of $1.5 billion in its first installment and just under $4 billion between its three films.
Five years later, the landscape for Sony and its intellectual properties based on the arachnid superhero would become far more complex. Having lost control of the ball, not only because of the poor reception of Spider-Man 3 (2007), but of the franchise’ reboot, titled The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as its big hook, Sony found itself between a rock and a hard place. The franchise had either to reinvigorate urgently or risk dying. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) was a forced step in creating a cinematographic universe with Peter Parker as its main thread, but its profits and its reception by the public, once again, were not enough.
Marvel Films, of course, seized its moment: after successfully negotiating the character’s entrance into the MCU – this time, played by Tom Holland – in Captain America: Civil War (2016), the excellent reception of his antics made the studio conscious of said IP’s potential. Only one year later, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) would become a huge success in the box office and, having a sequel on the way already, it is rather doubtful that the current superhero film giant will even think of cheating or slowing down the famous New York-based wall climber’s success.
Today, every single film studio out there wants to have its own mastodon of a franchise. Sony’s executives, realizing this, decided to counterattack.
The idea of using one of Spider-Man's meanest enemies, Venom, in his own solo film is not a new thing. In 1997, David S. Goyer - that equally beloved and hated figure in the screenwriting world, especially when it comes to comic book movies - flirted with the idea of writing a movie for the character. However, his plans would not come into fruition and, ten years later, audience and critics agreed that probably the worst thing about Spider-Man 3 had been Venom's role on it – a move that would have dire consequences for Topher Grace’s stardom, fresh out of his run in That 70’s Show. Once again, the character would fall into darkness.
You can almost see the “God, what the f**k did I do?’ in Tom’s face | Source: From the Movie
In 2016, however, Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach took control of a new project; a stand-alone cinematic universe, unrelated to the MCU, focusing on Spider-Man’s rogue gallery. Perhaps inspired by the positive reception of gritty films such as Deadpool (2016), it was announced that Venom would be spearheading this effort, giving the villain turned anti-hero a leading role in a low-budget, R-rated film. The movie’s director would be Ruben Fleischer, who was acclaimed for his comedy Zombieland (1974) and somewhat infamous for the entire rest of his film career. The actor selected to play Eddie Brock, the symbiote’s host, would be Tom Hardy, an actor whose physical presence and acting quality has become unmatched in the industry.
The fans’ hope, enlivened by a hype campaign like few others, made the film a topic of conversation everywhere, both for the reasons that made it viable... and for those that did not. There were those who - justifiably - feared that Sony would make a mess; others, due to the presence of its main actor and the insistence of its director on producing a dark, badass film by means of not being limited by Marvel and Disney’s tight production rules, thought the movie would be worthy of its character.
Finally, in October 2018, Sony premiered Venom in Los Angeles, amidst rumors that Tom Hardy himself did not agree with the final production and that the film, announced with great fanfare as an ultraviolent R-rated film, would end up getting a PG-13 censorship. Critic reception of the film has been lukewarm at best, with only 30% of approval on Rotten Tomatoes to date; however, Venom still managed to be a box-office hit, making profits of $205.5 million on its first weekend and breaking records as the best October premiere ever.
Yes, Venom is not the disaster that critics are holding it to be...
... but it is not a good film either.
Venom's beginning is surprisingly dark; a Life Foundation spacecraft, on its way back to Earth after having explored a comet that passed very close to Earth's orbit, crashes in Malaysia. Although Life Foundation's damage control team manages to recover three of the four samples brought in by the transport, one sample is lost in the chaos. Not that it matters that much: following their established protocols, the remaining samples are sent to Life's headquarters in San Francisco for analysis.
Meanwhile, we get to know Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter who is at the top of his game. Eddie is a tough nut to crack; his journalistic smell for a good story is matched only by his irreverence when it comes to expressing his opinions and choosing cases to work with, and his media presence makes him a sensation for some and a thorn in the side for others. Everything seems to be going well for Eddie, being a rising star who seem to have a solid and happy relationship with Anne Weying, a legal advisor for a non-descript law firm.
But when his boss assigns him to interview no other than Carlton Drake, Life Foundation's young CEO, Eddie not only has a very bad feeling about it but, after sniffing a lot more than he should on his girlfriend's laptop, he discovers that Life is in the middle of a complex legal affair. Eddie's inner hound is looking for a story... but his ego and his firm belief in exposing Drake's dark intentions make him lose his job and Anne's heart, once her bosses deduce that the leak could not have come from anyone but her.
Having lost everything, Eddie has only one thought in mind; to completely walk away from journalism and the investigation that took everything from him. However, as a good journalist, his intentions to let it go are short-lived; a source in Life Foundation, a scientist visibly disappointed by his boss's grandiloquence and megalomania, seeks him out with evidence confirming that everything Eddie suspected of Carlton Drake is true... and might be even worse.
Eddie decides to infiltrate Life’s headquarters, with a little help of his source, to discover the truth...
... and ends up not only stumbling upon more than the truth, but also forcibly being the host of a creature from outer space, the product of one of the samples that Life collected in the comet, with its own agenda and very specific intentions. A creature that every comic book fan will recognize as a symbiote.
My mother always told me never to rob a Chinese store... | Source: CNET
If you noticed a certain similarity with Upgrade (2018)'s plot by reading Venom’s synopsis, I cannot blame you. This should not be a contentious point, though; six years ago, Dredd (2012) – a movie that, by the way, I will review as soon as possible – managed to get away with a plot that was very similar to The Raid (2011). That action and martial arts tour-de-force, directed by Gareth Evans and starring Indonesian actor and silat practitioner Iko Uwais, had glaring enough similarities with Dredd to raise eyebrows. Nevertheless, Dredd not only managed to revitalize a classic character who had a rough patch after the disastrous adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone in 1995, but also became an excellent film in its own right.
Venom, on the contrary…
If the film had dared to keep its crude and suspenseful atmosphere through its entire run, and had respected its internal logic a lot more, Venom would have been one hell of a movie. Unfortunately, beyond its surprisingly attractive beginning, we end up dealing with a subpar superhero movie that reminds us of the badly written scripts of the early 2000s. Eddie Brock's possession by the symbiote, instead of increasing the narrative tension of the film, completely changes its nature and brings it closer to a buddy film. It has some very funny set pieces, though, in which Eddie learns, in both good and bad ways, that he must give a certain degree of freedom to his organic and sarcastic new friend’s impulses if he wants to stop Carlton Drake in his evil ambitions.
Nevertheless, this plot device begins to wear quickly; the second and third acts of the plot suffer a lot as a result, making you feel that a 112-minute movie could have lasted about 20 minutes less without any consequence. To add insult to injury, the complete omission of Spider-Man – Venom's main rival, with whom the symbiote has a love-hate story quite known to fans – forces screenwriters to highlight a somewhat different reason, both for the presence of said antagonistic organisms on Earth, and for the symbiote's change of heart about humanity, that feels somewhat ham-fisted.
One of Venom's biggest problems, incredibly, is its cast... and the almost null chemistry between them. | Source: The Amaranta
As far as acting is concerned, Venom's casting is hit-and-miss at best. It is true that Tom Hardy is one of those actors who can consistently deliver spectacular performances in any project he is involved, no matter the perceived success of said films. Here, however, this happens by pure chance; the English actor does not seem completely comfortable in his role, and his Eddie Brock does not fully convey – either by script or by bad directing – those traits that we usually admire in journalists on film. Once Eddie and the symbiote bond, though, we get to see the Tom Hardy we love; known for playing characters with deep contradictions, he succeeds in capturing the fear and terror experienced by the character as Eddie adapts to his new condition. He even gets to flex his comedy muscles with fairly good results.
The rest of the cast, unfortunately, does not hit the mark at all. Michelle Williams' presence is barely felt and her chemistry with Tom Hardy is next to nonexistent, her role also being unnecessary for the functioning of the plot. Riz Ahmed, a young English actor and rapper of whom we already have excellent references – both for his role in Nightcrawler (2014) and in the HBO mini-series The Night Of (2016) – is miscast as the show’s main villain, lacking much of the magnetism and charisma needed to convince the audience that he is more than a caricature of Elon Musk. Jenny Slate has a better run as Dora Skirth – Eddie Brock's source at Life Foundation – but her character’s role is hardly more than a plot enabler that doesn't give her much more to do.
The production values of the symbiote, and the CGI involved in its creation, deserve their own mention. Given the nature of the character, guaranteeing the credibility of the character required that its quality was outstanding; regrettably, it is another half-assed part of the movie. Although close-up scenes look great, Venom does not escape from that habitual occurrence in low budget movies: low-quality, rushed special effects. Throughout the plot, the audience will notice that the abundance of night scenes is not only a choice of setting for the character’s moral ambiguity, but a way to cover up the CGI’s shortfallings... which are evident in the final fight between Eddie Brock and Carlton Drake.
That looked so cool on the trailer, right? WRONG | Source: Free Addons
Was it necessary to make a Venom film? This question may have different answers depending on who do you ask. Fans had been waiting for years for a film based on the House of Ideas’ popular symbiote, and the film studios, in their box office war, usually spare no effort in adapting ideas that could succeed in the theaters. It's a pity that Venom, with such huge resources and a good cast at its disposal, ends up being a work whose virtues are perfectly balanced by its failures, feeling like a half-baked film and with a clear identity problem, divided between the novel, brutal and genuinely terrifying film that could have been...