On Spider-Man, Venom, the clumsiness of Sony's comic-book offerings, and how Tom Hardy follows in the footsteps of Steve Martin and Jim Carrey
Venom Sony Pictures Releasing
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Screenplay: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Reid Scott, Scott Haze, Jenny Slate and Melora Walters
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 52 minutes / 2.39:1
October 5, 2018
(out of four)
I don't know much about Eddie Brock but I'm guessing he's a Knicks fan. Yes, you might say, that's easy, the New York accent is a dead giveaway. But I'm speaking on much grander terms here. For who else but a Knicks fan would belong here, with the New York Knicks of comic-book franchises.
The Sony/Columbia line has been permitted to take itself seriously, and asked us to do the same - throw whatever caveats around the word "seriously" that you wish - entirely on the strength of its brand recognition and the history associated with it. Rather, one brand in particular. And look, I know, technically, Venom is not a Spider-Man movie. It is not connected to any current or upcoming Spider-Man movie(s). Technically, this movie represents a different direction entirely - a new creative enterprise for the studio. Technically.
But in truth Venom exists on the same continuum of ill-fated, ill-conceived attempts at franchise-building that gave us the disheveled mess of an Amazing Spider-Man reboot and the ballyhooed Sinister Six plans that went up in smoke. If this movie is any indication, the latest attempt will be as spectacular a failure as the last one. The good people of Sony/Columbia keep making grand plans, pulling in big names, promoting the great pop-culture juggernaut they are going to be someday. And they just keep making a mess of things. They are not very good at this. They are the prestige brand that doesn't realize they're not a prestige brand anymore. The Knicks* keep thinking they're on the cusp of competing with the NBA's superteams, too.
* Let's see if we can continue to scotch-tape this analogy together. At the risk of going the obvious route, James Dolan is Avi Arad, the high-powered execs responsible for these perpetual shitshows. Marc Webb is Jeremy Lin, the hotshot savior who came out of nowhere and got everyone excited and then turned out to not be very good after all. (Also, Lin attended Harvard; Webb attended the University of Wisconsin - the Harvard of Madison.) Carmelo Anthony is the Uncle Ben storyline - if not origin stories in general - that Sony somehow thought could sustain a new franchise rebuild. Sam Raimi is Jeff Van Gundy. Tom Hardy is Kristaps Porzingis. And Steve Kerr is Kevin Feige ... which means the Golden State Warriors are Marvel. Now is the time to point out that Venom takes place in the Bay Area, those very Warriors' backyard.
And now they're hoping we forgot that the last time they made a go of this (Marc Webb's 2012 and 2014 Spider-Man entries and the various subsequently aborted spinoffs they went out of their way to set up), it went so poorly that they had to enter into a joint-custody arrangement with their presumptive rival. They've been trying to get back in the game for the better part of a decade, and they still can't get their shit together.
What's dispiriting about Venom is that its defects feel so similar to those of The Amazing Spider-Man. In both cases you can tangibly sense all the editing and/or re-writing; the missing pieces, the changes in creative direction. There aren't subplots and story beats in this movie so much as residue from what used to be subplots and story beats. Disconnected fragments. Endings without middles, middles without beginnings. There are moments and lines of dialogue near the end that overtly reference an entirely different version of this movie that we never got to see.
There are filmmakers out there who can trim all the fat out of a movie and you wouldn't suspect a thing. With Venom, especially in its second half, we're constantly being reminded, "Yep, there used to be a whole lot more movie here." The trimming and cutting and re-working is all done so haphazardly that there's almost nothing left but scar tissue. It's all too similar to the infamous Fantastic Four debacle. (That one was 20th Century Fox, by the way, just to emphasize that comic-book incompetence knows no studio boundaries.)
What this tells me is that, even after giving up creative control of their greatest asset, and even after seeing DC make a mess of their own superhero slate - all while Marvel's reign of popularity continued unobstructed - the creative braintrust for Sony's superhero films still haven't learned any lessons. It's been six years and they've simply repeated their mistakes. I'm not sure who they could hire that would neutralize whatever shoddy infrastructure they have in place for giant productions like this.
Although now that we're on the subject, maybe hiring Ruben Fleischer to direct your giant production is a bad idea. After breaking out with the rock-solid Zombieland nearly a decade ago, Fleischer followed up with the execrable 30 Minutes or Less and the star-studded instant-footnote Gangster Squad. And now he's delivered this, Venom, a movie with a great interpretation of its central character(s) and the perfect physical vessel with which to express it, and which still winds up a mangled mess of half-baked plotting and half-conceived ideas.
What the filmmakers seemingly envisioned was an alien/human, good cop/bad cop, crimefighting version of All of Me, with a touch of The Mask. Which sounds enticing as hell, as far as I'm concerned; and in fits and starts, it's gold. Venom - an alien symbiote that requires a human host to survive - finds one such host in Eddie Brock (Hardy), a gonzo journalist who specializes in investigating corporate corruption. The getting-to-know-you moments between these two strong personalities sharing one suddenly-very-powerful body are terrific, and Hardy's commitment here - his willingness to make himself look ridiculous; his physical pliability; the exhausted confusion and emotional concern on his face as he tries to reconcile the disconnect between his mind and his body - is wholly impressive.
The dynamic between host and parasite is more than enough to anchor the movie, which leans entirely toward comedy in its best moments and entirely toward generic faux-dramatic contemporary action-thriller everywhere else. Venom himself is the result of biological experiments perpetrated against unsuspecting pseudo-volunteers by Silicon Valley bad-boy Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). As usual with Spider-Man movies, not to mention sci-fi's long history of mad-scientist villains, Drake eventually gets power-hungry and intends to use the symbiotic technology on himself. Just like Green Goblin and Doc Ock and Lizard before him. Needless to say, his extremely top-secret lab in which his extremely illegal experiments are taking place have the best security system money can buy, by which I mean that there's exactly one security guard manning the door, and people break in constantly.
The film's strength is in the origin of its two-headed antihero, and thus I'm not sure how much use it has for that kind of antagonist. There's just not much for him to do, beyond introducing the requisite symbiote technology and give Eddie/Venom a monster to fight at the end. Eddie Brock and Venom learning to coexist is the movie. The people making the movie don't entirely realize that. Instead they try to make that relationship coexist with a number of other storylines that have logistical significance (at best), but are otherwise a waste of time. It's no surprise, then, that the film's internal plot logic makes one inexplicable leap after another. Which seems, as an editing decision, both a reinforcement of the importance of those beats to the screenplay's narrative architecture, and an accidental acknowledgment of how completely uninteresting any of that plotting really was in the first place. What I'm saying is that Sony should get out of the comic-book business.