A 29 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can’t be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it’s far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.
Venom‘s a movie, even shorn of an R rating amid some controversy – it secured a 15 in the UK, for “strong threat, horror, violence” but I can’t recall much in the way of “sometimes bloody detail” – that one could scarcely imagine Kevin Feige overseeing. Any more than the tone and content of the Deadpools would have appeared present and correct under the auspices of the Mouse House. The chief problem with the movie – besides some evident over-editing leading to occasional incoherence – is that the inspired choices are counterbalanced by some equally noticeable deficient ones.
Director Ruben Fleischer being the top of the list. Disney’s employment of journeymen to steer their Marvel ships generally comes out in the wash of a house style, whereby few of them can go too far wrong. Sony has no such rigour or quality control. As such, having spent all their money on their star, and possessed of a serviceable screenplay (credited to Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel and Will Beall), they leapt at the chance of engaging a top-flight director.
No, they secured Fleischer. Who debuted with the likeable zomcom Zombieland, but let’s not overstate its merits, particularly since his last big-screen credit was the bereft Gangster Squad five years back (also with a screenplay from Beall).
Fleischer’s subsequent diet of TV comedies hardly count as credentials for blockbuster action, and the resultant visuals are accordingly mostly lacklustre. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique has done some fine work in his time, not least with Darren Aronofosky, but Venom‘s has an uninspired, artificial look, complementing a director who doesn’t really know how to use the frame effectively.
One only has to look at the lumpen motorbike-drone chase, complete with glaring stunt double, to recall that work this shoddy hasn’t been touted in a major studio movie since, oh, probably Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. At times, I was put in mind of the deadly lack of energy imbued in the majority of John Carpenter’s ’90s movies.
Additionally, Fleischer appears to have little facility with his actors – not such a problem when all he’s doing is letting them eat scenery, admittedly – and even less with CGI, a substantial problem when so much of the movie is relying on exactly that. One keeps seeing Venom compared to a ’90s movie – in other words, pre the golden age of comic-book adaptations we’re currently swimming, or drowning, in depending on your point of view – and there’s something to that. Very much so in terms of the quality of the effects. I note the budget is reported at $100m. If so, Sony has been relatively shrewd to keep costs down, and such price tag-consciousness would lend weight to the idea that they were thinking seriously about an R; this comes in between Fox’s Deadpool and its sequel.
The effects quality doesn’t matter so much when you’re involved in a scene; when it’s about the personality of the CGI creature, it’s quite easy to forgive not really being able to buy into them as more than a collection of unconvincing pixels. A bigger issue is when they’re pixels on pixels. The climactic fight between CGI Venom and CGI Riot, set against the backdrop of a CGI rocket, is a bigger turn off than the Disney movies’ habitual recourse to CGI-predominant finales – in particular, The Incredible Hulk, albeit this is mercifully briefer – because at least the latter are intent on lending an air of verisimilitude. They also don’t tend to cut their pictures to ribbons.
During the early stages of Venom, mostly due to Fleischer’s inert staging and lack of acumen with the key relationships, the pace could do with picking up a notch (the rushed opening suggesting we’ll be hitting the ground running, yet Venom doesn’t become Venom until around the halfway mark).
Later, things seem to happen randomly and without sufficient motivation; Eddie’s dying from the effects of the symbiote, until it isn’t even mentioned again. He resolves to just get along with it, and it with him, in a manner that goes far beyond pat and convenient, such that Venom itself has to draw attention to its arbitrary motive for electing not to take over the world (first it professes that it’s “kind of a loser” on its planet; then, when Eddie doesn’t buy this, it announces that it wants to stay on Earth because it likes Eddie, which rather suggests a less cuddly E.T.).
The Predator a few weeks back also showed evidence of injudicious pruning. Venom isn’t quite as badly affected, because it retains a stronger personality, mostly thanks to a much stronger lead, but you do wonder what the purported longer cut looks like. I suspect more coherent, but also that the pacing suffers accordingly. Generally, though, the smaller and more contained the sequence, the better Fleischer is able to handle it; the initial attack by Drake’s men, as Eddie “Venoms out” proper for the first time, is highly enjoyable. A later SWAT team version on a much grander scale, this time exiting Eddie’s old workplace, is less accomplished.
Effects-wise, the Todd McFarlane-proportioned rendering of Venom is faithful to the comics, but can only look distractingly goofy on screen (at least, on an effects budget this size). Something only added to when Eddies complains to his heavy-metal-loving neighbour and pulls a face straight out of The Mask. A significant (and scissored?) subplot concerning the Riot symbiote travelling back to the Life Foundation is suggestive of the likes of The Thing or The Hidden – although it’s Venom who gets the scene possessing a dog – but one wonders if the visuals might have been more effective had physical effects augmented by CGI been used to achieve the creature(s) where possible.
Structurally, the movie is reasonably solid, wasting no time establishing the premise – like The Thing and Predator, it begins with the antagonist heading for Earth in a spaceship – and introducing human foe Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, who needed more to work with if he was going to make the character motivationally interesting; Riot meanwhile, only established properly at a late stage, is only ever a cypher symbiote). Drake’s been compared to Elon Musk, wholly, I suspect, because he has his own spacecraft. Unless Musk has a band of mercenaries going around putting the kibosh on anyone speaking out of turn… which would surely include Musk himself. I also saw no sign of Drake smoking weed.
A significant amount of time – much more than you’d credit, given how luridly larger-than-life the situations become – is spent introducing Eddie (Tom Hardy) and his relationship with Anne (Michelle Williams). Much of this is rather flat, not helped by the difficulty of buying into a hotshot DA being engaged to a stumblebum who sounds like a cross between Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy and Bobcat Goldthwait.
Which raises questions about Hardy’s choices: that someone with Eddie’s comportment would be accepted as a successful investigative journalist and given his own TV show; that someone as beefy as Hardy could convince as a nerd, a nerd who rides around on a Ducatti Scrambler; that Eddie is written smarter than Hardy plays him. And that Hardy seems much more enthused by acting with himself than with Williams (as far as I can discern, the only reason she took the lacklustre role was the opportunity to appear with the lead actor). Or maybe the romance between Eddie and Venom is the whole point. They stay together at the end, after all.
And yet, these drawbacks in no way diminish that Hardy, in both his incarnations of Eddie and Venom, is the movie’s considerable trump card. Hardy’s compared the extremes to Ren and Stimpy, which figures, as he’s clearly relishing the twisted relationship between Eddie and Venom and taking every opportunity to milk laughs from it. If his Kane in The Dark Knight Rises had been half as much fun as Venom (“Eyes, lungs, pancreas. So many snacks, so little time“), he’d have been a Batman villain all-timer. Hardy doing possessed is good fun too (the scene in a restaurant in pursuit of Venom’s particular dietary requirements is worthy of Martin Short).
Once their rapport is established, the picture hits its version of a stride; you’re left eagerly awaiting their next exchange, and it invariably delivers. I said above that Venom’s motivation for joining forces with Eddie is unconvincing; despite that, you’re willing to buy it, and that’s simply because Hardy’s dual performance is so much fun that you believe they’re having fun together, and so are willing to making excuses for the logic gaps.
Simply put, this movie wouldn’t work without Hardy. He’s the difference between an entertaining movie and a bad one, which makes the prospect of a sequel with a talented director on board, in tune with the potential, tantalising.
Williams is given a few moments to “justify” an actress of her stature taking on this role, but anything following Anne and Eddie’s break up tends to be clumsily written and insufficient to establish her as more than the (ex-)girlfriend. The exception is the She-Venom scene, but that’s CGI. Indeed, her sympathetic doctor boyfriend (Wayne Pére) probably has more presence as a character.
There’s a protagonist arc of sorts, whereby asshole Eddie can’t help himself and ruins his and Anne’s careers, leading to him adjusting and “growing” as a person(s) by accepting his id – Venom – and so balancing out the passive-aggressive side that got him into so much trouble. But one couldn’t kid oneself there’s any thematic depth here. There’s certainly less than there was for Stanley Ipkiss (and that was a comedy). And Eddie’s still lying to Anne at the end and having the not-so-little devil on his shoulder assure him he’ll get her back (which has all sorts of creepy connotations, ones I expect any sequel will expressly sidestep).
The post-credits scene features Woody Harrelson in a red fright wig as Cletus Kassady, the alter ego of Carnage (offspring of Venom). Quite how this works (if he’s bonded, why can’t he just escape?) I don’t know, but I’d hoped for something a little more inventive from the Spidey-verse villains gallery than the prospect of two very similar adversaries battling it out (see Hulks and Iron Mans for how this gets boring fast).
No doubt some will – certainly, some have – take issue with the way Venom has been shorn of the integral nature of its Spidey source material, in order for Sony to establish its cinematic universe… Which is fair enough. I think it works reasonably well on its own terms, although it may become an issue, should they wish to reintegrate Spider-Man into the story, once the Disney agreement is over and done with. And while there’s no mistaking this for the understandable confidence of Marvel proper, or even the misplaced confidence of DC, or the plodding confidence of Fox, there’s enough to see a future in Sony’s Spidey-spinoff-verse, as long as they lead with the creative talent.
Returning to the critics’ verdicts, it felt like Venom‘s fate was sealed before the movie came out; invariably, the best of the genre don’t deserve the overwhelming praise lavished on them, while the worst (Justice League) aren’t quite the turkeys they’re made out to be. On that note, as long as Hardy’s still in frame, I’d more than welcome a Venom 2.