After The Amazing Spider-Man made three-quarters of a billion dollars, it’s corporate owners at Sony announced that, much like a hit comic book from the early 1990s, success called for spin-offs. Lots of spin-offs. And they promptly announced what amounted to their own Cinematic Spider-Man Universe…or “Spider-Verse,” if you will. The Amazing series would of course continue on, but every other year or so Sony threatened/promised to unleash an all-new-but-still-somehow-connected title upon us all, featuring members of Spider-Man’s supporting cast…or his rogue’s gallery.
Black Cat was supposed to have her own movie by now, and that at least made some kind of sense…especially once her civilian identity (or someone named Felicia, at any rate) got a cameo in Amazing Spider-Man 2. A proposed Sinister Six movie made less sense, but given how everything in the Amazing movies tied back to OsCorp’s creepy human medical experiments (and creepy basement full of supervillain costume parts) I can guess how they would’ve tried to pull that off. Unfortunately or otherwise, we all live in the timeline where Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a shit-show, from conception to production to premiere. Everybody thought they wanted to see Gwen Stacy die again, but – as the entire Parker-Stacy relationship seems scientifically designed to illustrate – sometimes getting what you think you want is the worst thing in the world. A lesson some of us learned seven years prior, when we first saw Spider-Man 3.
So when Sony announced a stand-alone Venom movie, a lot of us had flashbacks to a ruined date night in May, 2007. Some of us flashed even further back, to the last time someone tried to make a spin-off movie about a sometime-villain, more-often-anti-hero: Jean-Christophe “Pitof” Comar’s Catwoman. Both went straight to Development Hell once the series they were based on got rebooted. Both went through an interminable series of reworkings once in Hell, first to tie into the aforementioned reboots, and then to get away from them. Every shift of the corporate winds brought new, contradictory information, and whatever audience enthusiasm the initial announcement garnered slowly but surely drained away, like a stream of piss down your leg. When trailers eventually dropped, they caught most of us by surprise, and it was not a pleasant one. A general sense of, “They’re still going ahead with that damn thing? Why? What the fuck, Sony?” took hold, and Venom became 2018’s designated…I originally wrote “Judas goat” here, but a more appropriate term would be “Sin-eater.”
Sin-eating’s fallen out of favor these days (as has Judas goating, I see, now that I’ve done ten seconds of research) but the concept’s pretty simple. Say you’re a medieval peasant and one of your relatives dies without getting a chance to confess. Well, shit, they might wind up in Hell…unless someone else takes on their sins. Through some kind of ritual meal, say. The whole of Christianity’s built around a ritual meal, so what’s one more between you, Jesus, and the -eater? Of course, the Sin-eater would then become a repository for an entire region’s worth of shit, and there’s a lot of debate over whether they were honored pillars of their communities, or despised pariahs…or whether they even really existed in the first place.
I’m going with “despised pariah” in this metaphor, because no one had any hope for Venom, leaving it open to all the reactionary vitriol my colleagues have been bottling up, ever since they discovered they no longer had Zack Snyder to kick around anymore. (Not that they’ve stopped or anything.) Marvel movies are aspirational lifestyle brands at this point, so criticizing them is like criticizing a Coultre watch or a Gucci handbag. Deadpool is both Marvel-adjacent and an aspirational character in his own right, in that everyone aspires to get away with being as big of an asshole as Wade is, especially to his so-called “friends.” DC Comics, in the midst of the AT&T buy-out and reeling from the Justice League fiasco, ceded the field until December…yet even Aquaman’s got his own real fans out there, on top of all the ironic fans, anti-fans, Geoff Johns fans, and fans of being horny for Jason Mamoa. (Shout-out to both my mom and my best friend.) The one un-ironic Venom fan I know of has wasted the last twenty years trying to make his second Spawn movie. Even I can only count myself a conditional Venom fan. It’s all in how you handle it, and we’ve seen this story done wrong before. Plus, for twenty years now, comic book readers have lived with Eddie Brock at one end of his journey, and most would’ve rather seen it continue than go all the way back to the beginning.
And yet, some of us wondered…what would that beginning be without a Spider-Man? What is the Anti-Peter Parker story? Venom’s original creators – Todd McFarlane and Dave Michelinie – reversed Uncle Ben’s old dictum and turned it into “with no power comes no responsibility.” But that’s the cry of the self-obsessed dickhead whose protective bubble of narcissism got punctured by reality…and we’re all like that now. Especially if the internet’s broken our brains. What sets Venom apart from the rest of us, beyond that toothy grin and prehensile tongue?
Well, the film answers, he’s a crusading reporter, similar to what Peter Parker would be if Peter were allowed to escape the purgatory of adolescence. Eddie Brock begins this movie hosting (har-har) the Brock Report, his one-man show on the MNBN (whatever that stands for) network in San Francisco. His lawyer girlfriend Anne makes reference to “the Daily Globe incident…” but doesn’t elaborate, except to say that Eddie was “run out of New York.” And that’s the closest thing to a reference the Sin-Eater’s gotten in almost twenty years of Spider-Man movies.
Here at the start we see a montage of various Brock Reports and can gather, whatever Eddie’s past, he’s currently working the Tech Beat in a way most tech reporters are too chickenshit to do in real life. Most are starfuckers, blinded by the piles of money our “Silicon Valley overlords” (as Brock aptly puts it) have hoovered up for themselves and unconcerned with human cost of all the “disruption” they see around them. Eddie’s boss practically orders Eddie to become just that when he assigns Eddie a stand-up puff piece interview with the film’s I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Elon-Musk, Carlton Drake.
Drake is the head of the Life Foundation who, unlike Musk, got rich off of inventing something that’s actually worthwhile: instead of “Western Union, but on the internet,” Drake invented gene therapy for cancer patients and purloined that legal drug money into a space exploration company which can now bring symbiotes down to Earth. Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but…actually, no – I will keep beating this dead horse until I drill right through the ground and rain dead horse parts down on Pellucidar, because this movie starts exactly how Spider-Man 3 should’ve started: with a shuttle crash, after one of Drake’s “specimens” escapes containment during re-entry. One of the dead astronauts is even named Jameson! As in John Jameson, Jay Jonah’s Air Force Captain son and the man Mary-Jane Watson hooked up with between Spider-Man 1 and 2. If Ol’ Picklepus exists in this universe, he’s gonna make life hell for his employees once he finds out his kid’s dead. All of Eddie’s New York friends are gonna starting sending him DMs: “Bro, truns out you left just in time! It’s a fucking war zone out here!”
Luckily for Drake, J.J.’s at the other end of the country. Unluckily for Drake, his company’s legal council just happens to be dating a crusading reporter. Who peaks at Anne’s email late one night and tries to ambush Drake with some questions about wrongful death lawsuits and creepy, human medical experiments. This gets Eddie fired from his job, Anne fired from her job, and ends their relationship in a grand-scale breach of trust, both personal and professional.
Fast forward six months. Drake is chomping at the bit to begin testing his new aliens on humans and Eddie is somehow still able to afford to live in San Fran, even though he drinks in bars and can’t seem to find a job. He’s nice to Maria, the homeless woman outside his local corner store, and to Mrs. Chen, who owns it. But his experience has made him a coward, so when the local protection racket’s representative pops in to shake Mrs. Chen down, Eddie hides back by the cereal aisle. And when one of the Life Foundation scientists, Dr. Skirth, tries to explain to him how Drake’s feeding homeless people to aliens, he initially turns her down and goes to stalk his ex, like a fucking creep…or a certain Spider-Man we all once knew.
Outside Anne’s apartment we see the inverted Uncle Ben credo is still in effect. “You did this, Eddie,” Anne says to him. “Not Carlton Drake, not the network, you.” And stewing in your own failure isn’t actually the same thing as taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions, no matter how much it might feel like it. So Eddie, with Dr. Skirth’s help, sneaks into the Life Foundation and discovers just how few fucks Carlton Drake has to gives about medical ethics. In the testing labs, he finds Maria…and the alien that’s infested Maria finds him.
From there, Venom is the feel good story of a man and his symbiote, and greater love hath no being than this: that they lay down their lives for their other halves. There’s even a bit of body horror early on, during the preliminary stages of their integration, and if you know me you know I was raised on Cronenberg movies and this is my meat and potatoes. The puberty metaphor inherent in Spider-Man’s transition from “loser” to “superpowered-loser” is reconditioned into a middle-aged metaphor when it’s Tom Hardy pushing the big four-oh. Plus, once the symbiote starts talking, the true arc of this Venom’s character comes into focus. “You are far too good a match to throw away so soon,” the symbiote says, once Eddie questions its loyalty. “Plus I’m starting to like you. We are not so different.” Usually villains say lines like that, and hearing it here is very appropriate. Brock is still an impulsive dumbass in this universe, but the symbiote is still an amoral hedonist that declares eating people is “the reason we’re here.” This forces Brock to mitigate its more sociopathic tendencies (like brain-eating) with some good ol’ fashioned humanity and that’s more than I ever dreamed anyone would do with a Venom solo film.
The moment they cast Tom Hardy I thought, “Well, at least they’ll get the voice right,” and they did. They also got a lot else right, too – from the tongue to the uncanny, far-too-acrobatic-for-their-size way Venom movies, to the fact that the words “conservation of mass” mean absolutely nothing to them. Shoulders are too thick and I miss the giant, wrap-around spiders on their chest and back, but not too shabby. Not too shabby at all. It really is – quoth the symbiote – “outstanding” to watch, for example, Brock apologize to Carlton Drake’s hired goons even as he and the symbiote kick their asses. It’s even more outstanding to watch Venom take out a whole SWAT team, neutralizing their entire arsenal, with the exception of flashbang grenades. And I take back at least 80% of my praise for Ant-Man and the Wasp’s climactic action scene – this is how you do a San Francisco car chase.
Also, I gotta praise Riz Ahmed’s performance as Carlton Drake. He’s a charismatic scumbag in the way our Silicon Valley overlords rarely are, except in their own heads, and that’s the perfect way to turn an otherwise Z-list character into something watchable. However, in a move typical for anything with Marvel’s name on it, Our Villain gets the short end of this 112-minute stick and the “something” he becomes here can be easily boiled down to “yet another Evil Tony Stark.” We need kindly Dr. Skirth to explain his villain motivations to Eddie because, by the time he and Eddie get some face time, it’s the third act and Drake has his own symbiote…making his motivations even muddier than Venom’s.
“You are a loser, Eddie,” the symbiote says near the start of Act Two, when it reveals that its part of a what we might call an advanced recon team. “You did not find us, we found you.” Then, near the start of Act Three it confesses that, “On my world, I’m kind of a loser too.” That’s all we get and, since we don’t know shit about symbiote civilization, it’s hard to feel this sentiment on any real level. Why put a loser on the scout team charged with seeking out new life and new civilizations to consume in gooey union? Maybe Planet Symbiote shoots all its losers into space in a grand reversal of our civilization’s “only the best and brightest” posturing. Who knows? Their entire reconciliation scene smacks of Additional Dialogue, recorded after test audiences brought this issue up and it was too late to do much more than paper over the hole in our protagonist’s characterization.
Then there’s poor Anne. I get serious Wendy Moira Angela Darling energy off of her, and the schoolgirl skirt they put her in late in the film doesn’t help. She’s the adult in the relationship from frame one, managing her Peter Pan’s little oopsies and eventually both pulling him apart from, and then reuniting him with, his Shadow. She could’ve been a crusading lawyer, investigating the reason she got fired for something her dumbass boyfriend did, but no. Instead, she drops it for six months, until her ex ruins one of her dates with her new Dr. Boyfriend, looking like he’s on the end of a bad mushroom trip and biting the heads off live lobsters. (Take that, Jordan Peterson.) By the end, I can see the inevitable love triangle forming, and envision a horrible future where the already-greenlit Venom 2 has a B-plot that’s basically My Super-Ex Boyfriend. Hopefully Professor Bedlam shows up to give Dr. Boyfriend some pointers. Or maybe Dr. Boyfriend will become…I don’t know…Toxin, or someone.
Last but not least, the final fight between Venom and the symbiote-posessed Drake is too short and kinda lame. It’s a texbook example of all the criticisms both I and my civilian colleagues launch at superhero climactic fight scenes. The civis dismissed this as two nearly-identical CGI blobs ineffectually punching each other. Meanwhile, I’m over here getting pissed at how easy it is for these two to rip each other’s symbiotes off so both actors can get some climactic facetime. Even when their masks are literally attached at the molecular, these movie heroes just refuse to keep them on.
Still, on the whole, Venom‘s as good as your average Marvel origin story. Meaning I’m not going to able to discuss it with anyone outside my immediate IRL friend group. It’s fans will dismiss me for my insufficiently triumphant praise and the vast majority of my critical colleagues will dismiss me for giving it the time of day at all. They gave this movie zero credit because…well…they’ve got deadlines that aren’t self-imposed. Plus, now that everybody’s on Twitter, we’re all forced to come up with half-assed opinions on every poster, trailer, set photo and brain dropping of various creative types that dribbles across our timelines. So everyone settled on the Catwoman comparisons at least six months before they saw this and damned if they were going to let the film convince them otherwise.
However, as someone who has actually watched Pitof’s Catwoman far more times than is reasonably sane, let me tell you, this ain’t it, chief. If it were the Pitof’s Catwoman of 2019, the symbiote would’ve been an aspect of Anansi, the Spider God of stories and the knowledge thereof – patron deity of Cannon Pedants everywhere. And Eddie would’ve been…what’s a stereotypical dude equivalent of “concept artist at a make-up company”…? Something with the right mix of frustrated ambition and gendered expectations…let’s say, Eddie would’ve been the press officer for one of SanFran’s major sports teams. So every time some player got a concussion, or arrested for domestic abuse, Eddie would’ve had to organize the press conference, giving all the “real” reporters a chance to point and laugh at his obvious spin, schoolyard-level bullshit artistry, and complete failure of a career.
This is a much better movie. Not that that’s saying much, but I’ve said enough for now.
Actually, no, one last thing, and I shouldn’t have to say this but oh well: leaving a headless body on your nice corner store lady’s floor is the definition of not cool. You better hope that guy was just a free agent, because if he’s got connections, you just brought a world of shit down on poor Mrs. Chen’s head. Eddie, I got love for you, bro, but you’re still a dumbass…And I kinda wouldn’t want it any other way.