Super Saturday Review: Venom

Venom (2018)
Dir: Reuben Fleischer

A film centered on an oft malevolent alien entity that takes control of a person’s body, forcing them to do things like kill and bite off heads. Sounds like a dark, gritty, R-rated horror right? Apparently not. Get ready for some throwback buddy comedy shenanigans!

Investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) oversteps when he reads his fiance’s (Michelle Williams) confidential emails to gain insight on the darker side of multi-billionaire genius Carlton Drake’s (Riz Ahmed) secret experiments, causing the complete destruction of his career and relationship. With help from a whistleblowing scientist (Jenny Slate), he sees a chance at revenge and redemption, inadvertently ending up the host to an alien parasite known as Venom (also voiced by Hardy) with incredible abilities.

Getting the possibly obvious statements out the way, unlike Spider-Man, this movie is not integrated into the MCU, it stands apart as the new foundation of Sony’s universe of Marvel properties that they still have the right to use, though in an attempt to have the best of both worlds it has been described as ‘adjunct’ and in the same world as the MCU though definitely not part of it. Many wondered how a Venom film can be made without bringing his web-slinging nemesis into it, yet the didn’t have to mention Spider-Man for him to be referenced. A couple of lines nod toward Brock moving from New York semi-reluctantly, then surprisingly there are a few shots that reminded me very strongly (and I’m sure intentionally) of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, with Venom manifesting similar abilities though not meeting Peter Parker in any way as the film takes place in San Francisco, not New York.

San Francisco is a really great setting for this film on a number of levels. Firstly it looks fantastic and has such interesting streets and places that work well even when they’re merely rushed past in action scenes and chases. I was there on holiday at the start of the year and so recognized a few spots. More than just visual reminders, I got a sense of the feel of the city which in places can be a world apart from the polished tourist hotspot that’s often seen on screen. Although I was only there for a few days, I was made acutely aware of the fact the city has serious issues, and there’s a painful divide between two sides that apparently met where I was staying. Parts of the city are beautiful, world-renowned tourist hotspots, immortalized and romanticized on film for decades. Then there are other parts of the city that struggle with terrible homelessness, poverty and street crime.

I saw both of these sides while there as the hotel I stayed at is apparently located essentially where two of the least tourist-friendly neighborhoods (according to all guidebooks) meet the roads from the key visitor attractions. Despite being a stone’s throw from headquarters of Twitter, Uber, Dolby Labs and the UN, homeless people sheltered in every doorway, many others wandered the sidewalk, there were frequent altercations in the street and the hotel had armed security stationed both inside and outside the main entrance at all times. Despite obvious success and wealth being enjoyed by many multi-national corporations, there was a stark disconnect from them and the city’s most impoverished residents. This was a thought I was unable to put to the back of my mind while watching the film. I don’t know if the filmmakers were consciously highlighting those issues while working with the setting, I’d love to think they were, it certainly adds greater depth that harmonizes with other elements of the story. Even just glimpses of it resonated with me, though there’s definitely room for this to have been highlighted a lot more and in a profound way, so the hints maybe only worked for me because of my experience and could be completely meaningless to the majority.

Overall this feels like a comic book movie made by someone who hasn’t taken much note of the genre since the late 90s and early noughties, so hasn’t seen how far comic adaptations have generally come. That makes some sense when you consider Avi Arad is a producer on this, and generally, his involvement isn’t always beneficial to films, though to give him his fair credit he has been involved in some successes. His films are often seen as the lower end of the genre, tending more towards enjoyable fun and action than deep story or character development.

Director Reuben Fleischer made a name for himself with films that could be said to appeal to teen boys, ‘Zombieland’ and ’30 Minutes or Less’ are perfect examples of what he’s best known for and likely what the studio had in mind when they hired him to helm this. However, this was conceived as an R-rated movie (the door for which was opened by ‘Deadpool’ and ‘Logan’), something repeatedly queried and confirmed in interviews by the director himself, so there has to be something missing from the PG-13 theatrical release.

If you’re cutting out shots, scenes, maybe even whole narrative threads, especially at a later stage of production, it will rarely go unnoticed. Falling victim to the apparent revisions is the story, which feels like it was not really given another draft to make it really work under changing conditions. There are things that make little to no sense, from scenes to prominent lines, as well as woefully uneven pacing. Evidently, it’s like the film has fingers in a few pies, attempting to be a little of everything, wildly dragging the themes and tone from dark horror, through gritty drama to fun b-movie, never fully committing to anything that really works.

Tom Hardy is the film’s biggest strength, maybe even the only thing that really makes any of it work at all. The two central characters, Brock and Venom, without committing to the darker concept of body horror, veer more into a buddy comedy that when given the chance, weirdly almost works. Hardy himself has been quoted as saying that some of his best bits weren’t even used in the final cut of the film. The ongoing friction between Eddie and Venom is where the film works best, their disagreements verge on bickering at times and that works surprisingly well. 

There must be a good reason Hardy, as well as the rest of the great cast, signed on to make this. I imagine there was originally something enticing in the way it was pitched to them, some great potential in the first versions of the script. Hardy has all the acting chops to take on the most complex and dramatic roles, his body of work proves that and his offers must be abundant. Famously he made the most of DC’s villain Bane, a defining point in his career, so I can’t imagine convincing him to be another comic book character would’ve been easy if it was sold to him in the form of what we have presented as the final version of the film. I’m convinced there was something really enticing that’s largely not present anymore.

Co-star Michele Williams is criminally underused, becoming little more than a romantic interest. An actress of her skill and stature should be given more of substance to work with than what we get in the few scenes she’s in, though again I think her role may be another of the elements that ended up largely left on the cutting room floor if not edited out of the plans before that with script revisions. She’s often just there to give Eddie someone external to talk to, little more than his ex-lover and long-suffering companion. Whole scenes with her feel nearly redundant which is a terrible shame. 

With the villainous Venom turned into more of an anti-hero for the sake of the film, we’re presented with a human antagonist Carlton Drake who’s essentially Elon Musk. Riz Ahmed’s character feels like he’s had any genuinely sharp edges smoothed off which is a terrible shame. He’s the film’s main villain who needs to outdo Venom but has ended up more Machiavellian than menacing, ultimately feeling disappointingly insipid. Again, was there more that got filtered out at some point? Recently gaining praise for his dramatic roles in ‘Nightcrawler’ and ‘The Night Of’, it would make sense that his casting was to make full use of his ability to skillfully portray complex and morally-ambiguous characters.

In so many ways the film does feel torn between two identities, knowing that it could go either way, more ‘fun’ and playful with the premise, or taking it down a serious and darker route with the key premise of an alien parasite possessing someone. With Fleischer being as he is the director of ‘Zombieland’, he seems to have leaned more on the fun side of things and doesn’t go down body-horror as much as an R-rated version might have. Some fans weren’t so pleased about that, though it has clearly worked with the wider audience as the film has managed to take over $800m at the box office, becoming the 5th biggest film of the year and one of the biggest comic book films ever, a feat that was wholly unexpected. 

Receiving a critically lukewarm reception, financial success remains king, so no surprise when it was recently confirmed that there will be another Venom film, the prematurely confident mid-credits scene sets it up with an appearance we all knew was coming from the one well-publicized cast member who had been conspicuously absent for the rest of the movie. I’m hopeful that the sequel will be more confident of what it wants to be, developed with a clear vision that can make the most of the few strengths this has, leaving the weaknesses to be forgotten as nothing more than a ‘shaky start’.

It’s a film that doesn’t quite sink to resorting to the ‘so bad it’s good’ route, it definitely tries to be a sincere attempt at bringing this beloved character to the screen, but has made so many compromises that it loses the most interesting parts of its identity along the way. Reuben Fleischer has said he doesn’t think an alternate cut of the film is necessary. Fine, there’s no need for it, this edit has proven shockingly profitable, but no-one is truly convinced that there isn’t the potential for a different cut that would shift the tone into more interesting, grittier grounds this hardly touches. 

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