Venom, Sony’s latest attempt to establish its own Marvel-adjacent cinematic universe focused on the expanded lore of Spider-Man, opened this week to tepid reviews. However, the blockbuster, starring Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock, still has a lot of expectations riding on its shoulders. Having rejuvenated their beloved friendly neighborhood Spider-Man’s image thanks to a collaboration with Marvel Studios, Sony are now hoping that they can extend their series’ appeal beyond Peter Parker and get audiences interested in the plethora of heroes, villains and creatures that populate his world. A number of titles are in early development stages for this Spidey-Verse, most notably a Morbius film starring Jared Leto and solo movies for Black Cat and Silver Sable, but it’s Venom who was chosen to kick-start proceedings.
It’s a move that makes sense. For many, Venom is Spider-Man’s most iconic foe and one whose evolution from villain to anti-hero has proven endlessly enduring in the comic books. While the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus were given stronger villain arcs in the original live-action Spider-Man films directed by Sam Raimi, Venom fared less well. Since then, there’s been real fan hunger for a proper Venom story. If any villain from the franchise could stand on their own two feet, independent of Spider-Man, then surely it would be Venom.
The resulting film is a curious mish-mash of genres, tones and ideas that doesn’t entirely work but proves enormously entertaining. But therein lies a big problem: Venom isn’t very good as a superhero movie, or indeed as a Venom story, but it’s incredibly fun as a buddy comedy.
Even before Venom gets to its post-credits scene and obvious sequel hook, everything about the film is intended as a franchise starter in the vein of Iron Man. This proves limiting from the get-go, particularly in the fact that the film had to have a PG-13 rating. While director Ruben Fleischer claimed this was always going to be the case, he seemed to have forgotten that he’d already given interviews contradicting this claim. It makes sense that Sony would want to remain in the good books of Marvel Studios and not limit their potential reach by having an R-rating - and there’s no way they’d ever want Spider-Man to be in an R-rated film - it proves restricting for the character of Venom.
This is a character who tears off people’s heads to eat them and has more in common with great body horror fiction than the superhero genre, but Venom can’t do much with its title character in that vein because the rating won’t allow it. This also bleeds the film of the opportunity to be truly unique in the context of an increasingly crowded genre. Venom could have been a striking horror-action movie that delved deeper into the psychological turmoil of Eddie being engulfed by the symbiote. Instead, the focus is put more on action and the sort of set pieces that can play well to audiences used to the MCU’s style.
Venom also can’t deal with the elephant in the room - there’s no Spider-Man and doing a Venom origin story without him doesn’t entirely work. The basic details remain - a hot-shot reporter with an ego becomes a laughing stock and ends up bonded to a symbiote that gives him enhanced powers and a new sense of superiority - but context is changed just enough to make it its own story. Now, the action takes place in San Francisco - it is mentioned briefly that Eddie was run out of New York and his job at the Daily Globe - and his bonding with the symbiote is more a matter of change than vengeance.
This was obviously a necessary change. It would have been impossible to do a Venom origin story as seen in the comics because that dynamic is built upon the symbiote taking advantage of Brock’s hatred of Spider-Man, whom he believed had cost him his job and reputation. Yet this creates its own storytelling problems. For one, Eddie is less interesting as a future villain/anti-hero when he’s just a schlubby loser who’s inherently a decent guy. He doesn’t find himself enthralled by the power Venom gives him, nor does he give into those villainous instincts that seem key to the character. Mostly, he spends his time with Venom engaging in quick-fire dialogue or telling him not to eat people. Then again, that’s not really a bad thing.
Those elements that make Venom a disappointing superhero/villain origin story work wonders in the context of a buddy comedy. This is clearly where Tom Hardy and Ruben Fleischer’s priorities lie. In lieu of the sort of extreme violence one would expect from a Venom story, the film decides to play the odd couple relationship for laughs. Hardy gets to indulge in some great moments of physical comedy and his inner dialogue with the symbiote is a classic comedy dynamic with a genre twist. There are moments of gloriously silly slapstick, such as a scene where Eddie goes for a bath in a lobster tank and has a quick bite to eat while there. While there are moments of unintentional hilarity, overall this is a movie that is aiming more for laughs and scares, and on that front it succeeds. While it’s still a story of two disparate forces realizing they are stronger together - a constant theme in Venom narratives - the film leans more on the inherent silliness of that, and it’s better for it.
There’s already something a bit ridiculous about an uber-macho alien parasite with an endlessly long tongue that loves to wisecrack and devour human heads. Playing such a role straight could be a challenge, and that doesn’t even include the possibilities of having Eddie be yet another brooding angry male protagonist, the likes of which audiences have become increasingly sick of in the genre. Venom needed to be PG-13 and it needed to be tonally on the same level as the new Tom Holland Spider-Man, so comedy was a strong way to go.
What makes the comedic aspect work the most is that the film willingly acknowledges that both Eddie and Venom are losers. Eddie is a talented journalist whose ego constantly gets in the way of him doing a good job, leading to him stumbling into a mediocre life with no job, no friends and no future. Venom, meanwhile, admits to Eddie that on his home planet he’s essentially the alien equivalent of Brock and that he enjoys the uniqueness of being one of a kind on Earth. They may not be great villains - or even anti-heroes, which remains a problem given how much of the film’s marketing is based on this - but their collaboration and running commentary is made all the more appealing by their mutual idiocy.
Many viewers of the trailer expressed cynicism over Hardy’s Venom voice, the direction of this dynamic and now infamous jokes such as “like a turd in the wind.” In context, these moments actually work well because the tone is decidedly more comedic than expected. It’s funny on purpose, and when Venom says that line, it comes after the audience has already found out that Venom is his planet’s equivalent of a dispensable minion. Essentially, he’s playing the role of the villain but desperately overcompensating in the process.
Eddie and Venom are also made more interesting by their mutual fondness. Instead of developing this relationship as one based on loathing and vengeance, Eddie and Venom’s forced partnership is one of necessity that evolves into a strange friendship. It’s beneficial for both of them but the real bond is in their kinship. Neither of them are special in their respective worlds and now together they get to be. It may involve biting off a few heads now and then but as long as only the bad guys suffer, everyone wins.
The less the film is concerned with hitting the marks of a superhero movie, the better Venom is. Unfortunately, its entire reason for being is to establish a host of superhero movies in its path, and it will be judged as such, for better or worse. So much of Venom and Eddie Brock’s identities are shaped by their statuses as the evil or anti-heroic doppelganger to Peter Parker and that’s something Venom never manages to full deal with. Yet the story that is on offer here and the comedic slant given to one of comic book lore’s most striking dynamics is wholly entertaining on its own terms. Eddie and Venom make for the hilarious and oddly heartwarming comedic double act superhero cinema didn’t know it needed. Then again, I don’t think I’m going to change anyone’s minds about this film, nor will my desire to see more of Tom Hardy diving into lobster tanks while talking to himself be the thing that spurs Sony to make a sequel. It should be, obviously.
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