Movie review: “Venom” (2018)

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“Your world is not so ugly after all. It will almost be a shame to watch it end.”

All I really know about the towering, terrifying, slobbering, needle-fanged, ludicrously extreme comic book anti-hero Venom, I learned from Topher Grace in Sam Raimi’s schizophrenic, terminally ambitious, generally unfortunate Spider-man 3, which I think you’ll agree is not exactly optimal return, even on the admittedly negligible educational investment of one matinee movie ticket over a decade ago.* The rest I kinda gathered peripherally, via osmosis, incomplete spot research, and lingering glances, alternately amused and bemused, at hysterically garish comic book covers and panels, both in store and online. I learned that the Venom character was originally conceived by iconoclastic artist turned geek-servicing cottage industry Todd McFarlane as Spider-man’s savage photo negative, a jet black monstrosity from head to toe, save the mirror image arched eyes, conspicuous white Spidey logo, and row upon row of razor sharp teeth. What may or may not have been part of that initial flash of inspiration was the symbiotic relationship to develop, in uncomfortable close quarters, between Venom, a crash-landed alien parasite boasting amazing physical dexterity and destructive capabilities, and his unwitting “host”, disgruntled reporter Eddie Brock, who, after coming into accidental contact, now involuntarily wears the former like a suit – one that gives him superpowers while seeking to subjugate his pesky human nature in favor of its base, bottomless appetite. Picture a mash-up of Terminator 2’s T-1000 liquid metal hunter-killer and the Incredible Hulk, except Onyx black, or maybe a Porsche 911 crossed with an active volcano, only sentient, summoned to life by a fourteen-year-old boy’s fever dream.

*Wow, 2007 is already such a long time ago in “Comic Book Movie” years. I wonder if anything earthshaking might’ve happened in the interim to dramatically change the genre?

venomposterWhat I’ve described here, however inelegantly, is unfortunately already cooler and more dramatically engaging than most anything that makes it into the filmed version of Venom, the latest in a dispiriting line of Marvel-adjacent misfires** that have, over the past decade, sought to capitalize on the popular currency of Marvel Studios’ thriving MCU line without boasting any legitimate connection. Far from the blood-pumping, non-stop fan service so many surely envisioned, the long-gestating Venom is little more than a trumped up, non-traditional buddy comedy in sci-fi/horror drag with high production values that do little to mask its structural deficiencies, cynical compromises, and surprising lack of either memorable carnage or a soul. We lay our scene in San Francisco, that American city in which one imagines the greatest disparity between haves and have-nots, where an ostensibly successful internet reporter like Eddie Brock – played by the so-often obscured Tom Hardy (Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max: Fury Road), who, this time, hides in plain sight behind a weird, listing gait, distracting, almost uncategorizable accent***, and a wardrobe dug out of the hamper for wholesale reuse – still balances precariously, with not a little personal pride, on the poverty line. The latest target of the notoriously hot-headed Brock’s crusading ire is Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, a standard issue delusional Marvel villain who, nonetheless, provides the film its only attempts at nuance), a near-billionaire, new world philanthro-industrialist – sort of a Time‘s “Greatest Thinker Under Thirty” type gone power mad – whose high profile in-house space program he thinks shields far more sinister intentions.

**This could, of course, charitably include one or both Nicholas Cage “Ghost Riders”, definitely both Andrew Garfield “Amazing Spider-men”, plus all three “Fantastic Fours”, including the reboot I just momentarily forgot even happened.

***I’ve watched Tom Hardy in high profile films ever since his breakthrough in “Inception” and I’m still not convinced I’ve ever heard his true, unfettered voice. The overbearing, broken-down Bronx club fighter accent Hardy affects in “Venom” is a real beaut, and he wields it like a corrective sledgehammer almost every time the audience is able to string together more than a spare moment of sympathy.

If someone pitched Venom as a new concept, independent of and in no way beholden to the comic’s historical cache or rabid fanbase, he might well be shrugged or laughed out of the boardroom. Predictably, Brock lets his “crusading journalist” instincts overtake him and torpedoes an exclusive interview with Drake via truth bomb, turning what was intended as a puff piece into an ambush. He is summarily fired, costing his long-suffering lawyer girlfriend (a wasted Michelle Williams) her job – and their relationship – in the process, and banished back to a mundane existence of domestic squalor an awful lot like his previous one, spent drinking longneck beers two at a time from his couch and combing the want ads for janitorial work. It turns out in the meantime that Drake’s schemes were even darker and more advanced than Brock imagined. His various dubious space expeditions have already uncovered alien lifeforms – puddles of amorphous, parasitic glop that he calls “symbiotes” – and Drake is perhaps overeager to test their interactions with a parade of homeless human “volunteers”, despite compelling evidence that the bionic tapeworms end up killing any living organism with which they are not an exact match. Eddie continues to make the neighborhood rounds – staking out his ex’s brownstone, talking small with the owner of a cut-rate convenience store, and generally polishing his “loveable loser” bona fides. When interaction with a scared but heroic whistleblower (the always welcome Jenny Slate) and his own gnawing conscience lead him back to the top secret lab at Drake’s shadowy Life Corporation compound, hilarity finally, mercifully ensues.

Perhaps it seems I’m lingering on Eddie Brock’s pre-infection contributions to this movie despite the noticeable lack of his name in the title. If so, there’s a reason. Venom runs 112 minutes including credits and mid-credit sequence – pretty accommodating for a modern superhero movie – and, though I didn’t clock it, I’d estimate that 2/5 to just under half occurs before Eddie, via highly convoluted means, serendipitously encounters his alien lifemate. This is a massive problem in the form of a no-win situation, and not just because Venom is actually somehow more memorable in the bland, mumbly, interminable opening stretches before Eddie gets infected, starts hearing stentorian voices in his head, and begins spontaneously manifesting all manner of extreme dermatological emergencies, but because all those getting-to-know-you passages still weren’t particularly interesting to begin with. The ground zero moments of the Eddie/Venom relationship – their “meet cute” in romantic comedy parlance – are worth a chuckle or two as a rapidly fraying Eddie tries his best to stifle both his booming, persistent inner dialogue and his suddenly colossal, runaway appetite, protesting and struggling gamely against the unreasonable homewrecker over basic control of a body they now share and devouring week-old chicken leftovers plucked by the fistful directly from his trash can. It kinda works, until it doesn’t, playing for a time like a slapdash cross between All of Me and The Toxic Avenger, two wildly divergent cult classics done far better, long ago and on a budget.

If there is a spot of good news amidst the rubble and ru(m)ination, it lies in the visualization of the Venom character itself, which, frankly, is frigging awesome. The imposing xenomorph thoroughly dominates every frame into which it is inserted, bringing to mind catty criticisms I’ve heard leveled, by no less an authority than McFarlane himself, that chastised Venom as a perilously thin dramatic conceit only truly concerned – nay, consumed – with looking cool. Mission accomplished, for what that’s worth. The enduring appeal of so many comic book characters, regardless of medium, comes from the humanity that underlies their otherworldly heroism. With Venom, what you see is basically what you get – eyes, teeth, stomach, biceps, built-in platform heels that would make Gene Simmons envious – and Venom at least provides a bloodshot eyeful, though it is severely limited, if not kneecapped altogether, by the constraints inherent in its cynically pandering PG-13 rating. Once the ineffectual bullets and acre upon acre of tiny particles of broken glass start to fly in a symphony of CGI, the action feels strangely inert, bordering on non-descript. Even a flashy and frantic centerpiece car chase that demolishes much of downtown ‘Frisco makes only a fleeting impression. Most of the admittedly wicked cool stuff you might have seen in the trailer actually comes courtesy of Venom’s sickly gray doppelganger, “Riot” – the only slightly less convoluted union between Drake and a different symbiote that hopped, host to host, on a winding, murderous journey to San Francisco from the Far East.**** Venom makes an hors d’oeuvre out of a hotel concierge and turns Eddie’s ramshackle apartment into a killing field, while Riot eviscerates a roomful of dumbstruck Drake employees with deadly arms that swing like scythes. Neither leaves behind enough blood to scrape together a single DNA test. Just saying.

****And don’t get me started on how these warring symbiotes were conveniently able to find precise genetic matches that also happened to be the stars of the movie and piggy-back/muscle in on their own escalating interpersonal animosity, already in progress.

Given the character’s limitations, there is perhaps no way to make a truly great Venom movie, but Venom itself could’ve been so much better. The corporate marching orders seem to have been to simply retrace the generic summer blockbuster template, name this one Venom – you know, after the popular comic book – make sure the close-up shots of its monster looked suitably badass, and cover over any p(l)ot holes with computer-generated spackle and chicken wire. I saw approximately fourteen trailers for Venom in various cineplexes this summer – so many they occasionally seemed to play back to back – and did not leave the namesake movie with one scrap of interesting additional info I had not already divined from Sony’s highly motivated, oversharing sales team. The trailer for Venom is not only more consistently exciting and intriguing than the movie it advertises, in fact, it is unsurprisingly also far better paced, full of tantalizing glimpses at eye-popping carnage sufficient to fool the remaining optimists among us into believing this budding comic franchise built on slick, searing violence perpetrated by bigger than life behemoths with pro wrestling nicknames might, for a change, not actually not be compromised by trying to appeal to the widest audience possible. (attempt inserted dramatic pause) Nah.

We are left in the end with the nagging twin feelings that A) much more time was probably needed to explore and fully flesh out Eddie Brock, even though B) too much had arguably already been expended by the time he became a narrative footnote. This is no more Tom Hardy’s fault really than it is up-jumped TV director Ruben Fleischer’s, or that of the screenplay by committee and its 800 pages of no doubt constructive studio notes…but he certainly doesn’t help matters. Meanwhile, Venom, the indestructible, nine-foot-tall human head collector, goes from a creature of pure malevolence to the Hot Topic equivalent of a kid’s party clown in the narrative space of an experimental rocket performing time trials. The climactic battle between Venom and Riot quickly degenerates into a rushed jumble of quick cut, sub-Transformers shots of intertwined, otherwise indistinguishable metal tumbling, or whatever the organic extra-terrestrial equivalent of that might be. Even Venom’s late attempts at (admittedly) mild suspense seem rushed, and its desire to grease the skids for a sequel a little too needy and transparent. Do stick around for the obligatory mid-credits insert, though, as the central relationship and inevitable villain of that now equally inevitable sequel are clumsily dropped into a bizarre, almost non sequitur, cold reveal. This, of course, is the proper payoff for patiently sitting through a spastic theme song by Eminem that, if nothing else, crystallizes just how much of a writing challenge it must be to find the right words to rhyme with “Venom”.

“Venom” (2018) 2/4 stars                                                                                                            dae2.0

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