Despite Sony Pictures striking a deal with Marvel Studios to share the film rights to the ultra-popular Spider-Man, and thus allow him to join the also-ultra-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, it seems that Sony is nonetheless keen to press on with plans for their own shared Marvel movie universe. Rather than yet another attempt at their own self-contained live-action Spider-Man movie franchise however, which is now mostly in the creative hands of Marvel Studios as of last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, Sony is instead attempting to build a shared live-action universe around spin-off characters that were largely established in various Spider-Man comic books, and in turn fall under Spider-Man’s movie rights, namely the ones that Marvel themselves seemingly have no interest in using within the MCU at this point.
One of these spin-off characters, and arguably the most well-known and beloved, is Eddie Brock, a.k.a. the original host for Venom, the vicious, violent and highly dangerous alien symbiote that began as a deadly adversary and rival to Spider-Man, before headlining his own Marvel Comics franchise as something of a cult favourite anti-hero, one that even occasionally teams up with his web-slinging nemesis. After a much-maligned first attempt to realize Venom in live-action for the climax of 2007’s Spider-Man 3, Sony has been promising us a proper Venom spin-off movie for years, one that would purport to do the character proper justice. Several directors, producers, scripts and pitches have gone through this effort, and it wasn’t until just over a decade later that a Venom movie would finally make it to the big screen, one that plans to serve as the springboard to Sony’s proposed all-new live-action Spider-Man spin-off universe.
It’s a slightly complicated situation, but the bottom line is that Sony is still keeping some of the rights to certain secondary and tertiary Spider-Man franchise characters to themselves, and Venom is one of them. Thus, we have an all-new Venom movie that doesn’t take place in the MCU, nor does it take place in either of the two former Spider-Man movie universes that Sony spearheaded independently, before lending the rights to Peter Parker himself out to Marvel Studios. Spider-Man isn’t even mentioned or teased at all in Venom in fact, with this movie being a completely standalone effort that tries to completely step outside of the shadow cast by the Wall-Crawler, at least at this point, while also re-writing Venom’s origin story to remove the heavy connection to Spider-Man in this case, namely since the Venom symbiote originally bonded to Peter Parker before finding its way to Eddie Brock in Marvel lore.
Obviously, this is no easy task, and most critics have largely savaged Venom with scathing feedback, which is all the more eyebrow-raising in a year that has been especially outstanding for Marvel movies, both for Marvel Studios themselves, and for 20th Century Fox with Deadpool 2. Despite being as spoiled as any other moviegoer and movie critic between the likes of that superb quartet of Marvel-branded movies that have released in 2018 beforehand however, I can’t bring myself to hate Venom. Granted, it’s not that good as far as modern Marvel movies go, particularly since it feels almost fifteen years out-of-date, and has quite clearly been gutted in the editing room to achieve a PG-13 rating that it wasn’t originally meant to have, but there’s still something perversely enjoyable about this oddball spectacle. Perhaps it’s Tom Hardy’s admittedly great lead performance as both Eddie Brock and the Venom symbiote. Perhaps it’s the almost retro feel that shirks all of that modern sophistication that the MCU especially has brought to the superhero movie genre. Either way, if you treat Venom as a silly B-movie, it’s watchable and even fairly entertaining, perhaps enough to headline its own self-contained cult movie franchise, even if I’d hesitate to say it works as the launching pad for a whole new cinematic universe.
Tom Hardy is far and away the biggest draw in Venom, pulling one of the most surprisingly amusing double acts that you’ll see on the big screen this year, especially after he already tried a similar trick to less effect as twin mobsters in 2015’s Legend. Donning a silly New York accent as Eddie Brock, and a comically monstrous grimace as Venom, Hardy is quite clearly having the time of his life making this movie, and his darkly charming energy is indeed very infectious. Hardy has frequently professed to being a huge fan of the Venom character, and it really shows, since he dives head-first into this movie and runs off with it, fully and proudly embracing the most ridiculous, over-the-top elements of the character. This is probably the biggest frustration with Venom wimping out and opting for a studio-mandated PG-13 rating too, since Hardy really could have made his mark as a Marvel personality even more if he was given free reign to go hard-R, as Venom was originally planning in its early stages.
Compounding this frustration is that the movie doesn’t really give most of the other actors anything substantial to work with. Venom is one-hundred percent the Tom Hardy show, which is fine if you’re a fan of Hardy’s, but the prospect of sequels and shared universe spin-offs definitely would have worked a lot better if Eddie and Venom weren’t the only characters with any real depth or memorable personality. Michelle Williams makes a solid effort to be more than a token love interest as Eddie’s disgraced former fiancee, Anne Weying, but despite Williams also trying to bring some gusto to her role, the script really leaves her out in the cold, left to do little more than gawk at Eddie’s current situation, beyond one or two standout moments that I won’t spoil. Other stars feel similarly squandered, with Jenny Slate left to play a whistleblower scientist at the villainous Life Foundation, who merely serves as a forced excuse to get Eddie in range of the Venom symbiote, while Scott Haze is left to be little more than a mindless lackey as Life Foundation fixer, Roland Treece.
This same anemic characterization is disappointingly true of Riz Ahmed as Carlton Drake to boot. Drake is Venom’s main antagonist, and he’s essentially every cliched corporate douche bag villain that superhero movies have attempted to portray over the years. Venom attempts to add some dimensions to Drake as a desperate wunderkind who is simply scrapping morality for the sake of trying to urgently save a society that he believes is about to collapse, but in the end, he’s merely established as the inevitable big bad for the expected action-packed climax with another symbiote creature, in this case, Riot. Despite being one of several symbiote ‘children’ of Venom’s in Marvel Comics lore, Riot is re-imagined as the leader of the symbiotes in this movie, and seems to bond with Drake simply so we can have a big fight in the climax. At least there is an effort to create an interesting villain through the contrasting Drake/Riot combination, but it’s very shallow and mostly falls completely flat. This is further exacerbated by Riot having the most obvious, simple-minded motivations imaginable, completely negating the meager effort to humanize and deepen Drake, and thus making him somehow even more shallow and forgettable than most of Marvel Studios’ throwaway movie baddies.
There were other villains teased in Venom, but Riot is pretty much the only real villain that you get in the final product. Still, Marvel Studios has managed to make a lot of great movies built around a lot of disappointingly forgettable villains (even if they have since vastly improved their villain quality since, interestingly enough, Spider-Man: Homecoming), so it would feel a bit unfair to say that Venom doesn’t work because its villain is lame. Perhaps the lack of emphasis on making Drake and Riot interesting is a deliberate effort to further spotlight what is obviously the best part of Venom, that being the twisted relationship between Eddie Brock and his new symbiote buddy, even if it comes at the expense of giving them someone truly interesting to fight. Venom does at least knock around a lot of nameless Life Foundation thugs to great effect, and there’s definitely a much more worthy antagonist in the works that Sony is obviously withholding for a likely sequel (if you’re a fan, you obviously know who I mean), but for now, Venom works a lot more as an offbeat character comedy than a fully-realized modern superhero movie, even if there’s still some disposable fun to be had during some of the better action scenes.
I will say in Venom’s defense that it does at least successfully re-tool the character’s origin story to work without any connection at all to Peter Parker or Spider-Man, and it’s possible that neither of them even exist in this particular universe. Beyond that though, you definitely don’t want to watch Venom for its plotline, because said plotline is a loud, dopey mix of every superhero movie cliche and contrivance that you can imagine. It technically works, but just barely, setting up a by-the-numbers conflict that only manages to be elevated by the sheer charm of its human and alien leads. Literally any effort made to apply brain power to the plot proceedings of Venom will only result in a headache, so just take it for what it is; A dumb, disposable romp of anti-hero destruction and crude jokes, but not so crude as to stretch that PG-13 rating too far.
This is the main reason why I say that Venom feels around fifteen years out-of-date; Because it operates as if it comes from that awkward adolescent era of superhero movies that released between 2003 and 2007, right before the MCU was born with Iron Man and its refreshing focus on feel-good fun in 2008, wherein both Marvel and DC were releasing a bunch of superhero movies that were trying very hard to be ‘edgy’ over anything else. This was ultimately a misguided effort to be taken seriously, since, barring some superb exceptions like Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins, the edgy tone of these pre-MCU-era movies often came at the expense of a believable, or even likable storyline, and this led to several failed superhero blockbusters that ultimately had a high-schooler’s understanding of depth and emotion. Venom at least mercifully sidesteps that adolescent problem of taking itself way too seriously, which at least places it above angsty slogs like Universal’s Hulk, Fox’s Daredevil or Warner Bros.’ Superman Returns, but it’s ultimately no more deep or intelligent than those movies. If you’re alright with that, then fair enough, but it’s also true that Venom makes for a very potent reminder of just how much we’ve been spoiled by the MCU’s wit and sophistication over the past ten years, or even Fox’s more recent X-Men and Deadpool movies.
(NOTE: The spoiler section, when clicked, discusses potential setups for future Venom sequels, as well as any other potential connections to the Spider-Man spin-off universe that Sony is attempting to build around this movie)
As I mentioned, Venom does not take place in the MCU, nor does it have any connection to Spider-Man lore outside of the existence of symbiotes at this point. Peter Parker, Spider-Man and other related characters don’t currently appear to exist in this universe, which has Venom making a commendable effort not to lean on Spider-Man as a crutch, instead simply acting as if there is no Spider-Man, or indeed any other superheroes or super-villains existing in real life, at least for now. Eddie does at one point confirm during a conversation with Anne that he was born and raised in New York before moving to San Francisco, where Venom is set, and used to work at a New York news agency called ‘The Daily Globe’, which appears to be a slightly altered version of the Daily Bugle, the news agency that Peter Parker and Eddie Brock both work for in Marvel Comics lore. While it’s not positive proof, this could suggest that the rights to the Daily Bugle have now been leased over to Marvel Studios alongside Spider-Man, and perhaps we’ll see it show up in next year’s Spider-Man: Far from Home, since Venom doesn’t appear to be able to use the name, “Daily Bugle.”
Regarding Sony’s self-contained Spider-Man spin-off universe, Venom does thankfully stand alone there too, without making any mentions of other characters that Sony wants to headline future movies in this shared continuity, such as Black Cat, Silver Sable, Silk, Kraven the Hunter or Morbius. Venom does have a mid-credits scene however (there is a post-credits stinger of sorts, but it’s only a few minutes of footage from this December’s upcoming Sony Pictures Animation movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), which involves Eddie Brock resuming his work as an investigative reporter after the Life Foundation initially ruins his career, scoring his first big interview with serial killer, Cletus Kassady, who is played in a very brief appearance by Woody Harrelson. Kassady is of course best known as another symbiote host for Venom’s most frequent and dangerous enemy, Carnage in Marvel lore, with Harrelson no doubt being set up to appear as Carnage in a potential Venom movie sequel. Early reports also claimed that another Venom antagonist, Donna Diego, a.k.a. Scream, was supposed to appear in Venom as well, but it appears that this chatter was either false, or all of Scream’s scenes were cut, since neither Donna Diego nor Scream appears in the movie’s final product at all.
Director, Ruben Fleischer, who is perfectly chosen to helm Venom due to his skill with directing violent, yet comical action movies like Zombieland and Gangster Squad, makes a commendable effort to work around Sony’s intrusive demands with Venom’s final product, but it’s very clear that he’s got one hand tied behind his back here. Fleischer wasn’t shy about admitting that he envisioned Venom with a hard R-rating when he was first hired, as did lead star, Tom Hardy, and it seems that they initially worked to make that very reality happen, especially after emboldened by the huge success of Fox’s Deadpool movies. As Sony started sticking their nose in however, it seemed that much of Venom’s more violent and adult-oriented footage ended up on the cutting room floor, with Sony suddenly wanting to re-position Venom as a more audience-friendly PG-13 blockbuster, just in case they ever wanted to cross it over with the MCU, or just in case they wanted to bring Spider-Man, a firmly PG-13 character at this point, into the franchise.
Whatever the case, it’s painfully evident that Venom is being hamstrung by its PG-13 rating in several scenes, with blood effects awkwardly CG’d out, quick cuts disturbing the formerly gory action, and dialogue quite clearly being trimmed to cut out most of the f-bombs and crude slang. Fleischer’s direction is still done with energy, if not always with full-on passion (you can usually tell exactly where the PG-13-oriented reshoots took place, since these scenes feel very focus-tested and bland compared to the rest of the movie), and Hardy thankfully picks up the slack by still managing to go all in on Venom’s irreverent insanity, even when he can only be so violent or crass in the final product. Despite the PG-13 rating, there are still some scenes that are awesome no matter what as well, particularly a standout extended car chase through the streets of San Francisco, which is ironically the second extended San Francisco car chase in a Marvel movie this year, after Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man and the Wasp featured the same thing this past Summer.
Once again though, Venom functions best as a darkly quirky character comedy, more so than a fully modern superhero movie. Its superhero elements are functional, but they feel like they’re chasing the more established and better-realized superhero formulas of Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox alike, and not contributing much else. It’s the unique relationship between Eddie and the Venom symbiote that serves as the sole key identifier in Venom, and it’s this foundation that any potential sequels should definitely keep highlighting. Another thing we’re going to need though is supporting characters that actually matter, and a storyline that’s doing something that modern superhero movie audiences, which, again, have been extensively spoiled by the MCU’s movies especially, haven’t actually seen before. The lack of unique identifiers outside of the symbiote angle is perhaps the biggest reason why Sony’s proposed Spider-Man spin-off universe already feels like it’s on shaky ground, since it at least invites standalone Venom sequels, but doesn’t really give the indication that Sony carries enough superhero filmmaking inspiration to truly bring interesting new dimensions to any other Marvel personality that they currently have the rights to.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
Ludwig Goransson composes the soundtrack to Venom, and interestingly, this isn’t the first Marvel movie he did the soundtrack for in 2018 alone, having also scored the music to Marvel Studios’ Black Panther earlier this year! Goransson has done work on a wide variety of movies, but it’s clear that he especially relishes the chance to work on a Marvel project, let alone twice in the same year. Just like Black Panther before it, the soundtrack of Venom is quite nicely distinct and well-done, sporting a creepy, yet ultimately empowering score that fits the style of Venom’s character quite well. There are a few more by-the-numbers superhero orchestra compositions that don’t fit as well, but whenever Venom fully embraces the shady uniqueness of its musical stylings, its soundtrack stands out in a great way. There’s even a fairly decent tie-in single, aptly titled, “Venom” by Eminem that plays over the credits, and again, it fits the movie well, even if its angst-ridden hip-hop tempo also feels like something that seemingly immediately went out of style once Iron Man hit the big screen.
The rest of the movie’s sound mixing is pretty brash and noisy, which, again, fits with the style of Venom’s character. IMAX theatres especially offer a very potent sound design throughout this movie, with an almost deliberate effort to play up the sheer might of Venom’s hits, as if to compensate for the loss of the planned R-rating. This doesn’t completely negate the fact that the violence feels a bit neutered, but at least Venom and Riot feel appropriately powerful and dangerous, leaving quite the trail of destruction in their respective wakes. The heavy filter laid over Venom’s voice is also a pretty big highlight in the sound design, since it does create a genuinely overbearing effect of a voice in one’s head, which is done even better in premium formats like IMAX. For all of its character and story stumbles, it’s true that Venom at least puts its best foot forward in the technical department, with Sony visibly throwing whatever funding they have to at the movie in order to make it look and sound as great as possible.
Venom’s budget is lower than most superhero movies, but it at least clocked slightly above the $100 million range, which probably mostly went to the symbiote effects, the sound design and Tom Hardy’s contract. This puts it roughly in the budget range of Fox’s Deadpool 2 from earlier this year, and Venom manages to achieve a similar balance between scrappy experimentation and blockbuster spectacle. The symbiote effects are definitely the visual highlight, with the organic liquid movement of the symbiotes, the detail behind Venom’s face, and some of the incredible CG visuals in the climactic battle with Riot being particularly awesome visual flourishes that are realized beautifully. This is unfortunately another area where the PG-13 rating slightly disturbs the visual splendour too however, since it’s clear that some very garish practical effects have been cleaned up to be more audience-friendly, and this pretty much completely deflates the horror element that seems to have been initially attempted with the symbiote bonding, namely with incompatible hosts. Make no mistake, Venom is still a pretty good-looking movie, but without the desire to embrace its horror elements and aborted R-rating, it’s left looking like the obvious B-movie that it is in contrast to big superhero movie champions like Marvel Studios’ trio of offerings this year, or potentially DC’s upcoming big-budget Aquaman movie for that matter, even if this more basic style is not without its own charm.
Among its visual flourishes, Venom does include both 3D and IMAX 3D cuts, though unfortunately, the 3D really isn’t worth it in this case. The 3D presentation is very clearly an afterthought in Venom, since it’s often sloppily overlaid and makes the visuals more blurry, especially considering the large amount of scenes that are shot at night. There’s a decent 3D effect here and there during a couple of the action scenes, but for the most part, the 3D effect really isn’t worth it in this case, and you’re better off just watching the movie flat in 2D, where it’s a lot more clean and clearly presented. As for the IMAX presentation, it’s actually not bad, especially with how well it punches up the fairly impressive sound design. The modest visuals (at least by Marvel movie standards) don’t really do much with the increased screen real estate, but they look alright, and the IMAX presentation certainly doesn’t take away from the experience in any capacity. The ideal way to experience Venom is likely in a 2D IMAX showing, if you have that option, which presents the best balance between a slight visual boost, a potent audio boost, and no poorly-conceived 3D effect getting in the way of the presentation.
Venom is a mess of tonal confusion and half-baked plotlines, one that’s devoid of any real depth or character, at least outside of its quirky protagonist. With that said, the handful of great moments that the movie does manage to deliver at least make it worth checking out for fans of the Venom character, Marvel fans in general, or anyone who wants some dopey, disposable fun during a slower movie season. If Sony wants to headline their own shared Marvel movie universe though, they really need to step their game up, because while Venom is good enough to stand on its own (commendably without any mention of Spider-Man to boot), it’s not really good enough to serve as a foundation for an entire cinematic universe, especially now that the MCU is finally about to add the X-Men, Deadpool and Fantastic Four franchises to its roster after Disney acquires Fox, while DC finally appears to be getting its act together with some very promising early footage seen from the upcoming Aquaman, Shazam! and Wonder Woman 1984 so far. The competition in the superhero movie genre is just getting stiffer every year, and at worst, Sony just simply feels a day late and a dollar short with Venom, especially when its final product feels so outdated in many respects.
Even if it’s quite clearly outpaced by the competition however, Venom is definitely not a complete disaster. If nothing else, it’s certainly watchable, and if you’re not trying to take it seriously (a bit of a back-handed defense, I know), it can be quite entertaining at its best, albeit in kind of a dumb way. There is definite potential here, and a sequel that tightens the storytelling and perhaps commits to that initially-proposed R-rating could be something truly standout. For now though, Venom is a mostly serviceable superhero B-movie that has the grave misfortune of coming out in the same year as the excellent, racially-empowering Black Panther, the massive-scaled, emotionally groundbreaking Avengers: Infinity War, and sequels to both Deadpool and Ant-Man that somehow overcame the odds and were even better than their predecessors in several respects. That’s before the Distinguished Competition potentially defies the odds themselves by possibly making a seriously badass, impressive Aquaman movie for this December as well! Hell, even Sony’s own upcoming animated Spider-Man offshoot, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse immediately feels a lot more unique and immediately striking than Venom, which seems to further threaten any potential foundation for a new live-action Marvel movie universe under Sony’s watch.
At the very least, Venom does seem to be doing pretty well at the box office, so perhaps its profitability could lead to a bolder, more uniquely-styled sequel that makes more of an impression, now that the tricky establishment of Venom in a new cinematic universe that isn’t the MCU is out of the way. As much as I want to defend Venom for how much it managed to amuse me in passing however, despite its many, many flaws, I also can’t deny that it’s not a movie that can effectively compete with the big boys. Maybe, like the DC Extended Universe, Sony’s Spider-Man spin-off universe can properly hit its stride with a future project, but the onus is on it now to start finding ways to keep the attention of moviegoers, especially when there’s always plenty of more impressive options in the superhero movie pipeline.
Venom has passing moments of quirky amusement and impressive action, but its paper-thin storytelling, along with a painfully obvious PG-13 neutering, leave it falling far short of its potential.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
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THE GOOD STUFF
Tom Hardy is great as both Eddie Brock and Venom
Sharp, appropriately monstrous sound design
Some entertaining action sequences
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Dull, unmemorable villain and supporting cast
Bland, overly cliched storyline with no real twists
Blatantly compromised by the studio-mandated PG-13 rating