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Film
by E.G. Neill

Venom, Us

Back in December 2000, in the pages of this very magazine, Lucius Shepard reviewed the first X-Men movie and wanted to leave no doubt regarding his opinion, so he titled the column "XcreMENt" and began it with this observation:

 

We have reached a point in the American journey where it is plain to see that the millennium was the approximate moment when both the idea and reality of populist art became extinct, when the intellectual environment of the culture sank beneath a level necessary to sustain the life of the public mind, when an evolution—a mutation, if you will—in the efficiency of marketing made the entire concept of product irrelevant.... There is no going back from this moment.

 

Nearly two decades later, it seems he might have understated the point. When movies cost anywhere from a hundred million to a quarter billion dollars to make, it's impossible to discuss the artistic qualities of a film apart from the commercial pressures that surround them. This is certainly the case with Sony Pictures's latest foray into the superhero field, Venom.

When X-Men was released in 2000, it was something of an anomaly in that it was a big-budget, live-action superhero film that pretended, on some level, to take its characters and premises seriously, and expected audiences to do the same. There had been no other similar comic book films in 1999, nor would there be in 2001. But the success of X-Men, both critically—Shepard was one of the few reviewers to disparage the film—and, more importantly, one suspects, financially, marked a turning point in popular movies. There are now eleven films in the X-Men universe, and they've earned more than $5.7 billion dollars for Twentieth Century Fox.

Warner Bros., which owns the DC Comics properties, pursued the success of the X-Men movies by relaunching their signature franchises of the 1980s and 1990s, with Batman Begins in 2005 and Superman Returns in 2006. The DC Extended Universe rebooted the characters yet again in 2013, this time in a shared milieu, resulting in five films and $3.7 billion in box office. (By the time this appears in print, it will be six and closer to four.) DC's latest reinvention chases the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, created when Marvel Studios joined the circus in 2008 with Iron Man. So far there are twenty films in the MCU, with over $17.5 billion in box office. To put it in perspective, there were six major live-action superhero films released per year in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Nine are currently scheduled for 2019. At this point, superhero movies come out more frequently than some comic books.

Meanwhile, Sony Pictures felt left out of this billion-dollar cash grab, but not for lack of trying. They had some initial success with the first Spider-Man trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007), which they tried to recreate, right down to the origin story, only one decade later with The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2 (2012, 2014). But faced with increasing production costs and decreasing box office success (their fifth Spider-Man movie made barely half as much in domestic ticket sales as the first), Sony—who own the film rights to all the Spider-Man related material in the comics canon—reached a complicated deal with Marvel Studios and Disney (who bought Marvel in 2009), in which Sony co-produced and continued to distribute movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) but temporarily relinquished creative control to the MCU, allowing the most recent incarnation of the webslinger to appear in Marvel Studios movies alongside Captain America and The Avengers.

The deal left Sony with extra money to spend and the film rights to a bunch of Spider-Man's villains but no hero to fight them. As a result, they decided to take Venom, who is one of Spider-Man's greatest foes and whose own appearance is literally a dark reflection of Spider-Man's costume, and make him a hero in a world in which Spider-Man doesn't exist. Frank Lloyd Wright wrote that an artist's limitations are their best friends. With friends like these, the creative team behind Venom—director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland); writers Scott Rosenberg (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), and Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey)—didn't need enemies.

The putative villain of Venom is the Elon Musk-y space-obsessed tech billionaire Carlton Drake, played by Riz Ahmed. In a scene at Drake's headquarters early in the film, he's speaking to a tour group of schoolchildren about science and, when a young girl in the group wants to ask a question, delivers an impassioned lecture about not silencing people and how important it is to listen to what everyone has to say. He then rushes off before the girl has any chance to speak. Is this intended to be ironic? Who can tell in this tonally confused film, where many of the laughs feel unintended? The story begins when one of Drake's exploratory rockets returns to Earth with alien lifeforms; one escapes containment and causes the ship to crash. Drake's Life Foundation recaptures the other creatures and discovers that they require an oxygen-breathing host to survive our planet's atmosphere. Under Drake's guidance, the scientists quickly ramp up to human trials by recruiting street people, most of whom die horribly when exposed to the aliens, who are called symbiotes.

Enter Eddie Brock, played by Tom Hardy, who won critical acclaim for his previous comic book turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Brock is an investigative journalist convinced that Drake is a bad man, but he lacks evidence. When Dr. Dora Skirth, a Life Foundation employee with reasonable ethical concerns about their human testing protocol, contacts Brock to expose the program, the two sneak into the facility together so he can gather proof of Drake's wrongdoing. Brock recognizes one of the test subjects, and his impulsive rescue attempt goes unsurprisingly wrong, resulting in her death and his infection with the symbiote. Soon the alien begins to speak to Brock, sometimes sounding like his evil alter-ego, sometimes like his therapist, and we discover its name is Venom.

The film wants us to believe that Eddie is a good guy, and they tell us so early on with a quick and superficial montage of his reporting, to show us that he fights for... something. In another scene he gives money to a homeless woman. The problem is that in every other action he takes, in all of his personal relationships, he comes across as selfish, thoughtless, and reckless, with no regard for the impact his actions have on others. This includes his fiancée, attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). When he steals confidential legal information from her laptop, it gets her fired and she dumps him. He shows little remorse then, nor any when his actions in the lab lead to the death of his friend. Dr. Skirth puts her faith in Brock and fares just as poorly. He ends up stalking his ex, like a creep, and then relies on her and her new boyfriend, Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott), to help him when he gets sick. The boyfriend arguably saves his life; Brock repays him by continuing to try to get back together with Anne.

The movie has its strengths. Tom Hardy's performance is always watchable and often funny. In addition to playing Brock, he voices Venom, and their over-the-top back-and-forth dialogue with each other is the most entertaining part of the film. And to be fair, many of Venom's flaws are common to other superhero films. The considerable talents of the supporting actors are wasted: they exist mainly as props to move the exposition along and lack memorable lines or meaningful moments. The third act battle between Venom and the other surviving alien symbiote named Riot is a frenetic CGI smashfest in which few human faces, and fewer human emotions, are to be found. The fate of the world may hang in the balance, but this particular world hasn't been populated with enough people to make us care about its fate.

We've seen some extraordinary things in superhero movies over the past few years. Wonder Woman (2017) was earnest and hopeful, both aware of any hero's limited ability to stop evil and yet committed to seeking justice nonetheless. Black Panther (2018) gave us an afrofuturist vision free of the lingering damage of colonialism. Even Thor: Ragnarok (2018) offered up a version of popular opposition to oligarchic exploitation, and if it was often humorous, it was in the nature of a spoonful of sugar and some unpleasant medicine. Even when they're flawed, superhero stories can be complex and layered and interesting without being didactic.

But if Venom makes us feel anything, it's a big, clumsy hand shoved deep in our pocket, rummaging around for loose change. The existence of a superhero implies some kind of moral vision—a character who is willing to sacrifice their own resources, their happiness or career, even their life, in order to help others. The creators of Venom want to claim that he is an antihero, like Deadpool, but it's not a convincing argument. We know Deadpool is a bad guy, but there is never any doubt that the people he is fighting are worse, and we see him care about what happens to other people. Brock, on the other hand, is a loser, who cares about other people only when it's convenient for him. (In one of the movie's oddest moments, the alien symbiote confesses to being a loser too.) And there's no guarantee that the people he fights are worse than he is. At the end of the movie, Brock/Venom casually kills a petty extortionist; he's a criminal, yes, but does his crime justify the death penalty? In that moment, it's possible that Venom ceases being an antihero and just becomes another villain.

And that's the major problem with this film. It's a superhero film with no particular moral vision. If any ethical questions are raised, they're disposed of as quickly and carelessly as the character of Dr. Skirth. The real good guys in this film, the people who take risks to help others—like Anne's boyfriend, Dr. Dan—can be forgotten the moment we no longer need their help. Throughout this frequently muddled story, Eddie Brock is as self-destructive as he is self-deceptive about his own responsibility for his problems. He's near rock bottom when he gets infected with the alien symbiote, and his newfound powers, once he eliminates everyone else who wants to use them for their own purposes, are merely a way to get his old job and ex-fiancée back. In the end, he's just another guy who's willing to use an unearned advantage and occasional violence to get a little something for himself. If the narrative distracts us with enough special effects and makes us laugh a few times, it hopes that we won't notice that beneath the glossy surface is an empty void. And it's this lack of clarity and complexity in our hero stories that threatens to poison us.

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