Scalding Hot Takes: Venom (2018)

 Mmm, black cheese. So dangerously toxic-looking

Mmm, black cheese. So dangerously toxic-looking

Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Scalding Hot Takes. It’s the column where I venture wearily back into the waters of film criticism by watching and writing about the big new theatrical releases. This entry is a little different, however, in that I am writing about a movie that has been out for so long that when I went to so see it on a lovely Friday afternoon I was the only person in the theater even though, according to Wikipedia, the movie has made  a little over a half billion dollars at the box office so far. 

The film in question is Venom. The movie has received dreadful reviews and the week it came out Clint and I chose to cover A Star is Born instead for relatively pragmatic reasons. I’d just written about the 1937 A Star is Born and its predecessor, 1932’s What Price Hollywood, AKA the movie every version of A Star is Born steals shamelessly from, for my Fractured Mirror column on movies about movie for TCM Backlot and was up to “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Lady Gaga parody “Perform This Way” on The Weird Accordion to Al so the timing for me to watch and write about the big Bradley Cooper movie not involving the Raccoon Who Wears People Clothes was perfect. 

Yet as it has no doubt become painfully aware, I am a slouchy, emotionally stunted twelve year old in the body of a forty-two year old so it was very important for me to see Venom because in the great pantheon of comic book characters whose badassery has been documented for posterity in tee-shirts available at Hot Topic, its titular anti-hero/villain ranks alongside The Punisher and Deadpool as a veritable God. 

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As all of the stoners and slackers and burnouts and mall rats in the 1990s knew, Venom was just plain cool, man. He was, like, a crazy, nihilistic monster from outer space who ate people’s faces. Is Superman a crazy, nihilistic monster from outer space who eats people’s faces? Yes he is, but they chose to downplay that aspect of his personality so as not to frighten children. 

Venom’s fellow Hot Topic mall superstar anti-heroes The Punisher, Wolverine and Deadpool each received badass R-rated film adaptations. Why shouldn’t Venom be next in line, particularly with brooding cult favorite Tom Hardy in the lead role as crusading investigative journalist Eddie Brock and bloodthirsty alien symbiote Venom? 

You could almost feel culture-wide expectations for Venom drop dramatically when it was announced that the eagerly anticipated cinematic vehicle for the cult anti-hero would be PG-13. How badass can you be while making sure you don’t utter more than one precious, precious fuck? An ideal Venom movie, one directed by David Cronenberg in the 1980s, would have zero fucks to give. If I’m not mistaken, Venom has exactly one fuck to deliver before it tips over into the scary, nightmare adult rating of R. That’s R for RESTRICTED whereas Venom’s PG-13 legally stands for “Acceptable for all audiences, even babies and easily frightened small children.” 

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Ah, but Venom’s problems go above and beyond being insufficiently violent, graphic and extreme for a movie about one of Marvel’s most violent, graphic and extreme fan favorites. The problems begin with Venom taking a seeming eternity to stop fooling around and finally introduce the titular badass in all of his tongue-waggling, muscle-bound, face-eating glory. 

Before we’re properly introduced to Venom we spend way too much time drinking in the small, sour sadness of protagonist Eddie Brock, a dogged newshound whose career craters when he pursues a lead about a sinister corporation experimenting with alien/human symbiosis that ends up losing him both a job and his soon to be-ex-fiance Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). 

Here’s a suggestion for superhero filmmakers, from a man who worked in newspapers most of his adult life: nobody fucking cares about your character’s journalistic career. They don’t care about the juicy stories they’re chasing. They do not care about office politics within the newspaper world. They don’t care about the bravery and sacrifice of whistleblowers. They don’t care about journalists’ noble dedication to fighting corporate greed as embodied by greedy, hyper-capitalistic super-villains. Your superhero movie is not All the President’s Men. It’s not Spotlight. It’s not even I Love Trouble. It’s a fucking movie about a super-dude with a magical costume who for some reason always seems to be working for a newspaper, because god knows that’s where all the jobs are these days.

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The first act of Venom is dominated by newspaper melodrama and corporate “intrigue” involving Eddie Brock and Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a brilliant scientist of the “mad” variety who thinks that humanity’s future lies in fusing with alien suits to create terrifyingly powerful new hybrids. Ahmed is a great actor who I have enjoyed tremendously in the past, most notably with his masterful turn as the leader and straight man in Four Lions but holy fucking shit is his character boring here. I’m sorry. Unless you have an actor as charismatic and magnetic as, say, Sam Rockwell in Iron Man 3, “greedy businessman” will almost invariably make for a sub-par super-villain. 

It isn’t until Drake fuses with an alien suit to become Riot (Now there is a name and character just waiting to be immortalized on a Hot Topic chain-wallet, tee-shirt and poster) that he becomes even remotely interesting. Then again, that is far from the only instance of clothes making the man here. 

It’s the Venom sentient suit, a sort of Mr. Hyde seeking a Dr. Jeckyl, that transforms Eddie from a zero into a hero. He goes from being a nebbishy loser who just can’t catch a break to a nebbishy loser who can’t catch a break but is also in a perverse, sadomasochistic relationship with the evil alien symbiote who is simultaneously ruining his life in a spectacular fashion, and finally giving Eddie something to live for. 

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Venom was directed by Ruben Fleischer. How badass is Fleischer? Well, you know how badass it is when they make a movie about a gangster, like Scarface? Well this crazy motherfucker outdid everyone and said, “What if they made a movie with a whole squad full of gangsters? And we called it Gangster Squad!” Yes, Fleischer directed Gangster Squad, which was hot garbage but he also directed the nifty horror comedy Zombieland. 

It makes sense that Venom would share a director with Zombieland. As a horror-inflected dark comedy with a distinct 1980s feel about the ultimate mismatched buddy combo, Venom is a lot of fun. Though it takes forever for him to start fucking shit up, Venom is a glorious comic creation, a rampaging id with an enormous, obscene and rapacious tongue and a one-track mind devoted exclusively to sin, to feeding his enormous appetites at any cost. In other words, he’s a super-villain version of Gene Simmons. Or rather an even more super-villainish version of Gene Simmons.

The dynamic between Eddie Brock and Venom suggests Little Shop of Horrors if Seymour and Audrey II occupied the same body and fought for dominance constantly, with Audrey II having the upper hand, being an evil, human-devouring monster from outer space and all. The moment in Venom that nearly tipped the movie into good-bad/movie I kind of liked territory (to use the Flop House rating scale) was when Venom confides in his powerfully ambivalent human host that he’s actually kind of a loser on his own planet, and consequently wouldn’t mind sticking around planet Earth, where he at least has the novelty of being a space alien, and not that asshole from high school who made everyone uncomfortable awkwardly hitting on girls and bragging about his famous cousin. 

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I would happily watch a Venom sequel in exchange for money, or as a professional requirement but I would happily sign up to write a Venom comic book prequel entitled Venom: Loser from Outer Space all about the evil alien’s early years huffing glue and stealing space-cars with his loser space friends. If all of Venom had the same anarchic, goofball, underdog spirit as the moment where Venom reveals that he’s a space-loser, the movie would be an instant classic like Thor: Ragnorok instead of being the kind of enjoyable shitty movie that doesn’t have fans or cultists so much as it has apologists and defenders.

When Venom is doing his thing, or when Eddie and Venom are doing their interplanetary good cop/bad cop double-act the movie is a lot of goofy fun but whenever Venom is offscreen good lord does the movie ever drag and everyone who is not Tom Hardy does distractingly bad, impersonal work, even the high-powered likes of Williams. I read on Wikipedia that Fleischer is excited about potentially spinning off Williams’ character into a She-Venom movie and I’ve got to say that the idea of Williams wanting to spend more time in this universe when she could be, you know, acting in actual movies, made me laugh as hard as anything in the film.  

Having watched Williams deliver a performance with the energy and enthusiasm of a hostage victim reading a ransom note on camera I implore Sony to not even ask the four time Oscar nominee about starring in a spin-off movie as Lady Venom. Do not even utter the words “Lady Venom” in her presence. I don’t care how many millions of dollars you want to offer her: believe me, you’re only insulting her dignity by acting as if this distinguished thespian playing a lady version of the crazy suit monster is anything other than a cruel cosmic joke. 

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I cannot imagine a role Williams would want to pursue less this side of a gender-swapped Chairman of the Board remake with her in the Carrot Top role. If you want to see a great performer who is completely checked out and going through the motions for a sweet blockbuster paycheck you have any number of Transformers sequels and superhero movies to choose from but you will not not find a purer representation of the species than Williams here. 

Venom isn’t the only crazily talented woman sleepwalking through a role they’re wildly overqualified for, yet incredibly miscast in. If you were to tell me that Jenny Slate was brainwashed by a super villain who forced her to appear in Venom against her will, and that she has no memory of making the film, that would actually make a lot more sense than the actress and comedian choosing to be in the film of her own accord in a nothing role she does nothing with. 

Venom doesn’t even really try to be good, let alone great. It’s as if the director looked at the first week of dailies and gathered his cast and crew to tell them to aspire only to “good enough”, a “B-” as it were, and not feel too bad if they came up short of even those modest goals. 

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For a big-budget movie with A-list stars, Venom feels weirdly like a cheapo superhero movie from the 1980s or 1990s, before comic books became big business again. Watching Venom’s washed-out, B-grade schlock, I was reminded that Cannon actually had the rights to make a Spider-Man movie in the 1980s, but never quite got around to doing so. 

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Venom suggests the movie Cannon might have made from the Spider-Man universe had it been more on the ball and less crazily over-leveraged. That’s probably why I kind of love it and kind of hate it. Venom is schlocky and tacky and unmistakably downmarket in that inimitable Cannon way but also vulgar, goofy b-movie fun in that distinctive Cannon fashion as well.

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