Venom is an early indicator of what 2000s nostalgia is like
In comics, Venom epitomizes the problems with superhero comics in the late 1980s and early 1990s. More than foil covers, anatomy pushed beyond “unlikely” or “impossible” to grotesque, it is the darker, grittier, more “serious” storytelling that sacrifices depth for simple shocking twists. However, Venom the 2018 film might be the first indication of 2000s nostalgia other than Shrek memes or Bee Movie tumblr.
Watching Venom this week took me back to the wave of comic book films that began with 1998’s Blade and Bryan Singer’s first stab X-Men in 2000, and ended with Iron Man in 2008. Superhero source material was finally being treated seriously, but we were also getting jokes about yellow spandex and what happens to toads when they get struck by lightning. On the upside, we got Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, and Ang Lee’s Hulk. On the flipside, we got Daredevil starring Ben Affleck and Ghost Rider starring Nicholas Cage. Those latter films repeatedly came to mind while watching Venom.
Back in 2003, I was still just absolutely excited to see one of my favorite superheroes brought to life in a “serious” film. The fact that Elektra was in the film, used sais, and was killed by Bullseye (spoiler for a 15-year-old film that is bad, sorry) was key. It made the ridiculous decision that a bullseye carved into Colin Farrell's forehead was a more realistic choice to the filmmakers than a spandex mask somewhat forgivable. We were meeting Hollywood halfway as thankful nerds in spite of the awful aesthetics and nu metal soundtrack (four years on, and everything was still imitating The Matrix*).
Fifteen years later, Venom took me back to that exact mindset and experience. Like those earlier films, most of the climatic action in Venom takes place at night, and calling the plot coherent is somewhat generous. And yet, I had a lot of fun watching Venom. Who knew I would be nostalgic for bad superhero movies?
Much of that fun is due to Tom Hardy’s performance as Eddie Brock. Hardy is one of the most fascinating actors working today, and he is able to give the film an energy that would otherwise be lacking any redeeming qualities. Eddie Brock is a video journalist, uncompromising in his need to be maximally insufferable. When Brock gets the opportunity to do a fluff interview with CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), he takes advantage of the fact that his girlfriend Annie (Michelle Williams) is a lawyer working for Drake’s company to find some dirt on the industrialist that isn’t public knowledge. Because of this, both Brock and Annie lose their jobs, and Bock loses Annie. Brock waffles between blaming others and abject self-pity in the wake of this downward turn, hilariously represented by his move to a crappier apartment where his neighbor’s loud music renders Brock unable to mediate.
What Brock doesn’t know is that Drake has found alien life in the form of gooey symbiotes that he believes will usher in the next phase of humanity. To accomplish this goal, he sics them on unsuspecting homeless people. One of his scientists, Dr. Skirth (Jenny Slate) has a change of heart and tips off Brock, who becomes bonded to one of the symbiotes after she sneaks him into the lab so he has proof of her claims.
This is where it becomes interesting. Once bonded with the symbiote, Hardy not only performs as the socially awkward, mumbling, Brock, but also voices the black goo that is Venom in an impossibly deep register that never sounds like any human’s normal speaking voice. In exchange for Brock’s cooperation as host, Venom provides strength and gooey appendages. In exchange, Brock craves raw meat and appears to be constantly having a conversation with a voice in his head.
The best scene in the film is a callback to Ghostbusters where a person perceived to be psychology disturbed disrupts a fine dining establishment. The whole scene was reportedly improvised by Hardy, and it is one of the funniest things in any film this year. Director Ruben Fleischer opens the sequence with a shot of what amounts to Chekov’s lobster tank, and the payoff to that is simply incredible.
Sadly, the rest of the film doesn’t offer anything else nearly that fun. The motorcycle chase is competent, but feels slow and staged in the wake of Mission: Impossible–Fallout. And the end of the film has two darkly colored computer blobs fighting each other at night, which mostly looks like nothing. At least twice, it does pause for a comic book splash page-aping shot (above), and those are bright spots of something unique to Venom in an otherwise messy entry in a crowded genre.
Hardy alone isn’t enough to salvage this film, especially given that Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, and Jenny Slate barely get to stretch their legs. There’s too little good in this film overall, but the few bright spots in Venom would stand out more if we didn’t have a decade of great films in the genre. Venom is a good reminder of how spoiled we are as superhero fans, harkening back to the days of walking uphill both ways just to watch Ben Affleck breathe through his mouth for an entire film because his mask was entirely made of red leather.
Venom opens in Philly theaters today.
*I admit that I still love Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” and I have a soft spot for this song on the soundtrack by Drowning Pool and featuring Rob Zombie which features a chorus that repeats “Come on come on come on Daredevil.”