VENOM (2018)

Review by L.L. Soares

Yet again, Hollywood underestimates the popularity of a comic book character.

In some ways, the history of VENOM (2018) reminds me a lot of DEADPOOL (2016). Both were successful characters introduced by wunderkind comics book artists (and then-future founders of IMAGE Comics) during the time they worked for Marvel (Venom during artist Todd McFarlane’s run on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and Deadpool during Rob Leifeld’s run on THE NEW MUTANTS). Both had dismal “first appearances” in the world of movies. For those who forgot, Venom has been onscreen before, in the absolutely abysmal Sam Raimi flick SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007), where he was played by That 70s Show star, Topher Grace. Rumor has it that Raimi didn’t want to include Venom in the movie, but the studio (Sony in this case) insisted. For some unfathomable reason, Grace (a young comedic star from a television show) was cast as world-weary Eddie Brock, a reporter who in turn becomes Venom. Horribly miscast, and in a horrible film, Grace’s version of Venom is rightly forgettable. Deadpool, on the other hand, also had a dismal debut in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009) played by Ryan Reynolds as a wisecracking character who doesn’t have much to say in the film (thus negating his most significant superpower, his wit). Reynolds was smart and savvy enough to know that Deadpool deserved better and pushed for the solo movie that made the character (and Reynolds) a household name. The summer before DEADPOOL the movie came out, I saw tons of people in Deadpool costumes at my local version of ComicCon, heralding the fact that the movie was going to be the huge hit that it was.

People also love Venom from the comics; they just wanted the version they loved to be done right onscreen. SPIDER-MAN 3 failed to give them that. So when VENOM, an overall goofy movie that has some real fun parts, finally opened in theaters, and people got a character who was very obviously their hero (anti-hero) from the comics (as opposed to that forgettable Topher Grace character), they ate it up. Just like Venom does to some lowlife criminals in the movie.

The star of VENOM is Tom Hardy, and it’s interesting that we have yet another link to the “bad first appearance” theme I’ve started here. Hardy has had big success in superhero movies before, having played the iconic Bane in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012), after Bane had been done (badly, and forgettably) first as a henchman for Poison Ivy in Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997), where he was played by wrestler Robert “Jeep” Swenson.

Which is all a long way of bringing us to a review of the new VENOM movie, starring Hardy.

In the comics, the origin of Venom is a long, convoluted tale that begins when Spider-Man gets an alien costume during the cosmic “Secret Wars” storyline. A costume that turns out to have a life of its own and an evil agenda, leading Peter Parker to ditch the “cool new black costume” he brings back to Earth. The costume, actually a parasitic alien called a “symbiote” that needs a host to survive, then latches on to suicidal reporter Eddie Brock, whose life has just fallen apart.  Brock hates Parker for his own reasons, the costume hates Parker for rejecting it, and the costume retains the knowledge of Parker and his secret identity, turning Brock into a powerful bad guy who also just happens to know all of Peter Parker’s secrets. But no longer was the symbiote portrayed as a cool black version of Spider-Man’s costume. On Eddie Brock, the costume became much more horrific: a monster with rows of dagger-like teeth, and a horrid and very prominent tongue. In other words, the Venom that comics fans would recognize and love.

The new VENOM movie, having less time for an origin story, and (legally) no real access to Spider-Man, creates a new/truncated origin for our hero, involving alien symbiotes come to earth, and world-weary Eddie Brock, but eliminating the Spider-Man connections. Of course, I’m sure plans are afoot to somehow have Venom and Spider-Man interact onscreen someday, despite the boundaries of who owns what. Marvel has, afterall, acquired Spider-Man himself from Sony in a kind of studio collaboration process, as seen in the movie SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

Anyway, back to this movie. Rich tech tycoon Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, who starred in the HBO series THE NIGHT OF) has financed a space shuttle to go to a passing asteroid and collect some samples (proving there’s life on there!). Coming back to Earth, the shuttle crashes in Malaysia, creating headlines. Drake’s staff is able to retrieve all of the samples except one, that hops from person to person until it eventually comes home to Mr. Drake. But that takes awhile.

In the meantime, Drake is secretly experimenting on homeless people that have been abducted from the streets, combining them with the samples – those alien parasites called symbiotes – to create a new, stronger human. The symbiotes can’t live in our atmosphere without a host, and, if Drake can find the secret of combining them, not only will the aliens be able to survive in our atmosphere, the human hosts will be able to survive in space, thus creating a race of symbiotic supermen who are so much cooler than weak, ordinary humans. The sad part is, every time Drake tries to unite a human and a symbiote it ends in rejection, and the humans end up dead.

Enter investigative reporter Eddie Brock, who can’t help trying to expose wrongdoing, and who gets a chance to interview Drake. When he brings up some of the overseas shenanigans Drake’s company is involved in on-air, the powerful businessman makes sure Brock is fired from his job. And for good measure, Drake also fires Brock’s fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), who is one of Drake Corp.’s lawyers. This leads to Brock and his girlfriend breaking up, along with Brock being jobless.

By the time he finds out about the human experiments, thanks to the conscience of Drake Corp. scientist Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), Brock wants to never hear the name Carlton Drake again, but eventually comes around, taking up Dr. Skirth’s offer to sneak him into the labs to take pictures.

While he’s there, Brock is exposed to one of the symbiotes, and is pursued throughout the building by security. Somehow, he escapes, but this turns into a city-wide chase throughout San Francisco, ending up at Eddie’s apartment, where all hell breaks loose, in the form of Venom’s “coming out.” It starts as a voice in Eddie’s head, until the creature manifests itself when attacked, making mincemeat of anyone who tries to harm its host human.

The rest of the movie involves Drake and his minions trying to get Brock and bring him back to the lab, since he’s the one case where the human/symbiote experiment succeeded! Oh, and for good measure, Drake eventually gets a symbiote of his own and turns into a similar creature called Riot, who is Venom’s superior on their home world, but Venom isn’t exactly the type to go along with the whole hierarchy thing now that’s he’s had a taste of freedom here on Earth.

The movie starts out a little awkward. At first, Tom Hardy seems miscast as Brock; it’s hard to picture this sad sack character as a successful/charismatic TV reporter, and even his relationship with successful/sophisticated lawyer Anne strains credibility. But things change once Eddie meets his new “partner.” The interaction between Brock and Venom can be pretty humorous at times, and its their interplay that eventually turns this movie from potentially awful to a very fun ride. The Brock/Venom dynamic reminded a little of a similar concept in another recent movie, UPGRADE (2018), where Logan Marshall-Green gets a passenger inside his body (and his head) when an AI is implanted into his damaged body. I actually think UPGRADE is the better movie, but VENOM is more goofy fun, and Hardy turns a performance that at first doesn’t seem to be working into one that’s very entertaining.

Of course, Venom and Riot are going to eventually have a showdown, at the site of another space shuttle launch (part of a very sinister master plan on Drake’s part), but this movie is more of an origin story than anything else. Carlton Drake and his alter ego aren’t all that amazing; they’re just a (almost generic) bad guy for Brock and Venom to team up to defeat.

Because, obviously, Venom is pretty much the only reason to see this movie.

You can tell this isn’t a Marvel Studios (and therefore Disney-adjacent) blockbuster, because it’s not as slick as the Marvel movies, and the CGI, while mostly good, looks a little hokey in some scenes. But the Venom on the screen is the one comic book fans love, and they’ve already proven that they have totally embraced him, based on the box office receipts. VENOM just feels more low-budget in comparison to what we’re used to from Marvel, from the scenery to the character development (or, in most cases, lack thereof). VENOM isn’t exactly flashy and awe-inspiring, but it is a faithful presentation of the character, and in this case, that’s enough.

The cast, for the most part, is pretty much wasted. The great Michelle Williams, who I’ve loved in everything she does, isn’t given a lot to do in the girlfriend role, even though she does get to wear the symbiote briefly in one scene (Go, Lady Venom!), and she’s a little more hands-on and helpful than most human sidekicks. It doesn’t hurt that her Anne is smart (probably much smarter than Eddie). Riz Ahmed is a good actor, but his Carlton Drake is yet another one-dimensional billionaire who thinks he’s above the law (an archetype we’ve been seeing a little too much of lately).

But Tom Hardy makes the Eddie Brock thing work, despite itself, and has some funny moments as he bonds with his inner (and outer) monster. Hardy is one of my favorite current actors, but I have to admit, early on, I was a little unsure of whether he could pull this off. Eddie Brock isn’t one of most nuanced or best written roles he’s had, and at first he doesn’t seem sure what to do. Let’s face it, in a lot of ways, this is a step down for him acting-wise. But once Venom finally shows up, the movie redeems itself, and so does Hardy (here). And, in a perverse way, it’s nice to see an actor of Hardy’s caliber (normally) get his own piece of the superhero/cash cow pie.

The movie’s directed by Ruben Fleischer, who previously gave us ZOMBIELAND (2009) and GANGSTER SQUAD (2013), and he does a good job here. The script has its ups and downs and is one of the movie’s weakest links (luckily Hardy and Williams are better than the material) and it was written by Jeff Pinkner (who also wrote the screenplays for THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, 2014, and THE DARK TOWER, 2017), Scott Rosenberg (CON AIR, 1997, HIGH FIDELITY, 2000, and JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, 2017) and Kelly Marcel (SAVING MR. BANKS, 2013, and FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, 2015). It’s based, of course, on the character created in the comics by David Michelinie (writer) and Todd McFarlane (artist).

Like Marvel movies, we even get some extra scenes during the end credits. One gives us a peak at Woody Harrelson as a guy who’s none other than Venom’s biggest enemy (all set up for the sequel). The second one, at the very end of the credits, is a prolonged scene/commercial for the upcoming animated film SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018), that Sony is putting out this December. That’s overlong and not really worth sitting through, unless you’re looking forward to that movie, too.

VENOM isn’t a great movie, but I’m a fan of the character and by the end, I didn’t feel cheated (like I did with SPIDER-MAN 3) and it’s a fun ride while it lasts. So, because I had such a good time with it, I’m giving VENOM a rating of three knives.

And I’m looking forward to the inevitable sequel.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

 

LL Soares gives VENOM ~ three out of five knives.

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QUICK REVIEWS OF RECENT MOVIES

SHORT TAKES by LL Soares

THE FIRST PURGE (2018) – the most political franchise in recent horror films delivers a prequel this month, and there’s an upcoming television show version as well. The movie tells the story of the arrival of the New Founding Fathers, the ultraconservative party that steps in when the U.S. has suffered massive economic collapse. One of their big ideas is to have one night a year where all crime, including murder, is legal, called the Purge. The first Purge one takes place on Staten Island, where people are paid money to stick around during the Purge, and even more money if they partake in the violence. When it begins, and things don’t get violent quickly enough, mercenaries are pumped in to turn it into a bloodbath. As usual in these films, the low-income citizens are the ones who suffer the most, and are the ones who have to fight back when the mercenaries come in, turning it all into an overnight war zone.

It stars Lex Scott Davis (of the series TRAINING DAY, and the recent remake of SUPERFLY, 2018) as an anti-Purge activist named Nya; Joivan Wade (from the British series EASTENDERS and DR. WHO) as her younger brother Isaiah, a good kid who has fallen off the straight and narrow and uses Purge night as a chance for revenge; Y’lan Noel (of the shows THE HUSTLE, 2013, and HBO’s INSECURE) as Nya’s former boyfriend and local drug kingpin Dmitri; and Marisa Tomei (MY COUSIN VINNY, 1992, and THE WRESTLER, 2008) as psychologist Dr. Updale, who dreams up the Purge and puts the first one togethere together. There’s also a facially scarred psychopath named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul, also in DUTCH KILLS, 2015, and MAPPLETHROPE, 2018) running around. It’s directed by Gerard McMurray, who previously made the college hazing drama BURNING SANDS (2017).

I like the PURGE movies, and this one was okay, if predictable. I give it two and a half knives.

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****

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018) – Paul Rudd is back as Scott Lang, who can shrink to the size of an ant or grow to the size of a giant thanks to a cool costume created by scientist Henry Pym (who was the first Ant-Man, and played here by Michael Douglas). In this sequel, several plots intertwine as Lang tries to stay out of trouble his last two days under house arrest involving the events of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). He hasn’t seen Pym and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly of LOST) in months, but they pop up and he suddenly gets involved in an attempt to reach Pym’s lost wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) who shrunk so small she disappeared into the sub-atomic world. Meanwhile, Lang’s sidekicks from the first movie (Michael Pena, Tip “T.I.” Harris, and David Dastmalchian) try to go straight with a security company. There’s a slimy weapons/technology dealer named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins of the shows THE SHIELD, JUSTIFIED, and VICE PRINCIPALS), who has been supplying Pym with equipment and wants in on whatever he’s working on now; and Hannah John-Kamen as the “Ghost,” a villain who has a lot of trouble controlling her atomic structure, constantly alternating between solid and, well, being ghost-like. Judy Greer plays Scott’s ex, Maggie, now married to a guy named Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), and Maggie and Scott’s daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) has a lot of screentime, as Scott tries to prove he’s a good dad, despite all the shenanigans. There’s also Randall Park of TV’s FRESH OFF THE BOAT as an FBI agent who keeps trying to catch Scott doing something illegal so he can send him back to jail. Also along for the ride is Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), an old colleague of Pym’s who was once part of an experiment called Goliath.

It’s all directed by Peyton Reed, who directed the first ANT-MAN movie from 2015.

There are too many plots going on this one (the one about the Ghost seems especially expendable), but it moves fast, has great big/small special effects, and cast is good. It’s far from the best Marvel movie, but it’s entertaining enough. I give ANT-MAN AND THE WASP two knives.

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Also, there’s not much in this movie to tie it into the recent events of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), but if you stick around for the closing credits (which is practically obligatory for all Marvel movies), you’ll find a special scene that ties that up nicely after all, and brings Mr. Lang and Company up to speed.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares