Just before the lights went down to begin our screening of Venom a friend said to me, “Really quick, what do I need to know about Venom?” In my head I ran through all the outdated information I remember from my ten years of reading Spider-Man comics and everything I’ve managed to learn since then about where the character has gone in an effort to determine what would likely be most essential for someone who has never been a Marvel reader before responding, “It’s probably better if you don’t know anything.”
Judging by the reaction between my friends and I, Venom probably is better if you don’t know.
The trouble is that people who will be most interested in seeing Sony’s first attempt at a Spider-Man spinoff without Spider-Man are the ones who know far too much about the character. For them it may be very difficult to separate what they know and enjoy of Venom from the comics with the character they see on screen. Granted, I’ve never been much of a Venom fan, to me he was always a villain, yet even I questioned the decision to make a PG-13 rated version of the “Lethal Protector.” If you’re going to make a movie out of a character whose very visage is one meant to evoke terror and whose presence is more akin to a nightmare than a snappy superhero movie, then why immediately dull the effect by limiting what he is capable of doing on screen? We already saw what happened when a naturally R-rated superhero is forced to blunt his sharp ends, and while Venom never reaches the doldrums of X-Men Origins: Wolverine it’s leagues behind the brilliance of a fully-clawed Logan. In the end we have, exactly as I’m sure fans feared, a well-made, at times enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable superhero movie.
To its credit, Venom does a good job establishing the symboite independent from its original host, an absolute necessity in a Spider-Man-less Spiderverse. The city of New York gets a passing mention but otherwise the film stands completely on its own with no hint of Parker or Secret Wars or anything else related to Ol’ Webhead. Eddie Brock is a very different man from that introduced in the comics or, thankfully, the one presented in Spider-Man 3, this one instead much closer to the side of angels as a hardnosed advocacy reporter with his own network television show. For all his faults the opening act of Venom wants to define Brock as a good person, far from the resentful, disgraced reporter of the comics, with the harshest criticism coming from his network head pointing that Brock is both intelligent and a dumb***. The scenes that follow quickly establish the second item from that list while the rest of the film does very little to prove the first with Brock continuously doing frankly baffling things seemingly set solely to usher us from one requisite bit of storytelling to the next. It’s this shuffling between obligatory moments which makes Venom feel so immediately forgettable.
The general narrative of Venom could serve as a template of action movies in general. From establishment of character to villain to setpieces to even a few lines (there were four specific times when I lipped the most clichéd responses I could moments before the characters had the chance to), Venom plays out precisely as expected with very little deviation from the standard trajectory. While several individual moments are enjoyable, even thrilling, any amount of critical thinking breaks the film. Whereas other superhero or general action films may cover for plotholes with an abundance of spectacle, humor, likeable characters or plain craziness, much of Venom is so middle of the road that it never manages to distract from the obvious set-ups and outcomes. Like its namesake, the film appears to have wrapped itself over the skeleton of thousands which came before it. It may tread a little bit on the darker side with more cursing than your average superhero film, and there a lot of fun in the back-and-forth between Brock and cannibalistic critic contained in his head, but there’s nothing to make it truly standout from the others.
Marvel has worked by embracing character, crowd-pleasing humor and its own wild universe. DC hasn’t exactly succeeded but has stood out by pursuing a gloomier, humorless tone. The original Spider-Man films embodied the character’s idealism and relatability. Deadpool went all out on craziness and Logan went full-on brutal. What made Venom notable in the comics is his inherit darkness and lethality, and he is at his best when owning these qualities. Venom hints at these things but never invests in them in a way which separates it from the litany of other superhero properties out there, likely because of demands that the film be viewable by young audiences rather than the borderline horror film the character necessitates. Never is this PG-13 limitation more obvious than in a moment when one character scolds another for “getting blood all over my lab” and there is absolutely no blood on screen. Gore is not required to make the film good, but at least it would have given Venom an identity to wrap itself around. It’s not scary enough to be a horror, not funny enough to be comedy, and if it weren’t for outside knowledge that Venom is a comic book character it would barely be a superhero movie. It’s just… generic action. And without a center the movie merely comes and goes with little to stick in the mind.
None of this is to say that Venom is necessarily a bad film. It’s fine. It’s enjoyable enough for an afternoon. There are some genuinely funny moments and a couple which could cause the audience to jump. Hardy makes for a good Eddie Brock even if he never gets to bring the intensity we know he can or quite gels with co-star Michelle Williams. The climax has some truly gorgeous special effects (even if the sequence itself is actually pretty dumb when you think about it). But when many of Venom’s contemporaries have appeared in truly memorable films, this one feels like a missed opportunity. A bit more polish, a re-ordering of dialog, a different comment here or an edit there could have made a huge difference in pushing Venom into the direction of being more interesting than it is. Sadly even the mid-credits scene, with all its potential, finds a way to spoil to what should have been an awesome moment.
Just before returning from our screening another friend described an idea which could have made Venom a more interesting film simply by delving into the background of the symbiote. In my head I ran through this idea and together we pieced together three entirely new scenarios which, in our opinions, would have made the movie at least more memorable. Sadly, judging by what Venom showed us this time, in any possible sequel we will likely see more of this bloodless, middle of the road “terror.”
It’s probably better if we don’t.