The major Hollywood studios that are out to create a universe should understand that they don’t need to begin with a big bang. There is no need to establish the entire universe in the first film of the series. Yesteryear’s victims of this error included Universal, which hoped “The Mummy”, starring Tom Cruise, would launch a “dark universe” full of monsters. The film, and the universe it carried on its back, died at birth. There was also “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” directed by Guy Ritchie and intended to create a universe around legends of Camelot. It was another catastrophic failure. Now it’s the turn of “Venom,” hoping to mine space for Marvel Comics figures with no connection to Marvel Studios.
Almost every major studio is currently developing a different “cinematic universe.” The inspiration and imitation is clear: “Iron Man,” which appeared in 2008, was a delightful film. In retrospect, it was one of the most meaningful events in the history of 21st-century commercial film. It wasn’t so much a film as a pilot, a tool for the production of a Marvel cinematic universe. It was a story, of course, but more important than that, it contained a range of gestures to future films and plotlines that were to be built over years. It took only a decade for Marvel to establish its dominance through 20 films and 17 billion dollars. During the same time span, many imitations revealed the difficulty of balancing single films with a universe of figures. Even Marvel’s greatest competitor, DC Comics, discovered that giant superheroes like Superman and Batman are no sure bet for a successful universe if they aren’t done correctly.
Sony studios, which has held the rights to hundreds of Marvel figures since the 1990s, looked the other way while Marvel built a flourishing universe. Since 2002, Sony has produced five Spider-Man films, a third of them featuring Venom as the villain, portrayed by Topher Grace. But then Sony decided that the time had come to do something with all the characters Marvel had acquired, and perhaps try its luck with an independent universe. As with Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man” a decade ago, Tom Hardy got the job of leading an exciting and profitable film that would prepare the way for others to come.
Director Ruben Fleischer, who experimented with mixing action and comedy in “Zombieland,” was recruited to guide the production. The various screenwriters of “Venom,” who have been wandering around Sony for two decades, aspired to make a film for adults, like “Deadpool” or “Logan.” But when the decision was reached to create a cinematic universe, it was clear they would need to attract children.
Most superhero movies tend to devote too much time to back story and origins, and this is exponentially more true for each film that is meant to launch a universe. The infrastructure of future films is presented alongside the story of Eddie Brock, and at the outset the invasion of Earth by several foreign organisms. Brock is presented as a jaded investigative journalist, of the type that reveals corruption by day and rides a motorcycle later on. His lover is Anne (Michelle Williams), a successful lawyer, who never gets the chance to deviate from the figure of the worried woman. In order to interview Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, HBO’s “The Night Of”), an eccentric tycoon and philanthropist, Eddie decides to steal confidential information from his girlfriend without her knowledge. It’s never clear what he aspires to achieve by this, but the final result of the interview is loss of his place of work and his relationship.
Eddie and the parasite
Months go by, and we find Eddie sunk deep into the life of an unemployed drunk, complete with a tiny apartment that is much filthier than could be explained by the time elapsed after the break-up. In his condition, he hasn’t found new work, but somehow another story falls into his lap. This leads him to break into the billionaire’s secret laboratory, where he discovers that he is a terrible journalist, and finds an infectious, formless creature from outer space.
After proving his lack of worth as a journalist, Eddie becomes aware that his role in life is to be a host, a vessel for intelligent life forms that talk about him inside his head. Venom is in essence the merging of Eddie and a parasite. This gives him great powers, the most important of which is comic timing, which lightens the heaviness that threatens to drag the film down from the start. A recurring joke involves the alien’s desire to kill and eat humans, and Eddie’s desire to restrict cannibalism to murderers and thieves.
The most impressive thing about “Venom” is the way an ensemble of excellent actors learned to adapt themselves to a film of such dismal quality. Hardy, one of today’s most interesting actors, gives his worst performance ever. He has played compelling characters in the past, including the supervillain Bain in “Rise of the Dark Night.” But in “Venom” he is forced to deal with such a meager screenplay, full of holes and lacking a guiding hand from the director’s chair. Hardy, fittingly, gets lost in exaggerated drunken mannerisms, which raise doubts about the character itself. In terms of fantastic superheroes and villains, Eddie Brock also fails to convince. Not as a journalist and not as Anne’s lover, since he is presented as a kind of idiot who doesn’t know how he got here or where he’s going. After he loses his job and his love in a single day – in which an alien enters his rear, so to speak – Eddie really doesn’t change or register emotion. He just tosses out a joke here and there, like someone who has realized that the film has suddenly turned into a slapstick comedy and he is obligated to act accordingly.
Even so, this is a blockbuster because of its action, not its acting. This, too, is no news. The director gets stuck far too long in Eddie’s story prior to his becoming Venom, and by the time the film picks up speed, it only manages to supply a few entertaining scenes. Without the chase scene where drones pursue a motorcycle, and the first encounter with Venom that brings Drake’s sides together, the film might be completely forgotten right after it’s over. However, the alien’s ability to take on an infinite number of forms and change shape like mucous – manifests in random, incoherent action sequences, which seem like a Rorschach test for the audience.
Venom is one of the most popular villains in the history of comics, but proprietary rights have severed him from the superhero for whom he was designed. No doubt he was made to battle Spider-Man, and his powers resemble those of this superhero – including jumping between buildings with the help of threads. But in this film, Eddie Brock has no Peter Parker to balance him out. Without a lighter and more naïve character beside him to guide the story, Eddie Brock loses his power and gets lost. The result is a film that seems gloomy, with a huge hole in the shape of Spider-Man. The parallel universe of Sony indeed has started on its left foot, but its success at the box office will determine its future.
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