The two Marc Webb-directed Amazing Spider-Man movies—particularly the second one—did a lot of work to set up a “Spider-Man Cinematic Universe.” Sony went ahead and green-lit a bunch of spinoff movie projects featuring Spider-characters The Sinister Six, Black Cat, Morbius the Living Vampire, Silver Sable, and Venom.
The whole concept was sent into a tizzy when (a) Amazing Spider-Man 2 did poorly at the box office and critically as well and (b) Spider-Man got absorbed into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But we got a Venom movie in 2018 anyhow.
Venom was created by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane, first teased in the lead-up to Amazing Spider-Man #300 in 1988, though the character spun out of 1984’s Secret Wars where among the many “permanent changes” made to the characters participating (all of which were reversed) was Spider-Man’s new black costume that obeyed his every thought. It was later revealed to be an alien symbiote, which Spidey got rid of in a church tower (the alien is sensitive to sonics) in Web of Spider-Man #1 in 1985. Spidey continued to alternate between a cloth version of the black costume and his classic red-and-blue togs.
At least until 1988, when the alien symbiote returned, bonded with a reporter named Eddie Brock who blamed Spider-Man for his career going south. Bonded by their animus, they went after Spidey, and continued to be a thorn in the ol’ webhead’s side.
Throughout the 1990s, Venom was Spidey’s most popular villain, to the point where he got his own spinoff titles. They moved him to San Francisco and set him up as the “lethal protector of innocents,” so they could justify giving him his own title where he was at least vaguely heroic, and also kept him 3000 miles from Spidey.
Development of a movie starring Venom goes all the way back to the 1990s, when David S. Goyer wrote a script for a Venom movie to be produced by New Line Cinema that would pit Venom against Carnage (a seed of the symbiote that grew on its own and bonded with a serial killer, created after Venom became too, um, heroic) and star Dolph Lundgren. That never went anywhere, and then Spider-Man’s rights went to Sony. After the character was used in Spider-Man 3, development started again, with a film meant to spin off the Webb films being written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Ed Solomon, with Kurtzman set to direct. After Spider-Man became part of the MCU, they started over, with new screenwriters Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner told that they couldn’t connect to Spider-Man at all. This was a tall order, given that Venom’s very existence is tied to Spidey, as is his general look. (The only reason his eyes look like that is as a leftover from the alien’s time as Spidey’s costume, not to mention the spider on his chest.) Using the Ultimate Spider-Man version of the character as partial inspiration they then did a screenplay that took its cues from two of Michelinie’s storylines, the 1993 Lethal Protector miniseries and the “Planet of the Symbiotes” multipart tale that ran through the Spider-Man titles in 1995.
Tom Hardy (last seen in this rewatch in The Dark Knight Rises), was cast in the lead role, playing Brock and also the voice of Venom. Hardy’s son is a big fan of the character, and he took the role mainly to make his kid happy—said son advised him on how to play the role. Michelle Williams plays Ann Weying, Brock’s ex-fiancée, based on Brock’s ex-wife from the comics, who becomes She-Venom for a time in the comics (which is teased in this movie). The cast is rounded out by Riz Ahmed as Carlton Drake, Reid Scott as Weying’s new boyfriend, Scott Haze as Drake’s security chief, Ron Cephas Jones as Brock’s boss, Jenny Slate as one of Drake’s scientists, and in a mid-credits cameo, Woody Harrelson as Cletus Kasady, thus setting up Carnage for future films.
While the film wasn’t exactly a critical darling (your humble rewatcher eviscerated it on this very site when it came out), it did very well at the box office, and a sequel is in production, directed this time by Gollum his own self, Andy Serkis.
“I just bit that guy’s head off!”
Written by Jeff Pinkner & Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Produced by Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach and Amy Pascal
Original release date: October 5, 2018
A spaceship owned by Carlton Drake, a young industrialist, is heading back to Earth with samples of alien life. However, the ship suffers a hull breach on reentry and crash lands in Malaysia. The pilot, John Jameson, is alive, but in the ambulance that takes him to the hospital, it’s revealed that it’s actually an alien lifeform that’s keeping him alive. Said lifeform moves from Jameson to an EMT, and also kills the driver, crashing the ambulance. The EMT, now possessed by an alien symbiote called Riot, starts walking away from the crash, having healed all the injuries she sustained in that crash.
Back in San Francisco, Drake’s Life Corporation is salvaging the wreckage, and they’ve retrieved all but one of the samples. They’re brought back to San Francisco. By way of rehabilitating his image following the crash, Drake asks an Internet TV station to interview him, specifically the very popular “Brock Report,” which stars Eddie Brock. A former print journalist in New York for the Daily Globe, an incident led to him being blackballed and moving across the country. Brock’s fiancée, Ann Weying, is a lawyer for the firm that represents the Life Corporation, and at one point Brock breaks into her password-protected laptop to read her e-mail, specifically the PDF of the brief on the wrongful death suit against the Life Corporation.
After being explicitly told by his boss to keep the interview as a puff piece, Brock asks Drake about the wrongful death suit. Drake terminates the interview, and both Brock and Weying are fired. Weying breaks up with Brock.
Six months later, Brock is living in a shitty apartment and is unable to get any kind of journalism job, as Drake has succeeded in blacklisting him. Meanwhile, Drake has been testing the aliens, which are symbiotes that need to bond with a native host in order to survive in Earth’s atmosphere. After some success with animals, Drake moves on to human trials, kidnapping homeless people to use as guinea pigs. His head scientist, Dr. Dora Skirth, is reluctant, but does as she’s told.
Skirth then gets in touch with Brock, telling him that Drake is doing human experiments. It goes against her ethics, but this is also uncharted waters, as nobody’s ever experimented with actual alien life before.
At first, Brock refuses to have anything to do with investigating the company that ruined his life, but then after seeing how happy Weying is with her new boyfriend, a doctor named Dan Lewis, he decides to take Skirth up on it.
She smuggles him into the Life Corporation, and Brock sees that several homeless people are being bonded with symbiotes—including one woman he knows from the neighborhood. He breaks her out of her cell, but then she attacks him and her symbiote transfers from her to him. He breaks out of the facility, using strength and agility far beyond that of a normal human to get away from Drake’s security forces.
Brock is feeling very strange—besides the strength and agility, he also has a hunger he can’t satiate, and keeps hearing voices. He tracks down Weying and Lewis at a restaurant, where he causes quite a scene, but is also very obviously ill. Lewis manages to sedate him and take him the hospital. Unfortunately, the MRI makes the symbiote go crazy—but they are able to take some blood tests.
Going home, Brock hears the voice more clearly—it’s the alien, who calls himself Venom, and he claims to know everything Brock knows, though it doesn’t stop him from asking dumb questions he should know the answer to.
Roland Treece, Drake’s head of security, learns that Skirth led Brock into the Life Corporation. Drake interrogates her and then leaves her alone in a room with a symbiote, which is a death sentence.
Treece and a team go to Brock’s apartment to bring him back, and Venom makes short work of them. He runs away, and Treece goes after him, using black SUVs and drones and heavy weapons and causes a considerable amount of very public property damage.
After dispatching Treece and his people, Brock has a conversation with Venom, who explains that the symbiotes Drake brought back travel from world to world, possessing the inhabits and consuming them.
Brock took pictures of what Drake was doing on his phone, which he leaves on his old boss’s desk. However, before he can leave the building, he’s surrounded by SFPD’s SWAT team. He takes care of them, though Brock is able to keep Venom from biting the heads off the cops. Weying tracked him to the network building, er, somehow and brings him back to the hospital.
Lewis is gravely concerned, because Brock’s organs are failing. Venom is consuming them. It turns out the aliens must consume living beings or they turn inward and consume the host. When Brock tries to bitch out Venom on the subject, Venom fights back. Weying, recalling how badly the symbiote reacted to the MRI, turns it on full bore, which hurts the symbiote enough to separate itself from Brock. Brock then leaves the hospital as fast as he can—only to be captured by Treece.
Meanwhile, it’s taken Riot six months to get from Malaysia to San Francisco, mostly on foot, plus flying to California in the body of a little girl. Riot confronts Drake and bonds with him. Drake believes that the aliens are the secret to saving humanity. Bonding with Riot seems like the best thing ever, but Riot’s agenda quickly supersedes Drake’s. Riot interrogates Brock as to where Venom went, but Brock has no idea, so Riot leaves Brock to Treece, who takes him out to the woods to shoot him.
But then Venom shows up, having bonded with Weying. “She-Venom” then kisses Brock, transferring the symbiote back to him. Venom informs Brock that Riot is going to use Drake’s new rocket to go out and retrieve the rest of the symbiotes and bring them back to destroy Earth. Venom has grown fond of Brock and Earth, and is inexplicably willing to go against his leader and his entire culture in order to save humanity. Sure.
Venom and Riot get into a big fight, and Venom totally gets his ass kicked, but once Riot is in the rocket, Venom sabotages it after takeoff, causing it to explode.
Brock and Weying have a nice chat on her stoop. Weying thinks Venom is dead, but he’s still there, bonded to Brock. Brock wanders off, given brief advice on his love life by a fella walking his dog who looks just like Stan Lee. Brock then sets ground rules for Venom: he can only bite off the heads of bad people. As a for-instance, he can bite off the head of the guy who’s shaking down the owner of Brock’s favorite grocery store.
Brock has decided to go back to print journalism, and in the mid-credits scene we see that his first piece will be an interview with serial killer Cletus Kasady, incarcerated in San Quentin. Kasady promises that he will get out, and when he does, there will be carnage. Ha ha.
“You have been a serious pain in the ass for me, Eddie…”
The movie theatre closest to our house has a bar. The one and only time my wife Wrenn and I have made use of it was when we went to see Venom in 2018, to review it for this site. Wrenn was not willing to see it sober, and I totally get her instinct.
I actually liked this movie less than I did a year ago when I first saw it in that theatre. Billing itself as a different kind of superhero movie, Venom is, in fact, exactly the same kind of superhero movie that we’ve seen a billion times before. The formula for an origin story is painstakingly followed: flawed person has difficulties, gets superpowers, adjusts to the powers, realizes they need to become a hero, fights bad guy in action-packed climax, lather, rinse, repeat. We’ve seen it before in Iron Man, Spider-Man (both the 1977 and 2002 versions), Doctor Strange (both the 1978 and 2016 versions), The Amazing Spider-Man, Swamp Thing, The Rocketeer, Steel, Spawn, the 1987 The Spirit, Hulk, Witchblade, Catwoman, Batman Begins, Green Lantern, Ant-Man, Captain Marvel, and Shazam! with team-up versions in Generation X, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Suicide Squad. Not to mention variations on it in two Wonder Woman movies and Thor.
What’s worse, though, is that Venom’s conversion to heroism is utterly, totally, thoroughly unearned. We’re given no reason at any point why Venom decided to go against his entire culture and save humanity—which is, from his perspective, food and nothing more. One line from Venom about how, in his culture, he’s a loser too is simply not enough.
Brock himself is a total loser, of course. Tom Hardy plays him beautifully, with a manic energy and a doofy charm. (This movie is only watchable due to Hardy’s gleefully immersive performance.) You totally buy that he’s a talented reporter—he’s one of those people who can talk to anyone, and you know that that easy charm is how he gets people to talk to him on the record—but he’s also a jackass. The entire movie happens because he (a) breaks into his fiancée’s password-protected laptop in order to peek at confidential documents (a source he’s incapable of verifying for the record) and (b) disobeys his boss’s direct instruction not to rock the boat in his interview. He violates journalistic ethics and flushes his happy relationship with Weying down the toilet, all for a “gotcha” moment in an interview that he knew going in would torpedo the interview as soon as he brought it up.
It’s not just that he’s a bad journalist, he’s a bog-fucking-stupid journalist. He deserves to have been run out of New York after the never-specified “Daily Globe incident” (like so much of Venom’s background, it connects to Spider-Man in the comics, so the details are left out here in this Spider-less film), he deserves to have lost his “Brock Report” gig, and he deserves to lose his home and fiancée.
To make matters worse, there’s a hint at the end of a possible reconciliation with Weying, which is just as undeserved. Her helping him out when he seems to be sick and against Drake and Riot is fine, that’s just being a good person, but there is absolutely no way this should translate to her and Brock getting back together. For starters, it’s not fair to Lewis, who’s a good guy (who is very understanding of the sudden insertion of his girlfriend’s fuckup ex into their lives, especially given that it involves alien monsters), and also, Brock broke into her password protected laptop to read her e-mail, and I’m sorry, that’s not something you just brush off.
The script is a tired mess. Drake is a cardboard cutout bad guy, an Elon Musk-esque character who is played by Riz Ahmed with a dead-eyed sociopathy that makes it impossible to believe that anyone thinks he’s anything but a murderer. Jenny Slate’s Skirth may as well be carrying a sign around her neck that reads, “DEAD MEAT,” as you just know from the nanosecond she gives Drake a pained look at his unethical behavior that she’s going to (a) betray Drake and (b) die for her trouble. The actual death scene is depressingly perfunctory. (And does no one else in the company have a conscience? Especially when one of their own dies?)
One of my biggest issues with the movie from the first time remains: Treece and his people barrel through the streets of San Francisco blowing up cars and shooting things and causing tremendous property damage, using drones that you just know are Life Corporation proprietary tech. In the middle of a big city that’s full of traffic cams, security cameras, and people with phone cameras, I find it impossible to credit that SFPD won’t take two seconds to realize that the Life Corporation just tore apart downtown San Francisco and won’t bring the hammer down on their asses. (Not to mention all the people whose cars got trashed making insurance claims and criminal reports.)
And then we get the CGI-drenched climax that is utterly impossible to follow because the producers decided to make Riot a dark shade of silver that is way too close palette-wise to Venom’s black, so you can’t even follow what the hell’s happening when these two amorphous blobs start fighting each other.
The movie was a big hit and is spawning a sequel, so obviously it nailed something with the zeitgeist. Then again, Venom has always been popular, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.
Next week, we dive at last into Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The order will be more chronological by story than by release date, so the order of rewatches will be as follows: Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther, Ant-Man & The Wasp, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far from Home.
Keith R.A. DeCandido is at RocCon at the Main Street Armory in Rochester, New York this weekend, alongside actors Michael Dorn, Vic Mignogna, Joey Fatone, and Walter Jones, cartoonists Mark Sparacio, Kevin Conrad, Steve Geiger, Joe Orsak, and Sal Otero, author Alec Frazier, and animation filmmaker Curt Markham. Keith’s schedule can be found here.