Why 'Venom' Is Dividing Critics and Audiences
[This story contains spoilers for Venom]
This weekend Sony launches its own cinematic universe with Ruben Fleischer’s Venom. Although the film is making a strong showing at the box office opening weekend, the reviews have been less than approving. The general consensus gathered from reviews for Venom is that the film is a tonal mess, veering wildly between drama, horror and comedy from scene to scene. That assessment of tone is true, but I remain unconvinced that it makes for a bad movie, and least of all a poor adaptation of the comic book character who made his debut in 1988.
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We’re at an interesting time in superhero cinema. There are more capes, costumes and cinematic universes than ever before, and despite how often “superhero fatigue” gets thrown around, superhero/villain movies aren’t going anywhere any time soon. One of the most interesting conversations to arise around the glut of comic book adaptations concerns tone. While Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe has set a certain expectation for the tone of these movies, one that even varies within their franchises, there’s an interesting discussion to be had about superhero films that populated cinemas before 2008 and the reception of those that have steered clear, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, of the Marvel method.
There’s a scene in Venom in which Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock enters a classy restaurant looking for his former fiancee, Anne (Michelle Williams). He’s recently bonded with the symbiote and is still at a loss as to what exactly is happening to him. He’s sweating profusely, twitching like a junkie and overcome with an insatiable hunger. He grabs food off of patrons’ plates, stuffing it into his mouth and spitting it out. “This is dead,” Brock says in disgust. He grabs at faces, resisting the urge to bite their heads off. His quest for food ultimately ends with him climbing into a lobster tank, grabbing one of the large crustaceans and biting into it savagely. Part body horror nightmare and part farce, this may be the exact moment that viewers find themselves completely turned off by the film or entirely engaged. For me, it was the latter. Tom Hardy is giving his all to this absurdist moment, using his abilities as a character actor to dislodge himself from preconceptions of a Hollywood leading man in a way that Nicolas Cage, Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, at their best, had done before him.
While the aforementioned scene, along with several other moments sure to be taken out of context and lessened as memes, have led some to compare Venom to the Halle Berry dud Catwoman (2004), the association feels like a reach of the most hyperbolic sort. Catwoman, easily one of the 2000s worst comic book movie offerings, seemed to operate with a complete lack of awareness of its lead actresses’ strengths and its source material. Venom, however viewers may feel personally, is fully in tune with Hardy’s abilities to deliver cadences and tics that somehow add up to create an endearing human being who is just one foot out of reality. Additionally, Venom manages to tap into the character’s comic book miniseries appearances in a way that goes beyond Easter eggs and creature designs.
There’s a common misconception about Venom being a grim and gritty badass. Perhaps because of his design, or the fact that he’s been tattooed on bodies of those who evoke personas of real-life badasses, there’s often a belief that Venom is a character akin to the Punisher. But Venom has always been a tonal mess of a character. He’s a monster born of suicidal impulses that kills the guilty in cold blood for pleasure. But he’s also a monster that carries on full conversations with himself, who uses verbose language befitting a background in journalism, who sings while he swings and eats chocolate to satiate his cravings for human flesh. There is a sentiment in a number of reviews for Venom that the film should have opted for full seriousness or comedy, but the truth is that Venom, throughout most of his defining appearances in the '90s, has never been boxed in. He’s a weird character. This isn’t to say that Venom is not without its issues, rather the film’s adherence to the comic book character’s personality and its simplistic plot — it is perhaps one of the most straightforward of superhero films in recent memory — are factors that don’t fit easily into the expectations for modern superhero movies. Venom doesn’t elevate the source material of the '90s, something that comic book writer Donny Cates is doing in the most recent and exceptional volume of Venom. But Fleischer’s film is transitioning the character’s appearances in titles like Venom: Lethal Protector (1993), Venom: The Madness (1993), Venom: Sinner Takes All (1995) and Venom: The Hunger (1996) into film as seamlessly as the medium can allow.
Marvel Studios has done a fantastic job creating a space where superhero movies can appeal to more than comic book readers, but to general audiences as well. The Disney-owned studio is often lauded by fans and critics for staying true to the source material, but the truth is that it has made just as many changes to the source material and the personalities of their characters in the efforts to translate the properties onscreen as anyone. So while a Venom movie separate from Spider-Man may seem like an unforgivable sin to some, it’s no less accurate than the MCU’s Thor having no connection to Earth until 2011, or Hank Pym having nothing to do with the creation of Ultron or Spider-Man relying on Stark tech at the start of his career. Tonally, the MCU’s movies contain even more drastic departures from the source material, particularly when it comes to their often comedic tones in properties like Thor, Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. The MCU made Raganarok into a joke, which seems like a far more drastic a departure than anything Sony is planning to do with its Spider-Verse. Yet, the MCU succeeds because it creates a feeling of being in the know through its films’ consistent tones and comic book accurate costumes. The MCU makes it easy to be a Marvel fan without having ever read the source material, while making it easy for those who have read the source material to also get on board because its close enough and, more often than not, it works. It works without alienating.
On the other hand, there are universes like Fox’s X-Men film series and Warner Bros.' DC films that don’t make it as easy. Fox’s X-films, including Logan and Deadpool, perhaps deviate the most significantly in an effort to not only deliver the limited perspective of its filmmaker (not necessarily a bad thing) but also make sense of the mire of X-Men continuity. The release of the trailer for Dark Phoenix brought up another interesting debate on tone, with viewers and bloggers noting that it looked boring, or like more of the same, and noticeably lacking action or comedy. While some believe the response is a result of fans just wanting the X-Men to go back to the MCU, it’s not that simple. X-Men takes a piecemeal approach to the source material, that isn’t necessarily interested in accuracy or even being positioned as a superhero movie. As a franchise, it’s not even interested in all the characters it includes. But these films, as morality plays, invested in the evolving yet cyclical relationship between Charles Xavier and Magneto. The X-Men films have largely earned their less bombastic and humorous tones even if they don’t always create crowd-pleasing moments in the vein of the MCU. Take the best-reviewed X-film, Logan, for example. It’s not an accurate adaptation in terms of plot or tone to any of the comic books, not even Old Man Logan, from which some of its aesthetics were borrowed. It’s a Western with mutants interested in loss and trauma that doesn’t exactly leave viewers grinning when the credits roll. But it works because —although Logan is drastically different from the previous X-Men films — it’s consistent within itself as a singular entry, which befits the titular character’s comic book history.
Christopher Nolan took a similar buffet approach in order to tell his own narrative for his Dark Knight trilogy, though with far greater success than Fox’s films. Nolan saw his trilogy as crime epics in the vein of Michael Mann rather than superhero movies. But the gritty and somewhat grounded tone fit Batman — at least the modern, post-Frank Miller perception of him — in a way that’s easier to consume and celebrate than X-Men, which has long been one of comics' most outlandish properties. Perhaps it’s possible to blend serious thematics and the goofier aspects of comic canon, yet, this is the very thing that DC has attempted. Take Zack Snyder’s films Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), which garnered complaints about a tone too grim, a Superman too broody and a Batman who kills. Despite there being a precedent for all of these things in the comic book canon, they are not at the forefront of general perceptions about these characters. Even the now infamous “Martha” moment, which has become the source of bad internet jokes, has its foundation in the comics and in two men’s ability to see each other as human because of their mothers. Despite the fact that some of these less familiar and less popular aspects of the characters were being used to benefit the story that was being told and present a holistic view of Batman and Superman’s history, there emerged a consensus that Snyder didn’t understand the character. But the truth is that he did. Whether we liked the way he understood them and put their various contradictory elements together is a different matter. And that brings us back around to the issue of Venom.
Perhaps it’s ok to accept that superhero films can be alienating without being bad, that they can express contradictions of tone and character in a way that is rewarding and to understand that the label of superhero films or comic book film doesn’t inherently mean a tone that sits comfortably with our most oft-repeated images of these characters. Venom certainly isn’t invulnerable to criticism, but arguably many of the hyperbolic responses to the film are based around the numerous things the film got right in its adaptation, however wacky and chaotic they may be. Every genre has survived on a variety of tones, some of which have been for some audience members and others not. Being a fan of the Western doesn’t mean that Stagecoach (1939), A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Hateful Eight (2015) work for every fan of the genre, but it doesn’t mean that any of them are bad.
Or take a slightly less prestigious genre like horror and entries like Cat People (1942), From Beyond (1986) and It Comes at Night (2017) and you’ll find among horror fans a variety of opinions, and even some disagreements about what constitutes as horror. Yet, when it comes to superhero films, even though we recognize their ability to move through various genres, we’re still expecting a kind of broad consistency that lends itself to the idea that every entry is made for every fan of the genre. Perhaps it’s time we abandon that and accept a good superhero film is Christopher Reeve’s Superman catching Lois Lane out of a helicopter, and it’s also Tom Hardy’s Venom shoving tater tots in his mouth. If anything, it’s certain to lead to a lot more variety.
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