Let’s get straight to the point: Sony managed to deliver their best comic book related movie to date. Venom delivers pure fun and is more rewatchable than anything else in Sony’s Marvel catalog. So don’t believe the low critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, pay attention to the much higher viewer score and go see it.
In the comic canon, Venom is one of Spider-Man’s antagonists. It is an alien symbiote that bonds with its host, Eddie Brock, and fights Spidey. It is often displayed in a spider man form, akin to Spider-Man’s, only in black. As it takes over the host’s mind, it also provides for interesting plotlines on occasions. When it bonds with Peter Parker, their battle becomes internal, in their minds. This movie went against the mainstream canon and placed the symbiote into San Francisco, with Spider-Man nowhere in sight.
Eddie Brock, played by Tom Hardy, is a modern independent investigative journalist, similar to the real-world Youtube personalities like Lauren Southern or Tim Pool. With a handheld camera and very little oversight he confronts uncomfortable stories that mainstream media usually stay away from. He does work for a network, though, and one day is tasked to interview Carlton Drake, a technology mogul and the founder of Life Foundation. Despite asking not to, Brock confronts Drake with rumors about lethal experiments on human subjects and throws around the names of several victims that his fiancée, a lawyer working for Drake, kept in a secure document.
Drake ends the interview and thoroughly destroys Brock’s life. He and his fiancée lose their jobs, he then loses his fiancée and is blacklisted from even the most menial jobs in the city. Meanwhile, the Life foundation, which acquired samples of several extraterrestrial life forms, continues experimenting on human subjects. That is, until one of the scientists grows a consciousness, remembers Brocks and contacts him. She arranges to get him into the Life facility where he promptly breaks into a protected area and acquires one of the alien symbiotes. Or is acquired by the symbiote…
Brock doesn’t take the symbiosis well and proceeds through a series of increasingly bizarre and erratic behaviors, culminating in a freakout at a fancy restaurant that has him jump into a lobster tank and eat a raw lobster. During his psychotic episodes he starts hearing voices, but he dismisses those as a symptom of his sickness. Meanwhile, Drake finds out who merged with his symbiote and sends a hit squad to recover it. What follows is a near non-stop action where Brock is chased through San Francisco and slowly gets to accept the symbiote, who names itself Venom. As the movie progresses, the two start working better together, but also develop a bickering relationship where Brock tries to moderate Venom’s bloodlust.
Brock is finally captured after his former fiancée, with the help of her new partner (a doctor) manages to detach Venom using an MRI machine (as in the comics, Venom is vulnerable to high frequency sound). Before Brock is killed off, however, Venom merges with the fiancée, kills the hit squad and jumps over to him again. At this stage, though, Drake had already merged with another symbiote, Riot, and together they plan to fly a space ship to the planet of the symbiotes, to transfer them to Earth. Venom decides it wants to protect the Earth from the invasion, and a messy CGI battle between the two ensues, ending with Riot killed and Venom disappearing, seemingly also dead, but in fact hiding in Brock so that only the two of them are aware of the fact that he still lives.
The story has several logical holes. I never found Venom’s change of heart too believable. I found it more of an animal with a killer instinct, and to suddenly develop consciousness just didn’t sit well with me. In addition, the whole story of Riot sounded wrong. All symbiotes were on board of a space ship that crashed, but Riot managed to escape and hop through several very unlikely hosts to reach Drake, halfway across the world. This process presumably took months, over the course of three hosts, even though the other symbiotes killed their hosts in hours or days.
What made the movie stand out for me, however, was Tom Hardy. The film crew evidently tried to recreate the magic of the original Iron Man, which kickstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They wanted a quirky protagonist, who keeps his sense of humanity even when in a costume and remains relatable throughout the movie. They succeeded. Hardy is indeed quirky, often brash and erratic, good-hearted and human. It is pure pleasure to watch him as a human, and lots of fun to see him bickering with Venom as they are fighting over the control of Brock’s body and the symbiote. Hardy was by far my favorite superhero in 2018, and only Paul Rudd as the Ant-Man came close to his likability.
Unfortunately, all other character portrayals fell short. The biggest deficiency I saw was in the character of Carlton Drake. Through no fault of its actor, Riz Ahmed, he came across as the most generic villain I’ve seen in a long time. Let me rant here for a few moments about the technology moguls as villains. There is a fun way to portray them, like Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Kingsman. He was weird, folksy, human and evil for the fun of it. Drake was no such character. He seems to have been an amalgamation of three real-life tech moguls: he had the resources and vision of Jeff Bezos, the charisma of Mark Zuckerberg and the penchant for monologuing of Steve Jobs. The result was an extremely bland villain who didn’t give the audience any satisfaction when he died. Personally, I’m ready for a new type of tech villain: John McAffee, the loud and possibly deranged narcissist, played either by himself or Dolph Lundgren.
But back to topic on hand. Despite the shortcomings I mentioned, the movie is incredibly enjoyable. I credit the editing, and especially pacing of the story. There never seems to be a dull moment, and yet the action is spaced out just enough to not lead to viewer fatigue. There are funny, but also introspective moments inserted at exactly the right intervals, and with the exception of Drake’s monologues, the viewer’s attention remains high throughout the movie. This by itself makes for great entertainment.
Personally, I found Venom to be thoroughly entertaining, and nothing more. It doesn’t offer any heavy-handed lecture on morality, nor does it pretend to be high art or even part of a larger universe. It is a perfectly fine self-contained story, with a relatable protagonist and an excellent actor who portrays him, and superb pacing that keeps the audience alert from the beginning to the end. I haven’t decided on all mu Hugo nominations yet, but there are only two slots on my ballot left, which can be filled with superhero movies. Venom will be one of them.
Note: I’d like to spend a few lines to discuss the phenomenon of professional movie reviews. This is not part of the review anymore, so feel free to stop reading.
Rotten Tomatoes is a movie review aggregating site, which attempts to give a single score to movies, based on all professional reviews they find. It is a tool and should not be held responsible for the final score. Yet, it is often blamed for a movie’s poor performance, when the scores are low. I don’t think this is the case, though. Just consider the scores for the four Marvel superhero movies in 2018: Venom scored 28%, Avengers: Infinity War 84%, Ant-Man and the Wasp 88%, and Black Panther 97%. Venom’s box office was just over $850 million. The rest of the movies scored $2.05 billion, $620 million and $1.35 billion, respectively. Audience apparently didn’t mind the low score. Even more telling is the profit coefficient: Venom earned about 7.3 times its production cost, Avengers 5 times, Ant-Man 3.2 and Black Panther 6.4. (I used the upper estimate for production costs.) Despite its abysmal rating, Venom had been the most profitable Marvel superhero movie of 2018.
This indicates that professional movie critic reviews have diminished influence on movie box office; word of mouth and user ratings (especially on social media) are more important. Whenever there is a very strong disconnect in what the critics and audience say, the audience seems to be right. Venom scored 84% in user ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. This is almost as big a discrepancy as for the TV show The Orville, which towards the end of the first season had a critic score of 19% and an audience score of 91%. Its viewer numbers went from 8.5 million for the first episode to 6.2 million for the final episode of the season. By contrast, the critically loved Star Trek: Discovery (82% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, 54% audience score) started just slightly ahead, with 9.5 million viewers for its pilot, with CBS not releasing subsequent viewership numbers, but it is estimated it’s the least watched Star Trek show.
I see two opposing trends here: First, critics love movies and TV shows that take themselves too seriously. Second, audience likes quirky works, which simply entertain them. Obviously, there are exceptions: the overly serious Black Panther drew a 79% audience score, and The Orville is not without its moral lessons, albeit delivered in a much lighter tone than Discovery. Critic scores may slightly skew the final viewership numbers, but there seems to be a far stronger correlation between viewership ratings and the box office. For this reason, review aggregators that report viewership scores, should be followed more closely than those that rely on critic scores.