The world has enough superheroes. And yet here we are. Venom is the fourth Marvel movie this year, the results of Sony’s years of attempts to get a Venom spin-off and their own Spider-Man Cinematic Universe off the ground. Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, an investigative journalist whose instincts lead him directly into conflict with powerful people who can make his life miserable. After ambushing Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), CEO of Life Foundation, in a television interview and accusing him of ethical misconduct, Brock is fired. He loses his apartment. His girlfriend, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), leaves him. And, of course, at the lowest point of his life, he meets the alien symbiote, Venom—though I’ll spare you a summary of the many plot contrivances that lead to this encounter.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Venom is a bad movie. This is not surprising. Nor is this noteworthy. What is surprising is the shape of the film, the story it sets out to tell and the way it goes about doing so. The film reminded me of another critical punching bag, David Ayer’s disaster of a contribution to the DCEU, Suicide Squad. That they are both bad is incidental, and perhaps inevitable. Because what they have in common is not merely the quality of being a bad movie; that’s a quality they share with many other movies, too. What they have in common, as superhero movies, is a baffling lack of imagination, an inability to see the possibility of telling any other kind of story, or telling it any other kind of way.
It is difficult to write a review of a superhero movie and not use the word “formula.” In the case of Venom, it is necessary. The discussion of formula has surrounded the MCU for a while, but formula is not a problem in and of itself. The Marvel formula is not even unique to Marvel. It’s a creative algorithm that appears throughout Disney products and many other Hollywood products, providing the template for cherished tentpole blockbusters. The problem, such as it is here, is that these films must play in the same cinematic register, as if there was no other way that these stories and characters could exist. I do not profess to be a comic book fan, at least not a current one; while I read comics as a kid, I have not kept up with the industry and know little about what is happening today. But I read enough to know that superheroes come in many shapes and sizes, and their stories are just as diverse. And different writers and artists provide new perspectives on familiar characters, expanding our understanding of them and the world around us. But the nature of the MCU and everything that has followed in its wake, namely the DCEU, is that superheroes belong in tentpole blockbusters, with everything Hollywood spectacle entails, or dictates.
I thought David Cronenberg said something interesting in a recent EW interview when fielding a question about directing franchise films. He claimed he would never be interested in such work because, talking about a franchise film, “the look of it, the tone of it, people’s expectations for it, are all fixed.” I thought Cronenberg was being a little unfair or dismissive of studio filmmaking, but for the purpose of my argument, the bit about people’s expectations hits the mark. Venom could have been about a lot of things, told any number of different stories about Eddie Brock and his various relationships, and about the symbiotes, but audiences have been trained to expect something specific from superhero movies, to expect a specific style of spectacle. They require massive budgets and advertisement campaigns, massive amounts of CGI and money shots. And so studios deliver this, and deliver it the most effective way they know how: with a creative algorithm, or formula, that has been proven to work. Even if it’s not a good fit.
This idea struck me first while watching Suicide Squad back in 2016, with the realization that what I was watching was not fundamentally different from any of the other superhero movies around it, when it really should have been, because these are not superheroes but members of a rogues gallery. They shoot and fight their way through generic baddies and work their way up to the final CGI boss. They get knocked down a bit in the middle of the movie, but rally together in a bar and deliver inspiring lines of dialogue to one another. One of the “heroes” makes a sacrifice for the greater good. They save the world from total destruction. The nature of their characters does not alter the story beats, the action beats, or the emotional beats. This is just another superhero movie. It acknowledges that the cast are villains, but it’s simply coloring in the lines with a different crayon. It pays lip service to their criminal wrongdoings, and one of them even gets his head blown clean off his body by a bomb implant to remind everybody that they are obliged by the powers that be to fulfill their contractual obligations to the blockbuster formula.
The problem is even more glaring in Venom. The conflict is as black and white as the colors of Venom’s symbiotic costume: Life Foundation is an evil corporation and Brock sets out to stop it, and Venom helps him prevent a planetary invasion by other symbiotes in the process. They fight their way through faceless cops and mercenaries while making their way to the final CGI boss. They get knocked down a bit in the middle of the movie, but Venom rallies Brock with some inspiring lines of dialogue and gets Brock back in the fight. And if I keep the comparisons going I’m going to spoil the ending, but yes there’s even a noble sacrifice and I swear to you now, reader, that my jaw literally hit the floor. We know Venom is a bad guy, of course, because he bites the head clean off a mercenary earlier in the film. But, lip service. This is a superhero movie, through and through, in every way you would expect. And Venom makes for a poor fit.
That many of these details can be found in the comics matters little, or not at all. It’s a cliché in superhero movies that a superhero must square off with a version of themselves. Tony Stark fighting Obadiah Stane in another Iron Man suit, for example. Or Hulk battling Abomination. One of the most obvious and least interesting elements of Venom is that Venom must fight another Venom, because who else could pose a threat? Specifically, it’s the symbiote Riot—the movie borrows a few details from the “Lethal Destroyer” storyline, among others. Logan already executed this trope perfectly, not least of all because it literalized the conflict and had Logan fight another Logan, to face the parts of himself he most feared. It afforded substantial character drama and not simply a credible visual threat. In the current superhero movie landscape, Venom just doesn’t cut it. In a year where Marvel has already relied successfully on its cinematic legacy and formula to entertain and surprise audiences with events like Avengers: Infinity War, a comic book movie like Venom sticks out like a sore thumb. There are five Marvel movies releasing this year alone, and after a decade of movies under the Marvel banner, the bar has been set a lot higher than this one is willing to aim.