So basically Sony went a bit mad, and the first result was the 2018 comic book adaptation Venom. It has taken me a long time to watch it; so long, in fact, that its sequel has already come and gone.
I am, in addition to being a film enthusiast, a big comic book fan. It’s been mostly wonderful watching Marvel Studios and Warner Bros bring a host of childhood favourites into live-action cinema. Of course, before setting up their own production studio, Marvel Comics bought its way out of bankruptcy by farming its suite of characters out to the highest Hollywood bidder. 20th Century Fox scored the rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. New Line Cinema made good bank on second-stringer Blade. Universal Pictures grabbed the Incredible Hulk and Sub-Mariner – although they never did wind up making anything out of the latter. Sony, through their subsidiary Columbia Pictures, bought the film rights to Spider-Man – one of the most popular superheroes there is – and as long as they continue making films with the character they never have to give it back.
This worked well at first, with Sam Raimi directing three immensely successful films starring Tobey Maguire in the lead. Then, feeling that the third film didn’t wow audiences the way they wanted it to, Sony rebooted the franchise with Andrew Garfield in the lead. At the same time Marvel Studios surprised everybody with their box office-smashing interconnected universe of superhero movies. Rather than make a third film with Garfield, Sony elected to reboot Spider-Man a second time – only this time the films would be produced by Marvel Studios on Sony’s behalf, and the character was allowed to also appear in Marvel’s own Avengers pictures. It was a canny method to cash in on Marvel’s success.
Clearly at least one executive at Sony felt particularly canny, because of course the rights to Spider-Man also came with the rights to all manner of supporting and subsidiary characters. If Spider-Man allowed Sony to profit from Marvel’s achievements, then surely Sony could exploit those extra characters for a shared universe of their own?
Of course in practice this is a terrible idea. Why make a film about a Spider-Man villain if they have no Spider-Man to fight? It is a bit like watching a princess without a ball to go to, or a ping pong match with only one player. Sony are fixated on the idea of a shared Spider-villain universe, and have already produced two Venoms and a Morbius towards that goal. Kraven the Hunter is already in production. Madame Web shoots soon. Thus far I see no indication that this continuing franchise is sustainable. Venom made a lot of money; it is clear Morbius will not. I am generally not one to place a bet, but if you are I suggest Kraven is much more likely to be a Morbius than a Venom, commercially speaking.
In Venom, investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is infected with an oily black alien symbiote, and uses his newfound powers to strike back against a diabolical genius billionaire who is murdering people for scientific research purposes. It would be the best superhero released in 1998, were it not released in 2018: two decades out of date in terms of script, plot, character, tone, and content. It is a bizarrely old-fashioned film.
Tom Hardy is actually rather enjoyable as Brock, and manages to lift the first half of the movie into something broadly entertaining. It is in the second half that the film wobbles, and then flounders. A need to actually drive a plot results in some terribly underwhelming choices and action sequences, culminating in my least favourite Hollywood tradition: the climax where two visual effects punch each other.
Decent supporting actors like Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed get very little to do, and seem to run through the motions. Both are definitely worthy of much better fare than this, as is Hardy to be honest – but he at least likely scored a bigger pay cheque. Ruben Fleischer directs this first instalment, although sadly brings little of the humour that made his Zombieland films so delightful.
There’s a line in the opening scene of Aaron Sorkin’s failed TV drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip that has always resonated with me. I goes like this: ‘there’s always been a struggle between art and commerce. And now I’m telling you art is getting its ass kicked.’ All Hollywood blockbusters are commercial exercises, but the best ones – even the mediocre ones – make room for the art. Venom feels like 100 per cent commerce. It is there to create a shared universe via blunt force. It is there to make a lot of money, and it did – grossing more than $800 million in cinemas alone. There is no room for art though, not in Sony’s live-action Spider-Verse. Venom blandly wants you to shut up and consume. It really is worth pondering whether or not you should.